Africa for sale by John Vidal

China, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, India – half the world seems to be buying vast tracts of territory to grow food for their home markets. But, as John Vidal reports from Ethiopia, the great land-grab is at the expense of local farmers and is seen by some as a new colonialism.

We turned off the main road from Addis Ababa to Awassa, talked our way past security guards and drove a mile across what seemed empty land before we found what will soon be Ethiopia’s largest greenhouse. Nestling below an escarpment of the Rift Valley, this massive structure was far from finished but the plastic-covered steelwork already stretched over 20 hectares, equal to 20 full-size football pitches.

After a quick call to his Dutch boss the farm manager agreed to show us round: tens of millions of tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables being grown in 500-metre-long rows. Spanish engineers were building the greenhouses, other Europeans were installing the water system and South Africans had dug boreholes with enough water for 100,000 people.  The only Ethiopian input was the army of women bussed in to pick and pack 50 tonnes of food a day.  Ethiopia may be one of the hungriest countries in the world, famous for famine and with five million people depending on international food aid, but all the food from Awassa is trucked 200 miles north to Addis Ababa and then flown 1,000 miles to the shops and restaurants of Dubai, Jeddah and elsewhere in the Middle East. Only food judged unacceptable to the Arabs is sent to the local markets.

The labour is Ethiopian but the money for this giant corporate food enterprise is from Saudi Arabia. The 1,000-ha estate is leased for 99 years to Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi, a Saudi billionaire businessman who has an Ethiopian wife and is one of the 50 richest men in the world. His Saudi Star company plans to spend up to $2bn acquiring and developing 500,000 ha of land in Ethiopia. So far, Al Amoudi has bought four large farms and is growing rice, vegetables and flowers for export. He expects eventually to employ more than 10,000 people. Last month he presented his king with the first Saudi wheat grown in Ethiopia.

Al Amoudi is a hero in much of Ethiopia for his confidence in the country. But he is accused of being a “land-grabber”, one of thousands buying up land in poor countries globally, with Africa the epicentre. Businesses backed by the governments of food-insecure rich countries are raising tens of billions of dollars to buy or lease land in poorer and hungrier countries to provide food for their growing populations and crops and biofuels to power their transport. Developing countries, moreover, are being advised by the World Bank to hand their land over, even though the UN recognises the dangers.

To read the rest of the article please subscribe to the Frontline Broadsheet. Its only £15 per year for four issues.