Is the scramble for land in Africa foreclosing a smallholder agricultural expansion strategy?

Author:Jayne, Thomas S.
Position:Development - Report

Recent global policy attention to "land grabs" by international investors, while very important, has diverted attention away from two other processes that may be even more fundamentally affecting Africa's economic development trajectory: (i) the pace of land acquisitions by medium-scale African investors, who now control more land than large-scale foreign investors in each of the three countries examined in this study (Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia); and (ii) the overall impact of land transactions on the viability of African governments' agricultural strategies, which for the most part remain predicated on smallholder-led development and will require the expansion of cropland by smallholder households. In Zambia and Ghana, the total farmland controlled by holdings between 5 and 100 hectares now exceeds the amount of land held by smallholder farms under 5 hectares. Farmland holdings in all three countries have become substantially more concentrated since the mid-1900s. The rapid rise in the number of farms in the 5 to 100 hectare category represents a relatively hidden but revolutionary change in farm structure, reflecting increased investment in land by relatively wealthy urban-based individuals. Only in Ghana has the rise of medium-scale farms been significantly associated with successful graduation of small-scale farmers into medium-scale stature. Continued rapid alienation of land to medium- and large-scale investors is likely to exacerbate localized land scarcity, restrict the potential of smallholder-led development, and put unrealistic pressure on the non-farm economy to absorb Africa's rapidly rising labor force.


Because the sustained jump in global food prices starting in 2007 was largely unanticipated, the surge of interest in global farmland took most of the development profession by surprise. With roughly 60 percent of the world's uncultivated arable land in sub-Saharan Africa, foreign investors moved quickly to acquire land in the region. Yet African governments and development organizations have only vague notions of the rate at which land is being transferred to foreign or domestic investors; the extent to which claims are already made on those lands; and the amount of arable land still available for use by future generations of indigenous rural communities.

Even under optimistic assumptions about the rate of urbanization and growth of non-farm employment opportunities, agriculture will still be the main source of livelihood for the majority of Africans for some time to come. (2) Moreover, expansion of area under cultivation has been the major source of growth in agricultural production for many decades. (3) While productivity growth on existing farmland will be the most desirable way of raising food production, it is almost certainly the case that rapid agricultural growth will require cultivating new land.

Since 2010, numerous studies have estimated the amount of potentially available cropland (PAC) in Africa. (4) PAC is defined as the reserve of moderately to highly productive land that could be utilized for rainfed farming and is not currently under intensive use or legally protected. (5) Independently, studies have carefully documented the amount of land recently acquired by foreign investors. (6) Flying under the radar are land acquisitions of largely unknown proportions by a somewhat nebulous class of "emergent" or medium-scale local farmers, whose characteristics have only recently been examined. (7) There remains a dearth of information about the amount of economically viable arable land still remaining in the region to support agricultural cropland expansion for African smallholder farmers. For these reasons, African governments' land policies and agricultural development plans have largely been prepared in an information vacuum, based on prior assumptions of land abundance despite warnings of "African enclosures" processes unfolding in some parts of the region. (8) The possibility that indigenous rural communities may face land access problems associated with constraints on cropland expansion raise important policy questions that are seldom considered in national development strategies.

This paper assembles data from existing studies and contributes new evidence from three African case studies to provide as accurate a picture as is possible, despite the huge information gaps that still remain, on three broad policy questions. First, what is the evidence to date on the rate of land acquisitions by foreign investors and medium-scale farmers in relation to the amount of economically attractive arable land? Second, what are the political and economic circumstances driving the rise of medium-scale farmers in the region? Finally, and most importantly, how are trends in land acquisitions--both by foreign investors and by domestic medium-scale investors--affecting the scope for inclusive and broad-based patterns of agricultural development and poverty reduction in rural Africa?


Our study relies on four types of data: estimates of large-scale land acquisition; potentially available cropland (PAC) for farmland expansion; nationally representative farm survey data; and retrospective "life history" surveys of medium-scale farmers. Estimates of land acquisitions by foreign interests in the three countries were obtained from Schoneveld's study. (9) Estimates of PAC were based on Deininger and Byerlee, and Chamberlin et al. (10) We use the Deininger and Byerlee (DB) estimates corresponding to non-forested arable land with population densities below twenty-five persons per square kilometer. (11) Chamberlin et al. conducts similar analysis with updated spatial data and imposes economic suitability criteria on land in addition to agroecological suitability conditions. Therefore, it provides somewhat lower estimates of PAC than DB. (12) The estimates of potentially available cropland from Chamberlin et al., first include and then exclude heavily-forested land, so that we can evaluate the extent to which cropland expansion would entail deforestation.

For information on trends in farm structure over time, we rely on nationally representative farm survey data derived from national censuses. These data allow us to examine trends in the numbers of farmers within various farm-size categories and the total amount of land held in each farm-size category. However, agricultural-based surveys in Africa tend to focus on small-scale farms under 5 hectares, and tend not to adopt sampling procedures that would ensure valid statistical inferences for relatively large farms. (13) Growth-rate estimates for the number of farms over 20 hectares must therefore be taken with some caution. Moreover, most national farm surveys do not gather retrospective information that would reveal how medium-scale farmers--defined here as those holding 5 to 100 hectares--came to their present circumstances. Rapid growth in their numbers would have profoundly different implications if, for example, they were mainly found to be successfully growing their way out of small-scale status (implying that small-scale agriculture is a feasible pathway out of poverty for many) as opposed to being relatively wealthy elites buying land and entering farming in their mid-life years.

To better understand the characteristics and histories of medium-scale farmers, we conducted surveys of this group in Ghana (n=394), Kenya (n=300), and Zambia (n=184). Zambia is one of the least densely populated countries in Africa and is considered land abundant. Kenya, on the other extreme, is one of the more densely-populated African countries, and faces quite acute land pressures in some areas. Ghana falls somewhere in between the two cases. Our samples were drawn from lists of farms compiled by district agricultural authorities and from local farmer organizations. Farmers were listed as medium-scale if they were believed to hold between 5 and 100 hectares. The surveys are representative of particular districts known to contain many medium-scale farms and cannot be considered nationally representative. (14)


Schoneveld provides the most recent and well-documented analysis of large-scale land acquisitions in sub-Saharan Africa. (15) His analysis records agricultural and forestry-related land acquisitions of greater than 2,000 hectares since January 2005. (16) He documents 563 projects identified across thirty-seven sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) countries, covering an area of 22.7 million hectares, of which 19.2 million hectares are recorded as having a foreign firm as the sole or majority share. The median project size is 12,300 hectares, and the mean project size is 40,368 hectares.

This relatively conservative estimate of 22.7 million hectares is equivalent to 9.6 percent of the total area under cropland in SSA in 2012, according to the Statistics Division at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, or FAOSTAT, and roughly 11 percent of about 200 million hectares of PAC remaining in SSA, according to Deininger and Byerlee. (17) When compared to estimates of PAC in Chamberlin et al., the 22.7 million hectares of land transferred to large-scale entities is equivalent to between 15 and 35 percent of remaining PAC. (18) In our three case-study countries, Schoneveld documents large-scale land acquisitions since 2005 of over 2,000 hectares per transaction amounting to 1.96, 0.33, and 1.81 million hectares in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia, respectively. This is equivalent to 47 percent of PAC in Ghana, but less than 15 percent in both Kenya and Zambia, using PAC estimates in Deininger and Byerlee. (19) When using Chamberlin et al. estimates, we find that 43, 29, and 36 percent of PAC has been transferred to large-scale foreign interests since 2005 in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia, respectively.

Each of these countries also has a domestic large-scale farm sector, originally comprised mostly of European settler farmers...

To continue reading