January Makamba:Times in the Presidency: No Cereals Mistakes

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  Hon.January Makamba
 Tanzania colors in streets of Riyadh during our visit

By January Makamba 27 July 2013

In April 2009, the King of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, invited the President Kikwete for a visit.

As an aide and speechwriter I was part of the visit and attended meetings as a note-taker. The President arrived in Riyadh around 6pm. Normally, the 89-year old King does not go to the airport to receive his visitors, he instead sends one of the senior Princes.   But, on this occasion, the King came to receive President Kikwete and was standing at the foot of the plane as the President disembarked.

Before the arrival, the advance team had arranged a stay at a Riyadh hotel but we were told that the King had ordered that we stay in one of his palaces. I have never seen such tight security…dogs, armored-vehicles, etc. and I had a butler I did not need.

The visit centered around trade and investments. Saudi firms were keen to look at Tanzania. So, the President did what he does best: pitching Tanzania as an investment destination. He was honest about the challenges and convincing about the opportunities.

We then went for state dinner hosted by the King at the main palace. The dinner was preceded by official talks. It was surprising and refreshing that the dinner was very small – almost private – with about 20 people. The curved walls of the dinning room were literally a single fish and shark-tank – from floor to ceiling. There was no mistake that you were in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  

The later discussion amongst us who advice the President was how to go about with repeatedly expressed interest by the Saudis and later the Qataris to seek huge chunks of land in Tanzania for large investment in agriculture.

Almost all Arab countries, with their fast-growing population and without land for agriculture, were looking into Africa for growing food. The Saudis are unlikely to face oil crisis anytime soon but cereals crisis is beckoning. They grew wheat in the desert but that was depleting desert fresh water aquifers very fast.   

In the next 25 years, world demand for cereals will more likely increase by 50 percent. There are two ways in which this food can be found: by increasing yields in the currently cultivated land or by cultivating new areas. Of all the continents, only Africa has suitable and sizable tracts of uncultivated land.

Food is now a globalised commodity, meaning that its price and supply are dictated by dynamics independent of the whims of sovereignty (not least the weather!). And indeed taste and choices in food depends on many other things beyond necessity (increase in income by the Chinese, as a result of the Chinese economic boom of the last two decades, has made the Chinese eat more meat, which has increased the global demand for feedstock for pork, chicken and cattle which in turn has increased demand and prices for cereals, leading other people to remain hungry). Consequently, the production of food for the global or “local” markets, just like cars and computer chips, follow where inputs are readily cheap (read Africa).

So, as Presidential advisers, if the Saudis and Qataris ask for what amounts to 0.5 percent of 100 million acres of arable land in Tanzania, under which circumstances would you say yes. It is important to note that out of 100 million acres of arable land that we have, only 25 percent is under use, of which 80 percent is under subsistence agriculture.

And you are considering this question at the backdrop of a fall of Madagascar’s government because of a land deal with South Korea, and in the backdrop of a new catchy phrase, “land-grab”, thrown around with gay abandon by everyone.

In recalling my personal notes back then, I wrote that there should be some parameters under which these land-for-agriculture deals should stay within:

1. There should not be displacement of people or dispossession of land as a result of these agreements.

2. It is true that our landownership system (leasing) is seen as anti-investment. But we should not change it to freehold system just to accommodate these deals.

3. There should be local value addition processes (if it is wheat or rice, at least kukoboa and packaging should be done locally by locally-owned factories).

4. There should be development of physical and social infrastructure in and around the farms. CSR projects by farms – a well here, some desks there – will not cut it.

5. There should be some backward and forward linkages – some out-grower activity should exist. We also must insist that the production of fertilizers and other inputs for these farms should be done here and should not be just for exclusive use of these farms.

6. Agricultural research and transfer of agricultural technology and skills should be the main components of these deals.

7. Eventually, as a result of number 6 above, together with access to agricultural financing, locals ought be able to do large-scale commercial farming. Large farms in Tanzania should not exist to create farm laborers. They eventually create large-scale farmers.

8. Finally, the scenarios you do not want to have is that of containers shipping out wheat or rice abroad while you have long lines of people waiting for food aid…like in some countries where you see oil rigs offshore but long queues at the petrol stations.

Lesson: in advising the President, honesty and open-mindedness are key attributes. It is a challenge because (i) in working with the President, you know how he thinks and his preferences – so it is so easy to fashion your advice along his line of preferences. That is a huge disservice to him; and (ii) in working with the President, everything is political and the instinct is to protect him and this may cause you to close your mind and not explore other potentially politically risky but high reward ideas.

I was fortunate that President Kikwete is very open-minded. But you will have to be very well prepared to defend your arguments, as he will challenge you – sometimes with angles you hadn’t seen or facts you hadn’t considered. If you withstand the challenge, he will take your views on board.

BTW, on this trip, I flew to Jeddah, drove to Mecca and got to pray there.