Investors from largely food-insecure Gulf countries are increasingly buying vast swaths of fertile land irrigated by the Nile River in Sudan to grow food crops to sustain their populations.
The Land Matrix database, which compiles data on land grabs from governments, companies, NGOs, the media and citizen contributions, has tracked 762,208 hectares of large-scale land acquisitions in Sudan since 1972, with most deals concluded after year 2000.
Most of this land was allocated to 28 transnational deals, with companies from mainly Middle Eastern states – including Qatar, Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudia Arabia, the UAE and Syria – acquiring huge areas of land to produce food crops, animal feed such as alfalfa, and biofuels.
Investors from countries including Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia are also vying for another 3.4 million hectares of land, which are under negotiation.
Such foreign acquisitions are often referred to as ‘land grabs,’ since they consume large quantities of natural resources such as land and water often without regard for the local communities that relied upon the land.
To find out more, InfoNile cofounders Annika McGinnis and Fredrick Mugira talked to Stefano Turrini, a scholar involved in the study of land grabs and agricultural development in Sudanese drylands and a PhD candidate in Geography at Padova University in Italy.
They began by asking him to cite areas in Sudan that have experienced land and water grabbing most.
Stefano: Land and water grabbing in Sudan are mainly visible in the state of Khartoum, River Nile and Northern.
InfoNile: Why these regions in particular?
Stefano: Since the 2000s, these states of Sudan have experienced the expansion of agricultural projects for exports, an expansion that became rapid following the 2008 crisis and strengthened following 2013 with the promulgation of the ultimate business-friendly legislation.
The massive appearance of foreign agricultural investments in Sudan started in the early 2000s, when President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir’s regime began offering land and water at favourable conditions to the Gulf countries.
InfoNile: Why Gulf countries?
Stefano: These countries were starting to experience the reduction of their water resources, due to the excessive over-use. Their domestic agricultural production needed to be outsourced.
The rush of the Gulf countries in grabbing farmland in Sudan was accelerated following the food price crisis of 2008: many exporting countries began to reduce the quantity of food commodities on the foreign market, preferring to be sure of ensuring food security of its population. Despite the considerable spending power of the Gulf countries due to the exportation of oil, they were still unable to assure adequate access to food for their population. For this reason, Sudan increased its function as a ‘food target’.
The involvement of the Gulf countries into the economy of Sudan was favoured by another event: in 2011, the secession of South Sudan was a shock for the national economy: Khartoum lost control of most of its oil fields. The North had to adapt itself to the new situation. Given the necessity to diversify its own financial revenues, in 2013 al-Bashir approved a new legislation for investments (the National Investment Encouragement Act, 2013) in order to vigorously attract foreign investment to Sudan by offering remarkable tax exemptions and strong bureaucratic support to investors.
InfoNile: What is commonly grown on Sudan’s grabbed land?
Stefano: The large-scale projects I have examined were carried out primarily for the agro-industrial production of alfalfa (Medicago Sativa). This crop is considered ‘the queen’ among fodder because of its high productivity and nutritive value. Harvests are ten times per year: crops are reaped every 30-35 days with an average production of 2 or 3 tons per hectare.
InfoNile: Who are the target buyers of this Alfalfa?
Stefano: The fodder is mainly exported to Saudi Arabia and UAE for industrial farms/animals consumption. Since their domestic production of fodder is diminishing, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are becoming the largest importers of alfalfa in the world together with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
The Arab market needs about 20 million tons of alfalfa and only a small portion of it is currently produced at the regional level: the Sudan produces 5 million tons. The possibility for expansion of alfalfa cultivation in Sudan is enormous. For this reason, the Ministry of Investments is presently preparing feasibility studies for future alfalfa projects. For Sudan, offering land means gaining international consensus, access to new markets and technical innovations, and, most importantly, new sources of revenue through land rent that could reassure the continuation of the present regime. For the private investors, it means making sizeable profits by a hosting country that legitimises their agricultural activity.
The agricultural projects I have visited, with dimensions varying from 2,000 to 100,000 hectares, are irrigated with central pivots.