Interview - Foreigners buying African farms a good thing

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* World Bank: outsourcing farming may ease food crises

* Study on outgrower schemes to finish in March 2010

By Hereward Holland

KIGALI, Dec 10 (Reuters) - The outsourcing of food production in Africa by some Asian and Middle-Eastern countries will boost global stocks and may help stave off of future food crises, the World Bank says.

In the aftermath of last year's food crisis, capital-rich nations who lack sufficient arable land to feed growing populations started buying or leasing large portions of cheap, fertile African soil to grow staple crops.

World Bank Director of Sustainable Development Hartwig Schafer said the much-needed investment in infrastructure, processing and agricultural technology could improve yields and mitigate the impact of volatility in world food markets.

Opponents say the schemes will not improve food security in Africa because the capital, technology and expertise are unlikely to trickle down to poor farmers.

Smallholders may be pushed off land which they have tilled for generations but have no legal rights over, critics say.

"If (outsourcing farming) results overall on the increase in production then it will actually be a mitigating factor (against food crises)," Schafer told Reuters on the sidelines of an agricultural conference in Rwanda on Wednesday.

Opposition to a project in Madagascar that would have snapped up half the country's arable land contributed to causing a coup there earlier this year.

"In many countries there is a lot of scepticism with the private sector but I think that can actually be a strength," Schafer said.

"One of the big opportunities is to move from the primary product and to add more value to it. For that you need the private sector."

The World Bank will present findings of research into the impact of 'outgrower schemes' in the first quarter of 2010, alongside a voluntary code of conduct to advise governments, Schafer said.

The study examines the impact on employment, food balance, revenues and investment flows, he said.

"You want to make sure these investments are sustainable and bring some benefit to the countries and that these land concessions are fair to the country," he said.

The pervasive difficulty in getting seed and fertiliser to isolated African farmers remains one of the biggest hurdles to improving food security, he said.

"You still have pockets of surplus and pockets of deficit that are simply not connected. Once you reduce bottlenecks and delays in-country and across borders then things will pick up."

(Editing by Helen Nyambura-Mwaura and William Hardy)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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