Solving Africa’s land issues to boost productivity, alleviate poverty and eradicate hunger

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Land is not only a controversial issue in certain parts of the continent, such as South Africa, where land expropriation is a hot topic; it is also a crucial tool to unlock economic potential in Africa. It is one of the main topics for discussion at Africa Development Week 2017, which is underway in Dakar, Senegal.

Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, along with private sector, civil society organisations and traditional authorities will deliberate on what should be done to achieve Africa’s Agenda 2030 and Agenda 2063.

The CNBC Africa team caught up with Said Adejumobi, Director of the Southern Africa Office of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), who says the land question is a very important one, not only for South Africa, but for the entire region.

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“The reason is very simple. It has to do with the historical legacy of apartheid and the kind of settler colonialism that they experienced in southern Africa. The point is how do we consummate it? I think there should be national consensus and national dialogue on how it should be done. And it should be done within a legal framework, in a very methodical, procedural way that does not create unnecessary tension, but that guarantees equality, justice and fairness for all the people of South Africa.”

Published in South Africa’s Government Gazette this week, is a new bill that makes provision for unique land ceilings for various districts in the country, as well as for the establishment of a land commission which will play a large role in determining these ceilings. Foreign ownership and leasing of agricultural land will be affected by the bill, as once this has been signed into law, foreigners will not be able to acquire agricultural land.

Land is central to boost productivity, alleviate poverty and eradicate hunger, and everyone is looking for solutions to the current problems hindering agricultural growth on the continent.

Joan Kagwanja, Coordinator for the Land Policy Initiative of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), says while there are negatives such as issues hindering investment in land and the consequences of investment, there are opportunities for Africa, such as access to a lot of land.

“Sixty per cent of the land is still available for production, and can be harnessed,” she explains.

Since 2008, Africa attracted numerous foreign investors. But only 50% (around 200 000 hectares) of the land invested in has been harnessed for production. “We need to see that land actually coming to production so that we can feed the continent,” says Kagwanja.

Adejumobi says for Africa land is much more than an economic product: “Land is a spiritual product. People are tied to the land. The whole process of human living from birth to death has a linkage to land with Africa. If you are landless in Africa, the way you are viewed, no matter what kind of investment you have, what kind of stocks that you hold, if you are landless in Africa, you are deemed to be powerless. People don’t respect you.”

Kagwanja says the way land investment has taken place in Africa – even when land has been acquired from traditional authorities or Africans themselves – has had perhaps unintended consequences of pushing people off the land, while the land has not been used for production.

“And compensation has not gone to those that have also given up the land. But beyond that, we don’t want to see compensation per se we want to see models that include local communities as well as investors.”

Sixty percent of Africa’s land is managed under traditional authorities and this land is used communally, Kagwanja explains. This means that “we don’t have the majority of Africans in individual ownership of land and we’re not necessarily advocating for individual ownership of land. But on the other hand we need to examine how in the traditional authorities people can still receive secure rights to land. So where there are pressures coming from outside, do we have documented land rights? Do women have land rights?”

The African Union has a 30% campaign to ensure that by 2025 African women will have access to 30% of documented land rights. “You can see that 30% is a very low target, but at this point we don’t even know what is owned by African women and that is a problem because African women are the same one’s that contribute the majority to agriculture, to food security,” Kagwanja says.

Adejomobi agrees that the women’s dimension is very important, and that women should be involved in the process through a very specific agenda for landownership by women. This should be addressed both culturally and through policy making. Currently women play an important role in small scale production, even though they own less land.

Concerning land redistribution, Adejumobi says it is important to ensure that land is not left fallow. Through a “very organised process”, small land holders can be empowered “so that they move into transition straight away, so that they make the best use of the land that they eventually get, and not having the land for no purposes.”

Brazil is a good example of successful land distribution to accelerate agricultural production. Brazil moved from being a net importer of agricultural products to being a net exported. “They are the world’s biggest exporter of beef currently,” Adejumobi said.

This kind of success is dependent on national dialogue and consensus, he advises. People should not think there is a conspiracy agenda against land redistribution, but inclusivity should be achieved in which both the beneficiaries and those from whom the land will be taken will see the value and the justice in what is being done.

Speaking on behalf of the Land Policy Initiative, an initiative of the African Union Commission, UNECA and the African Development Bank, Kagwanja says: “We support member states to seek solutions in consultation with their own communities and their own stakeholders. It is true that despite many years of independence some of those who fought for the land still do not have the land. So this is a question that remains.

“And it doesn’t matter how long we put it off, it is something we have to confront, and I think the countries in southern Africa are examining different ways to do it. Some of the models that have been put in place haven’t worked so well, and so we support them in looking for solutions that will provide equal access to land for communities.”

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