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UAE in talks to buy more African land to aid food security

A farm in Sudan, the country where the UAE signed its first land acquisition deal more than 50 years ago Reuters/Eric Lafforgue/Hans Lucas
A farm in Sudan, the country where the UAE signed its first land acquisition deal more than 50 years ago
  • 14 farmland deals in pipeline
  • Increase in pace of acquisitions
  • Food security high on policy agenda

The UAE has 14 land acquisition deals in the pipeline, mainly in Africa, as it looks to keep food security high on its policy agenda.

It has already signed 56 land agreements, with the first completed more than 50 years ago in Sudan.

The 14 deals are subject to either an expression of interest, a memorandum of understanding or active negotiations, according to a BMI report that cites data from the website Land Matrix. 

The pace of acquisitions has accelerated over the past two decades, with the food price crisis of 2007/8 precipitating a marked rise in activity. 

“It seems probable, therefore, that the recent disruptions to global agricultural markets – Covid, a triple-dip La Niña and the Russia-Ukraine war – will see the UAE’s interest in such deals accelerate again,” BMI said.

In 2022, the GCC operated trade deficits of $6.7 billion for meat, $3.9 billion for dairy produce and eggs, $3.5 billion for fruit and nuts, $3.2 billion for oil crops and $2.2 billion for vegetables.

The appeal of the African agricultural sector is growing among investors from the UAE and the wider Gulf region.

Premeshin Naidoo, managing director of the Middle East at Absa Group, a financial institution focused on Africa, told AGBI that Africa presents “attractive opportunities” for UAE companies looking to expand.

Although the UAE has made deals in relatively food-secure countries such as Kazakhstan, Romania and Serbia, most of them are in Africa, where the majority of the world’s unused agricultural land is found. The locations include Ethiopia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

In July, Dubai Investments and E20 Investment, an Abu Dhabi agribusiness investment company, signed a deal to develop a vast plot in Angola. The partners aim to produce 28,000 tonnes of rice and 5,500 tonnes of avocados over the next 18 months on the land, which is the size of 9,300 football fields.

Reuters reported in November that Al Dahra, an Emirati agribusiness firm, was in talks with Egypt to buy or lease land in Toshka under a long-term agreement with the intention of cultivating staple grain crops. 

However, acquisitions in food-insecure countries are often unpopular with local communities and characterised as “land grabs”. As a result, foreign investors can be obliged to limit exports from projects.

The UAE published its national strategy for food security in 2018 and aims to rank first in the Economist’s Global Food Security Index by 2051. It was 23rd in 2022.

Emirates Development Bank has approved more than AED721 million ($196 million) in financial support for food security projects since April 2021. The bank said food security was one of its five priority sectors.

Last month it was announced that trade in food products between India and the UAE had soared in the eight months to December.

A number of firsts were recorded, including the first exports of potatoes from Purvanchal, a sub-region in Uttar Pradesh; the first exports of water chestnuts and marigold from Varanasi; and the first deliveries from India of banana plant derivates, hog plum, cranberries and yellow watermelons.

India’s export of poultry products to the UAE almost doubled in the same period.

The UAE is also investing in agricultural technology such as indoor farming, operated by companies such as Aranya and Pure Harvest

Sanjay Bhatia, managing director of Alpen Capital, said: “Given the region’s high dependence on imports and geopolitical conditions, there is a heightened focus on alternate farming techniques to increase local production.”

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