As a drought and massive famine affecting some 12 million people is ongoing in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, the United Nations estimated the world's population surpassed 7 billion on Oct. 31.
Virtually all agriculture in the region has withered to a standstill, a phenomenon Professor Terisa Turner of the University of Guelph, Ontario, told United Press International creates an all-too-common setup for multinational corporations.
"Huge tracts of land are being sold or leased to sovereign wealth funds, hedge funds, government agencies, notably the Chinese government land-buying agencies, large corporations in the agro-industrial sector, very wealthy oil-rich and otherwise rich individuals, and a party of such actors," Turner said.
By way of example, earlier this month, regional officials in Tanzania's western region of Kigoma announced the Dubai firm of City Energy and Infrastructure was set to inject $500 million in mining, power generation and a 247,000-acre sugar plantation and refining plant.
Turner, who got her doctorate in government studies at the London School of Economics, lived and studied in Africa and South America. She told UPI what often outwardly appears to be progress in helping small farmers in developing countries is in fact corporate "accumulation by dispossession" by foreign conglomerates.
She said World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies encourage multinational food and agricultural product corporations to expand into rural African areas to help small family farms.
The farms are nearly all owned and directed by men but are very reliant on women to operate, said a 2008 report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, World Bank and U.N. International Fund for Agricultural Development. As much as 80 percent of farm labor in sub-Saharan Africa to produce food for home consumption and sale was performed by women, the report said. Throughout the continent, IFAD said 73 percent of the rural population is composed of "smallholder" farmers.
Elsewhere in the report with reference to Ghana, it was estimated if women and men had equal rights and access to land and fertilizer, farming profits would double, the report said.
The IFAD report noted women on farms face enormous hurdles in developing countries.
"They are held back by a variety of barriers, including lack of education and unequal property rights," the agency said. "Gender equality and women's empowerment are essential for economic growth, social stability and food security."
Regardless, Turner said a typical current scenario sees a multinational company approach a male landowner with a contract to purchase his entire yield. The farmer agrees to enter into a loan agreement to purchase seed and fertilizer and the contracts often include a minimum production requirement. If the quota isn't met, the land is lost to the company, she said.
"The people who have depended on this land, who have lost their small farms, are of course subject to eviction," she said. "Those who cannot be absorbed (into re-employment) are thrown into city slums, gangs for hire, militias (and) refugee camps."
At a meeting in July in Rome to address the African drought, IFAD Associate Vice President Kevin Cleaver issued a statement suggesting there should be even more corporate involvement in Africa's agricultural development.
"Much greater investment in agricultural research, an area long neglected by both governments and donors, is essential to develop and diffuse drought and disease-resistant food and fodder crops which are better able to withstand moisture stress," Cleaver said. "There needs to be greater government and donor support for integrated soil fertility management, erosion control, agro-forestry, and reforestation, which are fundamental to preserving the natural resources -- the principal capital asset of smallholder farmers and herders."
While Turner and other critics of corporate growth in Africa decry the decline of small farms, an FAO report suggests without corporate oversight, traditional farming isn't environmentally sustainable.
It said farmers "and especially rural women" are over-exploiting water, wood and other resources to meet household requirements.
"Such over-exploitation may result in serious and irreversible environmental degradation including deforestation, long-term erosion, decreased soil fertility, and desertification, which limits the development of agriculture in most areas of sub-Saharan Africa," the agency wrote.
Regardless, Turner ridiculed the capitalist motivation and stock market futures speculation she sees as profiting from the tribal and sectarian battles throughout Africa.
"Whenever there's conflict or where conflict is provoked by parties that stand to benefit from that conflict, the people who live in that territory are no longer able to herd their cattle, cultivate their crops, operate their local and regional market networks, or indeed continue to live in dispersed rural communities," she said. "The exodus of people from war zones triggers even more increases in food and fuel prices because the market quickly notes that animal products, crops and other basic needs will not be produced in the areas that are being disturbed by warfare."
As for women's roles in African agriculture, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has signed onto helping the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research in providing women two years of education in agricultural science, research and leadership.
The CGIAR effort began in 2005 with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and is now also supported by more than 100 international agricultural research institutions.
The group said there are 250 African women working in agriculture from Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia who have variously earned undergraduate to doctoral degrees.