Gleaming Deere & Co. tractors and harvesters are sitting idle five years after Karuturi Global Ltd. opened a farm in Ethiopia that was hailed as the poster child of the country’s plan to triple food exports by 2015.
Eighty per cent of the Bangalore-based company’s land in the southwestern Gambella region is in a flood plain, meaning its 100,000-hectare concession is inundated by the Baro River for up to seven months of the year, according to Managing Director Ramakrishna Karuturi. The company was unaware of the extent of the flooding when it leased the land, he said.
“Karuturi, like many other large-scale investors, underestimated the complexity of opening land for large-scale commercial agriculture,” Philipp Baumgartner, a researcher at the Bonn, Germany-based Centre for Development Research who wrote a doctoral thesis on agriculture in Gambella, said in a November 20 response to e-mailed questions. “The land leased out wasn’t properly assessed by either of the contracting parties.”
Karuturi, the world’s biggest rose grower, was one of the first companies to take advantage of a government plan to lease 3.3 million hectares of farmland to private investors. Growing food on the unutilised land would help the Horn of Africa country address shortages that forces it to seek aid from international donors every year, former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said at the time.
Agriculture investors are targeting African countries such as Ethiopia to meet growing global food requirements. The world’s population will increase to 9 billion people by 2050, and agricultural production will need to increase 70 per cent by then to feed everyone, according to the World Bank.
The Ethiopian program has got off to a poor start because of transportation and electricity problems, a lack of security and a shortage of funds and farming expertise, said James Keeley, a consultant for the International Institute for Environment and Development. The plots are located mainly in sparsely populated, heavily forested areas such as the western states of Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz that border South Sudan and Sudan.
“Land investment in Ethiopia proceeded initially in a chaotic fashion,” Keeley said. Leases in some regions were given out without checks on investors, environmental-impact assessments or performance-monitoring plans, he said.
Ethiopia is Africa’s biggest coffee producer and second- biggest exporter of the beans. The country is also sub-Saharan Africa’s largest wheat consumer and third-biggest corn consumer.
The government in Addis Ababa began leasing land for as little as US$1 (RM3) per hectare annually in 2008. The state owns all land in a nation dominated by subsistence smallholders who mostly farm on less than a hectare.
At the time, the government projected that within five years, commercial farmers would be producing food on about 900,000 hectares of land, according to Bizualem Bekele, an official at the government’s Agricultural Investment Land Administration Agency. As of last month, only about 10,000 hectares of land have been developed, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said on October 20.
“We’ve given more than 400,000 hectares of land to the private sector to engage in this agricultural production, but up to now the progress is very slow,” Hailemariam said.
Karuturi isn’t the only company struggling. Saudi Star Agricultural Development Plc, owned by Ethiopian-born Saudi billionaire Mohamed al-Amoudi, is growing rice on 350 hectares of a 10,000-hectare lease as it completes an irrigation canal started by Ethiopia’s socialist military regime more than two decades ago that will allow it to ramp up cultivation.
The company is searching for “intensive funding” for the project and hopes the main canal will be finished before the rainy season in June, Saudi Star Chief Executive Officer Fikru Desalegn said in a phone interview on November 18.
Shapoorji Pallonji and Co., a unit of Mumbai, India-based Tata Group, plans to grow the biofuel-plant pongamia on 50,000 hectares in Benishangul-Gumuz. After signing the lease “several years” ago, it’s farming on 2,500 hectares, said Keeley, who is preparing a report on the land program for the International Institute for Environment and Development based on research done for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Ruchi Agri Plc, also based in Mumbai, obtained 25,000 hectares in Gambella. After three years, its growing soya beans on 1,000 hectares and has cleared another 2,000 hectares of scrub at a cost of US$1,500 a hectare, Technical Manager Rameshsingh Pardesi said in an interview. If all goes to plan, the operation may become profitable by 2020, he said.