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UAE reaps farmland in Sudan

Posted by vmsalama on June 10, 2008

by Vivian Salama

The National

ABU DHABI // A scheme has been sealed to buy farmland in Sudan and grow crops that will be used to build up the UAE’s strategic food reserves, with the first fields cultivated towards the end of the year, officials from both countries say.

Crops would be planted on a farm of about 70,000 feddans (29,400 hectares) in Northern Sudan. While the deal will undoubtedly provide a much-needed boost to Sudan’s economy, Abu Dhabi officials say their strategy is to shield UAE residents against record high commodity prices, crippling export bans by supplier nations and potential food shortages.

“Within a short time, it will be very hard to secure these kinds of crops worldwide,” said Mohammed al Suwaidi, the acting director general of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD), the government branch heading the project. “Even if you have the money to buy it, you won’t be able to find it.” 

Officials said it was too early to disclose the value of the deal. Only 16 per cent of the nearly 100 million hectares of land in Sudan has been used for farming, according to Sudanese officials. Crippled by poor infrastructure and technology, the government of Africa’s largest country is hoping to exploit this resource as a means of attracting investment.

“Sudan is looking for investors because we are lacking in infrastructure and proper financing, so we give the land at a very low price to attract investors,” said Nurel Huda Fath al Aliem sid Ahmed, the economic adviser at the Sudanese Embassy in Abu Dhabi. “Sudan will give free water, cheap land, exemptions from customs duties and from all the fees that might restrict investment.”

The farm, located in the town of Abu Hamed in the northern Sudanese state of Nahr an Nil, will be used primarily for the cultivation of alfalfa. According to Mr Suwaidi, the price of alfalfa has increased by almost 50 per cent since last year. Officials say that soil studies are under way to determine whether the land will also yield substantial amounts of corn, rice, peanuts and potatoes.

The UAE imports nearly 85 per cent of its food, worth an estimated Dh11.01 billion (US$40bn) annually.

Escalating inflation has driven the Ministry of Economy to consider alternative sources of food to boost supplies, while cutting costs. Co-operative societies have been urged to form partnerships with food producing countries, enabling them to buy produce at source. 

The Ministry of Social Affairs has also recommended that local co-operatives lease farms from similar organisations in countries such as India and Brazil, which would significantly reduce the chain between farmer and retailer.

The Ministry of Economy is considering the purchase of farmland in Pakistan worth US$500 million (Dh1.8bn), as part of a strategy to lower food import costs. Similar farming schemes are under consideration by the ADFD, although no other deals have been finalised. 

A number of GCC states had expressed interest in cultivating Sudanese land, however only the UAE had finalised negotiations, said Dr Ahmed, adding that the Saudi Arabian private sector is also pursuing farmland investments.

“About 300,000 feddans have been bought by Saudi companies but they have not begun to cultivate,” he said. Feddans are the unit of measurement used in Sudan and some other Arab speaking countries.

The Sudanese official said that while talks with the GCC have got off to a good start, his government hopes that these investments will grow in time.

“Seventy thousand feddans is really nothing when you think of how much land we can offer and how much money these governments can spend,” Dr Ahmed said. “We hope to receive investments for one million feddans, not only 70,000.”

The Abu Hamed farm is one of several investment projects headed by the ADFD in Sudan. The Government recently pledged Dh275m to finance dams in the African nation. Mr Suwaidi said the first Dh184m loan would be used to complete the Marawi Dam in Northern Sudan, which the ADFD had previously helped finance with a Dh551m extension.

Dr Ahmed said that such projects were vital to Sudan’s prosperity. “We are really depending on governments here to help us to build our infrastructure, whether paving the roads, or greater construction or better electricity,” he said.



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