Foreign Investors Snap Up African Farmland

Governments and investment funds are buying up farmland in Africa and Asia to grow food -- a profitable business, with a growing global population and rapidly rising prices. The high-stakes game of real-life Monopoly is leading to a modern colonialism to which many poor countries submit out of necessity.

Every crisis has its winners. A group of them is sitting in the Stuyvesant Room at the Marriott Hotel in New York. The conference room, where the shades are drawn and the lights are dimmed, is filled with men from Iowa, Sao Paulo and Sydney -- corn farmers, big landowners and fund managers. Each of them has paid $1,995 (€1,395) to attend Global AgInvesting 2009, the first investors' conference on the emerging worldwide market in farmland.

A man from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) gives the first presentation. Colorful graphs travel up and down his PowerPoint charts. Some are headed downward as the year 2050 approaches. They represent the farmland that is disappearing as a result of climate change, soil desolation, urbanization and the shortage of water. The other lines, which point sharply upward, represent demand for meat and biofuel, food prices and population growth. There is a growing gap between these two sets of lines. It represents hunger.

According to most prognoses, there could be 9.1 billion people living on earth in 2050, about two billion more than today. In the coming 20 years alone, worldwide demand for food is expected to rise by 50 percent. "These are pessimistic prospects," says the OECD man. He looks serious and even a little sad, as he describes the future of the world.

But for the audience in the Stuyvesant Room, mostly men and a handful of women, all of this is good news and the mood is buoyant. How could it be any different? After all, hunger is their business. The combination of more people and less land makes food a safe investment, with annual returns of 20 to 30 percent, rare in the current economic climate.

These are not Wall Street experts, nor are they people who shoot money across the continents like billiard balls. On the contrary, these are extremely conservative investors who buy or lease land to grow wheat or raise cattle. But land is scarce and expensive in Europe and the United States. Solving the problem means developing new land, which is only available in Africa, Asia and South America. This combination of factors has triggered a high-stakes game of real-life Monopoly, in which investment funds, banks and governments are engaged in a race for access to the world's arable land.

'The Final Frontier for Finding Alpha'

Susan Payne, a red-haired British woman, is the CEO of the largest land fund in southern Africa, which currently includes 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres), mainly in South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique. Payne hopes to raise half a billion euros from investors. She talks about fighting hunger, but the headings on her PowerPoint slides, embellished with photos of soybean fields at sunset, tell a different story. One such heading refers to "Africa -- the last frontier for finding alpha." The word alpha signifies an investment for which the return is greater than the risk. Africa is alpha country.

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