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Land matters: small farmer, large farmer, land grabber

Time (GMT +01) 16:30 18:00


Mandivamba Rukuni - Founder and Executive Director,Wisdom Africa Leadership Academy

Philip Woodhouse - Senior Lecturer, School of Environment and Development, University of Manchester


Robin Palmer - Global Land Rights Policy Specialist, Mokoro


Steve Wiggins - Research Fellow, Protected Livelihoods and Agricultural Growth, ODI

1. Steve Wiggins, in the chair, introduced the topic by asking whether customary forms of tenure offer security and thereby allow farmers to invest and innovate; if small or large farms are more efficient and whether one or other scale should be promoted; and, in light of large scale land deals in 2007/8 by outside investors, what kind of land rights are needed to make good use of the land, while protecting the rights of poor and marginalised people? 

2. Professor Mandivamba Rukuni [MR] began his presentation by reviewing the impact of Africa’s colonial past on land rights and identifying different ways in which African nations have attempted to modernise land tenure systems. MR advocated modernisation of traditional tenure systems (as opposed to adopting and modifying western systems) for Africa as the population remains predominantly rural thus national government is disconnected, making village and local level authorities better placed to be responsible for land matters.

3. MR went on to say that rights to land are paramount to securing any form of tenure and should be administered through a ‘basket of rights’ incorporating various uses of land, transferring ownership, exclusion of access, and enforcement of these rights. In order to achieve this, he proposed a unified national land law.

4. MR identified reasons for recent large-scale land grabbing as including recent volatility of commodity prices, and governments’ desire to industrialise agriculture, improve food security, respond to urbanisation, and possibly also the self-enrichment of officials and traditional leaders. MR suggested that Africa loses out in large-scale land deals because of the absence of comprehensive land policy, poor definition and administration of rights, contestation over lands, lack of government capacity to evaluate potential investments and of farmers and community-based organisations to contest sales.

5. According to MR, African governments are paying the price for not having invested in agriculture and could begin to address this by creating a conducive policy environment through consultation that facilitating improving land rights, research and development for farms, infrastructure and institutions, human capital (i.e. farmers, not just technology investments), and ensuring access to land and employment for non-farmers.

6. Philip Woodhouse [PW] proposed that, in the context of customary land rights, formal titles are often the outcome of a process of investment rather than a prerequisite — in other words, people invest in the land they use to strengthen their rights to the land. He went on to consider that customary tenure, historically corporate in nature, can entail a family head controlled hierarchy where the young men (meaning non-family heads) and the women are not just secondary, but subordinate to the managers of the land, making formal individual land titling highly problematic.

7. PW discussed the importance of migratory patterns in Africa for land ownership, highlighting that in-migrants to cash crop producing areas have done deals with local land holders, monetarising locally controlled land markets and forcing family members to compete with migrants for access to family land, potentially leading to conflict. Youth tend to oppose treating land as commodity: indeed land titling is an arena for tensions between generations: an issues that is difficult to address through land tenure laws.

8. On the issue of land grabbing, PW questioned how many land purchases see subsequent investment and production, or how many are merely speculative. Although much investment is non- African, there is a class of domestic entrepreneurs and many foreign deals have local partners, commercial as well as linked to government.

9. With regards to scale of farming, disputing MR’s assertion that, with the exception of plantation agriculture, there are no economies of scale, PW suggested that the efficiency of different scales depends on the methods of measurement, arguing that output per unit of labour is the most important measure. He concluded by highlighting the importance of water resources and the need for more research in this area.

10. Robin Palmer [RP] reported from recent African Studies Association UK panels on land matters, which included historical reflections, women’s land rights, land grabbing, and land in Zimbabwe, that tenure was a constant issue throughout. He discussed land reform in South Africa and Kenya, arguing that impacts of land reform were often unexpected. In Zimbabwe, he sees pressures to restore property rights, including in communal areas, are driving debates on forms of tenure which are struggling to break from a historical top-down approach.

11. A wide ranging discussion followed. For example, asked about success stories, PW identified projects in Mali and Kenya where the creation of a dam and local irrigation systems respectively had large positive and unanticipated impacts for crop production. On the issue of education for farmers on supplemental irrigation, PW suggested that as irrigation is again topical, investigation should be undertaken into why it was dropped from the agenda previously — what was done wrong and needs improving. In response to a question about creating gender equity to accessing land rights, PW suggested that the intractable problems of customary tenure may mean that land markets, accessed through syndicates, could present the best route for women. RP highlighted women’s vulnerability, particularly in areas heavily affected by HIV/AIDS, to land grabbing.

12. On the question of the importance of sustainability over productivity, PW argued that at large-scale, technologies can be tweaked to achieve this, however promoting more labour-intensive farming at small-scale is potentially detrimental to reducing poverty. He considered the importance of non-farm income as part of the solution to sustainability. It was suggested that land grabbing is a response to a food famine, PW suggested that the issue isn’t food shortage, rather demand on resources — for example from biofuels. MR answered that the major reason for, and thus solution to, food insecurity is lack of development.


Land policy in Africa has long been keenly debated. Do customary forms of tenure offer security and thereby allow farmers to invest and innovate? Programmes to register formally land rights and allocate freehold titles have often been proposed; but they may be unnecessary, and furthermore may lead to those with secondary, temporary and precarious rights to land losing access completely.
Are small or large farms more efficient, and should one or other scale be promoted?

These debates have added urgency since the food price spike that led some food importing countries with resources to look to acquire land in Africa on which to grow their food, prompting fears of a large-scale land grab.

What is needed, then, to make good use of the land, while protecting the rights of poor and marginalised people?