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October 24, 2011

Tanzania defends American's enormous ag project

by Philip Brasher

An 800,000-acre farm that Iowa agribusiness investor Bruce Rastetter plans to set up in Tanzania would benefit the east African country by increasing food production while helping small-scale growers learn better farming methods, according to the nation’s agriculture minister.

The project “will go a long way to supplement our own production of food” while also supplementing supplies in other African countries “that are always short of food,” said Jumanne Maghembe, who was in Des Moines for the recent World Food Prize events.

Maghembe said leases for the project could be finalized in the next few months. He said the national government and district councils have been involved in approving the project.

“We want to make it well-known to the world that the decisions in relation to the people investing in Tanzania are made by us,” he said.

The massive farm, which is supposed to be developed to its full size over a decade, would produce corn, soybeans and other crops as well as cattle, poultry and fuel ethanol using U.S.-style agricultural methods. The project also calls for training small-scale farmers to use some of the land. Rastetter’s company, AgriSol, would supply the farmers with seed and other inputs and also buy their produce.
ISU scales back involvement

Development experts have warned that Rastetter’s project must avoid squeezing small farms. One critic has gone so far as to call the project a land grab that will create a plantation-style farming system.

Anuradha Mittal, author of a recent study that looked into Rastetter’s plan and similar projects in Africa, dismissed the small-scale farmer plan as a public relations gimmick. Mittal runs a California-based think tank, the Oakland Institute.

Questions also have been raised about AgriSol’s plan to have Iowa State University design and manage the training project. Rastetter is a member of the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees the university. ISU officials have now decided to scale back their involvement.

Since Rastetter joined the board in June, “we have assessed this change and decided that the university would no longer participate directly in the project but would serve only in an advisory capacity,” the dean of the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Wendy Wintersteen, said in an email. “Details on the advisory role have not been determined.”

The project was to be similar to one the university leads in rural Uganda.

Rastetter said in an interview that AgriSol expects to plant the first crops in 2012. The company plans to raise additional capital to scale up the project in ensuing years. AgriSol has invested about $2 million in the project so far.

“Things continue to move forward and we look forward to completing the project,” he said.

At its full size, the project would encompass about 1,250 square miles, an area larger than Polk and Dallas counties combined. AgriSol will be working with the Tanzanian government and a university there to develop the program for small-scale farmers, he said.

The issue of land grabbing has been an increasing concern in Africa. Countries such as South Korea, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that are looking for new places to produce food for their own populations have been acquiring vast acreages in Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and other parts of Africa. China has invested in land to produce biofuel crops.

Some African leaders and outside development specialists say foreign investment can bring needed improvements in agricultural productivity that will benefit the continent as long as the needs of local people are kept in mind.

“We do see a win-win opportunity for investors to go to Africa, south Asia, to bring the technologies, to bring investment, to bring markets, to the region,” said Shenggen Fan, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute. “At the same time, we have to make sure that small holders won’t suffer from that engagement.”
Productivity is low

The government of Tanzania has been especially aggressive in trying to attract outside investors and foreign aid to build its agricultural sector and also is providing some subsidies for farmers.

Nearly four in five Tanzanians depend on farming, and agriculture accounts for more than one-quarter of the nation’s gross domestic product. However, the agricultural sector “needs quite a bit of attention because productivity is very low,” Maghembe said.

Less than one-quarter of the country’s 109 million acres of arable land is now under cultivation, he said.

Much of the region targeted for the AgriSol project is grassland now but has sufficient rainfall and adequately fertile soil to be productive agriculturally, experts say.

Farmers there currently harvest less than 20 bushels of corn per acre, about one-tenth of what farmers in Iowa routinely produce and far less than the region is capable of, Rastetter said.

Maghembe said the project “will give an opportunity for farmers, small farmers, to learn good agronomic techniques that will improve their own productivity.”

Rastetter runs a farming operation at Alden and also has founded companies that produce ethanol and hogs. He is a prominent Republican Party donor, having contributed $160,000 to the 2010 campaign of Gov. Terry Branstad, who appointed him to the Board of Regents.

Des Moines Register

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