Saudi Arabia is encouraging companies to invest in farms in Africa as the kingdom seeks to secure supplies of food imports to replace local production, said Agriculture Minister Fahd Balghunaim.
The government decided in 2008 to gradually phase out all water-intensive crops including grains by 2016 amid commodity price spikes, Balghunaim said at a World Economic Forum meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
Saudi Arabia plans to increase imports of food, including the 3 million metric tonnes of wheat consumed annually, he said.
“Africa is the region that represents the biggest opportunity to increase food production with vast tracts of land and a big difference between existing potential and current productivity,” he said.
“Saudi companies are bringing the technology and equipment to help increase production.”
In Ethiopia, Saudi Star Agricultural Development, a food company owned by billionaire Mohammed al-Amoudi, announced last year it plans to invest $2.5bn by 2020 developing a rice-farming project on 10,000 hectares of land on lease for 60 years.
It also has plans to rent an additional 290,000 hectares from the government.
Critics of the project including GRAIN, the Barcelona-based advocacy group, argue that domestic farmers are being dispossessed and the country shouldn’t rent land cheaply to foreign investors to grow crops when about 13 percent of its approximately 80 million people still rely on food aid.
“We want to be an assisting player in the African agriculture revolution,” said Balghunaim. “Our ethics don’t allow us to take food from the mouths of people who need it.”
African nations should be able to end their dependency on food imports, become net crop exporters and cut trade deficits by adopting modern farm methods, Balghunaim said.
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