The “land-grab” phenomenon of foreign agricultural investment in Africa has grown since the 2008 food crisis. An Indian worker transplants rice on a major commercial agricultural scheme in Ethiopia
CAIRO, 11 October 2010 (IRIN) – The Egyptian government is hoping to cultivate wheat and other cereals on fertile land in African countries to feed its growing population of over 80 million.

In early September it signed a deal with the Sudanese government to give Egyptian companies access to Sudanese farmland.

“Growing essential crops like wheat in other water-rich African countries where fertile land is in abundance is an important solution,” said Ayman Farid Abu Hadid, chairman of the state-run Agricultural Research Centre, which signed the deal on behalf of the Egyptian government. “Cultivating wheat in other African countries will reduce the cost of imports.”

According to some estimates, Egypt consumes about 14 million tons of wheat annually, but produces only 60 percent of that. The Egyptian wheat subsidy system has been coming under strain in recent months and Egypt has been further affected by the Russian wheat export ban: it used to be a major importer of Russian wheat.

The government said in August it had plans to achieve 70 percent self-sufficiency in wheat by 2017. Agriculture Minister Amin Abaza said for Egypt to produce enough wheat to feed its population, it needed to increase the area planted to about 2.1 million hectares – from 1.26 million hectares at present.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has previously warned of the effects of rising wheat prices on budgets in North African countries.

Abdolreza Abbassian, FAO’s senior economist, said in countries where governments depended on bread subsidies to prevent social unrest, declining wheat output and increasing prices could have serious ramifications.

“Some are politically unstable countries, and they simply cannot afford social unrest due to costlier bread,” said Abbassian. “Wheat is a large part of the diet. It would greatly impact the urban poor, so they will be very careful,” he told the media in August.

Private sector

The Egyptian private sector, which in the case of Sudan will be allowed to cultivate 420,000 hectares, will take the lead in boosting cereal farming in other African countries.

Saad Nassar, an adviser to the Egyptian agriculture minister, said the deal would allow Egyptian companies to grow a variety of crops in Sudan’s well-irrigated Al-Gezira region south of Khartoum, and that the Egyptian government’s role would be restricted to offering the necessary technical assistance.

Egyptian officials say African and Nile basin countries, such as Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, and Ethiopia, are high on a government list as potential places in which to make agricultural investments.

Water scarcity

They add that, apart from strengthening links with these African countries, the move would help Egypt avoid depending on its limited water resources.

“Water scarcity is Egypt’s main hindrance to even coming close to food self-sufficiency,” said Abdel Salam Gomaa, a leading agricultural expert. “It is a fact that stifles every attempt to attain self-sufficiency.”

A recent market report says Egypt would need 86 billion cubic metres of water annually by 2017 (up from the 55 billion it currently gets from the Nile), but a recent government-commissioned report said Egypt would only gain access to 70 billion cubic metres of water annually by then.

Although they enthusiastically support the government initiative, Gomaa and like-minded experts warn against depending too heavily on the generosity of other African countries when it comes to water.

Any moves, they say, might confirm the worst fears of decision-makers in Nile basin countries that Egypt is out to grab as much water as it can for itself. “This is a real dilemma,” Gomaa said. “These countries are so sensitive to any talk about their share of the water of the Nile, particularly when it comes to Egypt.”

Several upstream countries recently began lobbying for a redistribution of water from the Nile. These countries say two colonial era agreements – signed in 1929 and 1959 – unjustly give Egypt and Sudan too much water, leaving their own populations high and dry.