Emergent Asset Management claims to run the biggest agricultural fund in Africa, but it is not clear how much progress has been made on the ground

AgriProds | February 18, 2010

Video of Susan Payne speaking at 2nd Agriprods Forum in London

By Charles Wyatt

It is impossible for townies to understand the affinity farmers, peasant or otherrwise, have for their land. They now its quirks, its potential and its problems. Remember the problems the Canadian company Gabriel Resources had in moving the inhabitants of a village to make room for the Rosia Montana mine in Romania. Promises of bigger and better houses and just as much, if not more land, held no appeal. They had lived in their village for generations and it was in their blood, so the thought of moving was anathema. Another example is the stretch of coastal villages known as Alibag near Mumbai. The rich people from the city are now seeking to build second homes in this beautiful area, but they have to buy the land first and this is not necessarily good news for the inhabitants. As SJ Lele, a local engineer points out, “Farmers selling their land is a bad thing. They start spending and will wipe out their earnings in a single generation.

There is no new land being made in this world. Once it is sold it is gone. One wonders if this means anything to people like Susan Payne who is chief executive of Emergent Asset Management. She claims to run the biggest agricultural fund in Africa, but says nothing about  the people who have had to be moved off that land. Her god is money as is only natural for someone who worked previously for banks such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. Property to her is probably a large house in Surrey as that is where Emergent is based, but she would sell it at the drop of a hat if required by her company or if she moved to a new employer. She earns no money from the land surrounding that house so must find it very difficult to understand those to whom that land is their only source of income.

She is quoted by the Spectator as saying, “My father was a senior director at the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome and he used to say that giving aid to Africa was a little like spitting in a fire.” Good one, Susan, but financial aid to despots has been US foreign policy for a long time. The Chinese do it better. They build roads and railway lines and put in power stations and waterworks to the benefit of the country first. This brings jobs to hitherto barren areas where they want to develop mineral resources. At least the land owners then have an option to work if they sell their land, but the ideal is always for incomers to lease land. Leases have to be renewed at higher prices and the indigenous landowners retain an interest. A sale is a sale and over a comparatively short time with rising prices of land it can start to look like theft. Wouldn’t want to stir up the natives, would you Susan?

Mozambique is a country she has targeted and there is something amazingly patronising in the way she claims that Emergent has ‘adopted’ a local village of 3,000 people and has hired its citizens to help clear 2,000 acres of greenfield land and then farm it with Emergent. If you hire so many people to clear a bit of land this size it would take no more than a month working on the basis that each one had to clear 1.5 acres using primitive tools such as picks and hoes. Thereafter Ms Payne will  have to find work for all these people on what she would classify as a farm, but farming, as she later points out, has become ever more mechanised. A modern tractor such as the Case IH STX Quadtrak has a 15 litre Cummins turbodiesel engine and it costs the best part of £250,000. It holds the world ploughing record of 321 hectares in 24 hours and can set its steering by using global positioning satellites. It pulls a chain of harrows, cultivators, drills and rollers and computers control the amount of  fertiliser and seed that is used.

The fly in the ointment is that it is only really efficient over large areas of land such as on the prairies of America. In Kent a single Case and its accoutrements owned by a farm management company is all that is required for six different farms covering 5,500 acres, but it is important that these farms are close together as this machinery is big and ugly when moving around England’s country roads. How it will work  on the areas of inexpensive farmland that Emergent proposes to buy in Sub-Saharan Africa is anyone’s guess. Ms Payne is confident that an annual return of at least 25 per cent over the fund’s five year term can be achieved. Perhaps she ought to have a chat to the founders of AIM listed Landkom who set up a farming company in the Ukraine which did all the right things like leasing land from farmers and then employing them; using modern equipment; and constructing sufficient buildings for storage.

Lankom’s original plan when it listed in 2007 was to have 350,00 hectares under its control by 2011. The latest update from the company is that it has planted 16,500 hectares of oil seed rape and another 5,500 hectares of winter wheat. In addition another 10,000 hectares have been prepared for spring planning of maize ands soyabean and there is further modest acreage in the Crimea. Not within a country mile of its original target, yet its original plans were sound. When Russia withdrew from Ukraine in 1991 its economy was on the point of collapse and this hit the rural population very hard. Worse, farmers then had to pay a land tax which was more than the meagre income they squeezed from their land. Landkom therefore offered to lease  their land, paying the land tax and offering them jobs. The focus was on the prime, fertile lands in western Ukraine close to the border with Poland where  buyers for its products were closer at hand, not air miles away. It will be worth watching Emergent closely as it may not have taken full account of the fact that weather, pests, non-governmental organizations and politicians can devastate the best laid plans in farming.
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