africa kenya zimbabwe middle class

After Zimbabwe Took over Land, a Payoff?
development corruption success story tobacco crop black farms small plot

Africa's Growing Middle Class Drives Development

Can you believe Africa is prospering? That owning land makes a huge difference? We trim, blend, and append two 2012 from (1) Der Spiegel, Jly 6, on East Africa by H. Knaup and J. Puhl and (2) New York Times, Jly 20, on Zimbabwe by L. Polgreen.

by Horand Knaup & Jan Puhl and by Lydia Polgreen

Africa's growing middle class is fueling development across the continent. Ambitious entrepreneurs are creating growth with companies focusing on everything from fashion to pharmaceuticals. But poor infrastructure, corruption, and political conflict are hampering their efforts.

Sylvia Owori, who combines modern fashions with African colors, is East Africa's most successful fashion entrepreneur, the style icon of a growing middle class. She owns boutiques in Kampala and the Kenyan capital Nairobi, and the models in her agency can be seen on runways in Rome and Paris. She also publishes African Woman, a glossy magazine that showcases local fashion trends.

She is the epitome of a success story. And success stories are no longer a rarity in Africa, despite its reputation as a continent of poverty and suffering.

Africa's economy is developing at a pace similar to that of Asian countries, including Japan. Five of the 10 faster growing countries in the world this year are south of the Sahara. Commodities like oil, natural gas, lumber, ores, gold, and diamonds make up a shrinking share of economic output. In many up-and-coming countries, the service sector and manufacturing are expanding.

This growth is producing a middle class that already includes 313 million people, or 34 percent of the total population.

Africa's middle class lives in the cities, and its members are either salaried workers or, like Sylvia Owori, have their own firms. They are young and well-educated, and they want TV sets, cars, and fashionable clothing. The continent now boasts 430 million mobile phone users.

The growing domestic demand coming from the middle class served as a "buffer" when the West plunged into crisis in 2008. Much of the economic growth is based on the processing of African fabrics, wood, and fruits.

The corrupt oligarchies in many African countries have made money from the export of commodities, but only a fraction of the population has benefited from the proceeds. Bureaucracy and corruption are obstructive, and civil wars are bad for business. Small and mid-sized businesses need well-trained workers and political stability.

Kenya holds elections next spring. During the last election, 1,300 people were killed, hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes, and many businesses were destroyed. Now voters know what's at stake. They won't tolerate the same kind of chaos that erupted five years ago.

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JJS: More consumption must mean people switching to an economy that does not waste nor leave behind waste if we're to sustain both society and nature. Geonomics is a way to do that. Also, more prosperity for some must mean more poverty for others, as the prosperous drive up the price for land and put it out of reach for those lower on the economic ladder. Geonomics can solve that, too, as it did in Taiwan and elsewhere, much more fairly and efficiently than what was done by Mugabe.

Before Zimbabwe’s government began the violent and chaotic seizure of white-owned farms in 2000, few farmers were growing tobacco, the country’s most lucrative crop, and most were white. Today, many farmers grow tobacco here, the vast majority of them black and many of them working small plots that were allotted to them in the land upheavals. Most had no tobacco farming experience yet managed to produce a hefty crop, rebounding from a low of 105 million pounds in 2008 to more than 330 million pounds this year.

The takeover of white commercial farms was a disaster for Zimbabwe on many levels. Large chunks of land were handed to cronies of President Robert Mugabe, many of whom did not farm them. The personal cost for white commercial farmers has been immense. It undermined one of Africa’s sturdiest economies, and as growth contracted and its currency became worthless during hyperinflation, joblessness and hunger grew. It spurred a political crisis and violent reprisals by government forces that killed hundreds of people. Yields on food and cash crops plummeted.

But amid that pain, tens of thousands of people got small farm plots, and in recent years many of these new farmers overcame early struggles to produce yields that do not match those of the white farmers whose land they were given but suffice.

The result has been a broad, if painful, shift of wealth in agriculture from 1,500 white commercial growers on huge farms to 58,000 black farmers on much smaller plots of land. Last year, these farmers shared $400 million worth of tobacco, earning on average $6,000 each, a vast sum to most Zimbabweans.

Tobacco is a tricky crop, requiring precise application of fertilizer and careful reaping. It must then be cured and graded properly to fetch a top price. The new farmers are receiving virtually no assistance from the government, which for years poured money into larger farms given to politically connected elites.

The tobacco yield is still below its peak in 2000, when the crop hit 522 million pounds. But Tendai Murisa, a researcher who has studied tobacco farming since land reform, said, “No one ever argued that this is a more productive form of farming. But does it share wealth more equitably? Does it give people a sense of dignity and ownership? Those things have value, too.”

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JJS: Must it be tobacco or could it be a crop that's healthy and sustainable?

Heather Remoff: Many white farmers were given much land unjustly in the first place. The enforced racial division of land in Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was formerly known, was made official in the 1930 Land Apportionment Act. This act was later adjusted to give approximately fifty percent each to the African and European populations. It almost goes without saying that the European half contained the most fertile lands. At the time of the apportionment the white Rhodesian population was less than five percent of the total population of the country.

JJS: Some societies redistributed land peacefully by taxing its value. Then those who had too much let it go at prices that those who had too little could afford. Without bloodshed, that happened over a century ago when California, Australia, and New Zealand were rural and just beginning to develop, and in Denmark even longer ago. Every place that used this geonomic reform blossomed into prosperity with a sizeable middle class. Of course, more rents need to be recovered and more taxes need to be eliminated, but these places do show that even partial application of geonomics is beneficial.


Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics and helped prepare a course for the UN on geonomics. To take the “Land Rights” course, click here .

Also see:

Palm oil giants target African land

Why Should Lands And Houses In Ghana Be Sold

Book Review -- The Alodia story

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