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January 26, 2009

Debate rages on Kenyan plan to lease farming land to Qatar

With its plan to lease 40,000 hectares to Qatar, Kenya joins the growing number of poor nations that are granting their potential food production land to oil-rich countries. The development comes even as the Government declares an emergency as close to a third of the country’s population faces starvation.

The Government has been forced to introduce subsidies and price controls on maize after poor planning and production caused the price of the staple maize flour to double in less than a year.

In the deal, the Gulf state will, in exchange for the land, fund the construction of a new multi-billion-shilling port in Lamu. This will become Kenya’s second port after Mombasa. The deal, struck during President Kibaki’s visit to Qatar last November, has been criticised by some quarters but others support it as a viable investment. State House has defended the plan to lease the land, saying Kenya stands to benefit immensely from the possible Sh180 billion deal.

The area proposed for the farming project is near the fertile Tana River Delta, where the Kenyan Government owns nearly 500,000 hectares of uncultivated land. The land has the potential to boost the country’s food reserves that have dwindled in the recent past, leaving many starving.

Similar plans by Mumias Sugar Company to build a factory in the Delta have raised objections from pastoralists, claiming that their animals would lack pasture and the environment would be destroyed.

Most of the produce from the proposed project, mainly vegetables and fruits, would be exported to the Gulf. The project is expected to take five years to complete. Questions have been raised on why the Government has chosen to lease the land instead of engaging local farmers to boost food security in the country.

However, the Government has defended itself, saying that under the agreement, Qatar would help Kenya develop an equivalent number of hectares for its own food security. The deal is similar to a model that has been widely criticised by agricultural experts worldwide and mainly involves poor African countries and rich nations or corporations, especially from the Middle East.
Many oil-rich countries are turning to leasing land in sub-Saharan Africa to boost their own food security, raising concern from United Nations agencies. Mr Jacques Diouf, head of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, has warned that the trend has the potential of ushering in an era of neo-colonialism and expressed scepticism that the projects would benefit people in host countries.

Qatar, which has large oil and gas revenues, imports most of its food as most of its land is desert (only one per cent is suitable for farming).

By building a modern harbour in Lamu, Kenya hopes to open a new trade corridor that will give landlocked Ethiopia and the autonomous region of Southern Sudan access to the Indian Ocean.
Other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have also been negotiating leases of large tracts of farmland in countries such as Sudan and Senegal since the onset of global food shortages and price rises last year.

Daily Nation

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