International agribusiness is busy acquiring vast tracts of land in the East African Great Lakes region for the mass production of food. But scant attention is being paid to the dangers that lurk ahead.
Judging by the rate and scale of land purchases in the area between the East African Rift Valley and the Nile River Valley, it would appear that corporate agribusiness has decided that the centre of Africa is the future.
In just 2009, more than half of the land deals completed or under negotiation globally took place in Africa, comprising some 39.7m acres. Researchers tell us that this is more than the combined cultivated areas of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
The Great Lakes countries, particularly Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, sit at the epicentre of this bounty. According to a 2015 mapped estimate, it is those areas that are projected to create the greatest yield per hectare.
Uganda lies at the heart of this enterprise. With the exception of the greatly environmentally challenged Lake Chad (which has shrunk from being in seven to only five countries now), just about every other significant fresh water body on the continent lies within 1,000 kilometres of Uganda. Not surprisingly, the nation has very close ties with all the important Western countries.
With the world's population set to reach over 9 billion by 2040, and to be comprised of largely landless urban people, this could become a very lucrative and captive market for anyone able to produce cheap, basic foodstuffs on a mass basis.
Studies are yet to reveal key factors driving the epidemic of large-scale land acquisitions, but my money is on the argument that this is the only way one can explain why well-connected Africans who have neither the experience nor the expertise to manage large-scale mechanised agriculture are at the forefront of grabbing fertile land. What are they anticipating? What do they know that we don't?
Three major concerns
But this new thrust for African land throws up at least three major concerns around its future ownership, and its fertility and uses.
The first is mass displacement. This is a dangerous prospect faced by a growing number of communities all over the Great Lakes region. And it is an old story. A lot of the fighting in the Nuba mountains and pre-partition Southern Sudan was actually driven by the need of Khartoum-based wheat oligarchs...