Cablegate: Ethiopia Seeks Dramatic Change in Agricultural Land Use

DE RUEHDS #2900/01 3440707
R 100707Z DEC 09




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: Addis Ababa 2809

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1. (SBU) SUMMARY. All land in Ethiopia is owned by the government.
Farmland is leased long-term to individuals (95 percent) and
companies (5 percent). Having determined that (1) vastly more
acreage must be brought into agricultural production, (2) existing
farmland must be made much more productive, and (3) the public
sector cannot fully finance needed modernization, the Government of
Ethiopia (GoE) is actively seeking domestic and foreign investment.
The GoE has especially sought recently to attract investors to
develop large commercial farms in the belief that these farms have
potential to dramatically boost total agricultural output,
employment, technology transfer, and foreign exchange reserves. A
new directorate within the agriculture ministry (MoARD) has been
charged with negotiating leases over two years to add at least 7.4
million acres of land to an existing 45 million acres of cultivated
land out of a total of 183 million arable acres (all figures are GoE
estimates). So far, the directorate has finalized only three deals
involving a total of 42,000 acres and has other deals pending that
would bring that total to 220,000 acres. The directorate has served
notice, however, that the pace of deals is about to rapidly
accelerate. This apparent rush to lease so much farmland, much or
all of it to foreign interests, during a time of worsening food
insecurity should raise concern within the donor community about GoE
motivations and negotiating capacity. It appears that historical
patterns of agricultural production in Ethiopia are about to change
dramatically. What the effect this change will have on Ethiopia's
capacity to feed its population and on its overall economic
development is unclear. USAID already has a well-established
agricultural development program and plans to engage the new
directorate to seek ways the USG can assist in line with the new
Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative. END SUMMARY.


2. (SBU) In order to investigate "agro-imperialism" claims made in
recent Washington Post and New York Times articles, Econoff and
local Economic and Commercial Specialists met with a variety of
stakeholders on November 30 through December 2. Contacts included:
Bezualem Bekele, Agricultural Economist in MoARD's Agricultural
Investment Support Directorate; Haileselassie Tekie, Director
General, Ethiopian Horticulture Development Agency (EHDA); Mafa
Chipeta, The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
(UNFAO) Representative in Ethiopia; Achim Fock, Senior Economist for
Agriculture and Rural Development, World Bank; Ram Karuturi,
Managing Director of Karuturi Global Ltd.; Hussen Ahmed, Managing
Director, Farm Organic International PLC; USAID officials and
agricultural implementing partners; and U.S. investors in Ethiopia.


3. (SBU) All land in Ethiopia is government owned. The 1994
Constitution proclaims "Land is a common property of the Nations,
Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to
sale or to other means of exchange." The transfer of land use
rights is accomplished only through long-term lease arrangements (up
to 99 years) between the GoE as lessor and individual or corporate
licensees. Agricultural investment has for many years been the
cornerstone of the GoE's development policy, as agriculture
comprises 45 percent of Gross Domestic Product, and 85 percent of
Ethiopia's 80 million residents live in rural areas. The GoE
estimates Ethiopia's arable land at 183 million acres with 45
million acres under cultivation of which 42.75 million acres is made
up of small-scale domestic farms which yield negligible quantities
of crops for export. The remaining 2.25 million acres comprises
larger-scale commercial farms with the majority of that acreage
farmed by foreign investors. Thirty million of the 45 million
cultivated acres is devoted to cereals, which have been subject to a
GoE export ban since 2007. (COMMENT: All GoE figures regarding
agricultural production are suspect. The above figures can be

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sourced to our contacts within the GoE and are reasonable estimates
but are not robust. It is safe to say that the GoE's traditional
focus on small-scale farming has resulted in very little acreage
producing crops for export. END COMMENT.)


4. (SBU) Prime Minister Meles Zenawi summarized GoE agricultural
policy objectives in a December 2 television interview as: 1)
increasing productivity of small-scale farms and 2) expanding
large-scale commercial farming in order to increase overall
production and generate sorely needed foreign exchange. The GoE
reports that arable but uncultivated lands most suitable for large
commercial farms are primarily available in the less populated
lowland regions of Beneshangul Gumuz, SNNPR, Gambela, Somali, and
Afar but readily adds that these areas require significant
investment to improve the infrastructure, develop irrigation
schemes, and undertake research to identify suitable crops. Many of
these same land areas had been identified in the recent past as
potential agricultural lands for implementing the GoE's resettlement

5. (SBU) Agriculture Minister Tefera Deribew recently said publicly
that GOE large-scale farm investment policy is focused on increasing
productivity, boosting technology transfer, and creating jobs.
Early in 2009, MoARD formed the Agricultural Investment Support
Directorate and charged it with securing delegations of authority
from regional government to administer land on their behalf, and
negotiating with investors interested in large-scale operations of
over 12,500 acres. Prime Minister Meles stated in his December 2
interview, "we were condemned for not doing this in the past" and
the GoE is stepping in now due to a lack of capacity at the regional
government level. Meles went on to say the GoE will assist regional
governments with capacity building and the regional governments will
take over these large land allocations in the future. The GoE
tasked regional governments with verifying that land identified by
MoARD mapping as physically suitable for large-scale farming was in
fact unoccupied and otherwise available for development. The
directorate is to solicit investment proposals for land so vetted.
MoARD Agricultural Economist Bezualem Bekele presented Econoff with
a land request form checklist issued for use by potential investors.
Required checklist items include: destination market breakdown
between domestic/foreign, expected employment numbers, articles of
association, investment license, company profile, letter of interest
to pay a one-year lease (companies must pay this up front), bank
statements, land use plan, action plan of project, letter to conduct
environmental audit report, work/resident permits.

6. (SBU) To date, the directorate has identified 7.4 million acres
of presently uncultivated land that it plans to offer to large-scale
commercial farm investors over the next two years. The GoE has
fully verified with the regional governments that 4.9 million acres
is ready for investment and has identified an additional 2.5 million
acres that regional authorities are continuing to review. This land
is located in the sparsely populated regions of Beneshangul Gumuz
(about 2 million acres), Gambela (about 1.5 million acres), and
SNNPR and is envisioned as ripe for cultivation of coffee, cotton,
sesame, sugarcane, tea, and palm oil. Bekele stated that populated
regions like Oromia are still under review due to the complex issues
faced in those areas. He emphasized several times to Econoff that
compensation payments were not needed to parcel off the verified
land areas, as neither local citizens nor livestock were being
displaced. Bekele said that less than 200,000 acres had been
assigned or were under active negotiation out of the newly
identified 7.4 million acres and that only three agreements had been
finalized to total 42,000 acres and another seven to ten agreements
were under discussion.
7. (SBU) Bekele told Econoff the GoE's expectation is that domestic
and foreign agricultural investment in large-scale commercial farms
will result in increased production for domestic consumption as well
as export. He said the GoE is not solely focused on export earnings
but also concerned about domestic food security. He said GoE
strategy is to seek investment by making land available at
attractive rental prices and offering incentives such as tax

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holidays, duty-free import of capital goods, and grace periods of up
to seven years on land rents. He conceded that outside investment
is needed to boost agricultural development in part because
Ethiopian law determines that government-owned land (i.e., all land)
cannot be used as collateral for the financing of improvements to


8. (SBU) While the GoE has recently started an increased push for
large-scale agricultural investment, this policy is not entirely
new. The GoE has granted 9,200 commercial farm investors licenses
since 1996. Of this number, 1,300 licenses were issued to
foreigners. According to data from the Ethiopian Investment Agency
(EIA), foreign agricultural investment started to ramp up in 2006,
jumping from USD 508 million in 2005 to USD 1.9 billion in 2006
(using the current exchange rate of 12.6 Birr/USD). The total stock
of foreign agricultural investment from July 1992 through September
30, 2009 was USD 7.1 billion, with over 87 percent of that
investment coming since 2006. Most of this investment has come
from Asia/Middle East and Europe, comprising 57 percent and 18
percent, respectively, of investment ranging from the
pre-implementation stage to the operational stage. India, Saudi
Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan are the
largest Asian and Middle East investors. Germany, the Netherlands,
and the UK are the largest European investors. India is by far the
leading investing country at about 30 percent of the total stock
(USD 2.1 billion). U.S. investment totals 9 percent (USD 651
million) and edges out Saudi Arabian investment at 8 percent (USD
540 million). Much of the U.S. investment involves Ethiopian
Diaspora investors.

9. (SBU) Indian firm Karuturi Global Ltd. and press reports cite
Indian agricultural investment in Ethiopia at over USD 4 billion,
which is double the figure provided by the EIA. This investment is
primarily in flowers, sugar, sesame, and cotton production.
Karuturi Global runs one of the largest agricultural operations in
Ethiopia. The company has about 27,000 acres in Oromia and 741,000
acres in Gambela on a 45-year lease. Ram Karuturi, Managing
Director, told Econoff he looked to invest in 247,000 acres three
years ago, but the GoE encouraged him to take 741,000 acres.
(COMMENT: Comparing Karuturi's holdings to the estimated 2.25
million total Ethiopian acres devoted to large-scale commercial
farms (paragraph 4), it becomes evident that Katuturi may well be
Ethiopia's largest commercial farming operation. END COMMENT.)
Karuturi's farms are starting to grow maize, cereal crops, oilseeds,
sugarcane, and palm oil on top of its already established flower
business. Apart from exported flowers, these crops are largely
targeted at the Ethiopian and the Common Market for Eastern and
Southern Africa (COMESA) market. (Note: Karuturi recently ordered
USD 24 million in U.S. equipment from John Deere and seeks to order
about USD 100 million in additional equipment in the coming year.
End Note.)

10. (SBU) Saudi investors are primarily investing in rice and
livestock feed (e.g., alfalfa) production according to Bekele.
According to press reports, Sheikh Mohamed Al Amoudi's Saudi Star
Agricultural Development has recently made a large investment in
Ethiopia to begin rice production in Gambela. It has started with
25,000 acres, but plans to rapidly expand. Although Saudi Star
plans to export rice to Saudi Arabia, evidently assuming it can
circumvent the cereals export ban, the company also plans to sell a
variety of crops to the local market. (NOTE: Saudi Star recently
paid USD 80 million for U.S. agricultural machinery and equipment
from Caterpillar to develop its farming operations. END NOTE.)

--------------------------------------------- -

11. (SBU) The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
(UNFAO) Representative in Ethiopia Mafa Chipeta argued to Econoff
that three conditions were needed to ensure a stable and attractive
domestic market: 1) predictable levels of food aid that gradually
reduce over time; 2) established price floors to flatten out the

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fluctuations due to the seasonality of agricultural products (which
the GoE is against); and 3) additional development and investment
incentives for "middle ground" farmers and cooperatives mainly to
facilitate the transfer of technology. He also advocated a
three-way partnerships to address food security, which would include
Gulf state money, East African land, and the technology and
management skills of another party such as the United States.


12. (SBU) While most private sector and international economists
Post contacted agreed the GoE's overt push for large-scale
commercial farm investment is a step forward, they voiced concerns:

A. Saudis exempt from rules? Questions remain about contract terms
between the GoE and Saudi investors. Sheikh Al Amoudi enjoys a
special relationship with the GoE and reportedly deals directly with
Prime Minister Meles. On the surface, it appears basic rules, such
as the ban on grain exports from Ethiopia, do not apply to the

B. Land lease rate changes. Bekele told Econoff his Agricultural
Investment Support Directorate is undertaking a study of land prices
across the country. The GoE's concern is that some investors are
paying high prices for land (e.g., USD 321 per acre in Oromia) while
others are paying low prices (e.g., USD 35 cents per acre in
Amhara). Bekele said prices will probably be set based on proximity
to Addis Ababa and, after the study is complete, the GoE plans to
introduce legislation to revise all land lease terms. This
legislation could be approved in the next three to six months
according to Bekele. When Econoff asked current investors about the
possibility of the GoE increasing their lease rates, one investor
said he would sue the GoE while the other said he would just leave
the country.

C. No such thing as virgin land. Both UNFAO and World Bank
officials told Econoff there is no completely unused land in
Ethiopia. Almost all "unutilized" land that is not fenced off is
used for livestock grazing, so the impact on livestock could be
substantial. Ethiopia is dependent on livestock not only for milk,
meat, and byproducts, but also for animal traction for plowing and
transport. Livestock populations are already showing stress from
being excluded from dry season pasture and water along the Awash
river in the Afar region due to huge GoE farm irrigation schemes to
grow sugar, cotton, and sesame. If livestock are negatively
affected by becoming increasingly susceptible to drought and other
environmental shocks, this would have a potentially huge impact on
agricultural production in the dryer highland areas as well as loss
of livelihoods in the pastoralist areas. Another challenge in this
area is that many populations are semi-nomadic and shift their
farming operations every couple of years. The GoE claims it is
factoring these patterns into its land verification, but this
traditional lifestyle could present investors with a compensation
claim issue a few years down the road.

D. Lack of infrastructure. The regions of Beneshangul Gumuz,
SNNPR, and Gambela have poor roads, electricity, and communication
resources. Bekele told Econoff the Directorate is working with the
Ethiopian Roads Authority to try to develop some the infrastructure
in these areas. Karuturi has built his own infrastructure; however,
most other investors do not have the capital to take on these large

E. Regional backlash. A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
official told Econoff she feared retribution by regional governments
against the envisioned influx of commercial farm interests. UNDP
works in a number of these regions and stated the regional
governments are quite resentful of the federal government for taking
over land allocation issues. In addition, on December 2, the Oromo
Liberation Front issued a statement calling upon the Oromo people to
stand up against the ruling party's new land deals with foreign

F. Incomplete studies. One local agricultural investor told

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Econoff land across the country is not well studied in terms of its
condition and suitability for specific crops. He also expressed
concern about the sustainability of this influx of investment and
the potential environmental damage. Bekele also noted the
Directorate is discovering new information each day as the GoE's
initial studies were based on 2006 satellite imagery and conditions
have changed since that time.


13. (SBU) U.S. investors are active in the market and this new
policy opens the door for additional U.S. investment. Robani
Agricultural Enterprise has been operating a 1,200 acre farm for
four years to grow wheat, corn, and vegetables. Morrell Industries
is leasing 25,000 acres of land to experiment with dryland wheat
farming to produce seed for the local market. In a potential
investment coup for Ethiopia, U.S. giant ConAgra Foods is planning a
trip to the country in December to evaluate its conditions for a
large-scale tomato farm and processing plant.

14. (SBU) The U.S. government is currently assisting in various land
policy efforts, and this new policy focus suggests additional
assistance targets. USAID's Ethiopia Land Administration Project
(ELAP) supports the GoE's land use and administration programs,
assisting MoARD and six regional governments. ELAP is working to
establish a land registration and certification system, and
providing technical assistance in land valuation at the regional
level. Beyond ELAP, USAID manages a portfolio of agricultural
development and food security initiatives focused on helping
Ethiopia achieve market-led, agriculturally-centered economic growth
and to improve the food security status and resiliency of farmers
and pastoralists. One program, USAID's Agribusiness and Trade
Expansion Program (ATEP), is assisting the GoE with its draft code
of conduct for the horticulture industry.

15. (SBU) Based on information from the GoE and international
economists, it appears the MoARD Directorate is poised for donor
assistance. Any assistance discussions, however, would have to be
approached in a delicate fashion. Prime Minister Meles admitted in
his recent television interview that there are weaknesses in terms
of large-scale land allocation capacity at the federal level (as
well as the regional level). Kebede, the Director of the new MoARD
Directorate, also confirmed this fact privately to a USAID official
in early December. FAO Representative Chipeta told Econoff
Ethiopia's land deals need adequate safeguards and that the
investment levels discussed dwarf the GoE's agricultural management
capacity. He also said any donor would need to be positive in their
approach to the GoE, not critical, so that the GoE will not "clam
up" and shy away from discussions. World Bank Senior Economist for
Agriculture and Rural Development Achim Fock echoed this sentiment
to Econoff, stating the GoE is quite sensitive about large-scale
commercial farming deals and it may not openly welcome donor
assistance in these contract negotiations. Fock told Econoff the
Bank would continue its assistance with smallholder farmers in the
highland areas, as he believes they can have the most impact with

16. (SBU) Most every stakeholder Econoff spoke to agreed that the
GOE's increased policy focus on large scale commercial farm
development is good overall. Economists, including the UNFAO, have
called for growth of commercial farms in Ethiopia for years in order
to boost productivity and food security. Whether these new
contractual arrangements produce a win/win result for the Ethiopian
people and the investors depends on the implementation details.
Valid concerns loom over the desired end goals of productivity,
employment creation, displacement of farmers and pastoralists,
technology transfer, and foreign exchange inflows. In the end,
overall food security should improve as food production increases
significantly and job creation will allow more families to feed
themselves. Food donors such as the U.S. have reason to watch
closely these developments to ensure assistance is not serving
merely to backfill production lost to export.

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17. (SBU) Prime Minister Meles and the GoE have historically proven
to be crafty negotiators. So much so that investors have often
walked away or do not even bid on privatization tenders offered by
the government. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume the GoE is
not "giving away the farm" during these investment negotiations and
has a reasonable overall plan. That being said, the GoE does seem
to be struggling with capacity issues at the new MoARD Directorate
and could benefit from USG guidance. Given the USG's current
relationship with MoARD on land issues and agricultural development,
and prospects for increasing assistance to MoARD under the new
Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, the USG is well placed
to play a role in helping the GoE to ensure current and future
efforts to improve land management--including land leases--leads to
positive and sustainable economic, social, and environmental
outcomes. END COMMENT.

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