04/24/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Agro-Imperialism: For the Rich or for the Poor?

Imagine: you live in a rich country in which the government and the people derive significant income from the oil that sits beneath your homeland's surface. Your nation's land is mostly arid desert, and no amount of irrigation programs or reclamation schemes will allow you to grow enough to feed your people. Since you're from a rich nation, you simply buy food overseas and import it to your markets. For many oil-rich nations, this scenario describes decades of business-as-usual.

However, the twin forces of climate change and population growth have shaken that strategy, and then, two years ago, a global fuel crisis triggered explosive rises in fertilizer and transport costs, thereby driving food prices sky high. Riots broke out in urban centers worldwide, and even nations with adequate resources took notice. To avoid being subject to increasingly volatile market fluctuations, countries poor in arable land took the controversial step of trying to acquire or lease farmland in other countries.

Readers of the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post learned of the new strategies emerging last November in pieces that ran within only four days of each other. Both articles noted that Saudi Arabia and other nations are leasing fertile land across Africa, setting up massive factory farms to provide their needs. This approach struck a note of outrage among critics who observe that many farmers in these countries don't have adequate land themselves (nor land title) and the majority of children are malnourished.

To date, the "food imperialists" have been viewed and framed in only a negative light. However, there is a discussion that needs to take place in a clear and analytical way, because not only is "food imperialism" a real and growing trend, if done correctly, it may be beneficial, both for the countries that need farmland, and for those countries that have it.

According to the Times, Dr. Robert Ziegler, who heads up the International Rice Research Institute, met with the Saudis and "was flabbergasted, not only by the scale of the projects but also by the audacity of their setting. Africa, the world's most famished continent, can't currently feed itself, let alone foreign markets." Mali, Senegal, Ethiopia and Sudan were identified by the Saudis as places to establish and run large plantations, on which they would grow staple crops. The irony of these stories is that rich countries are trying to outsource their food production to impoverished - though resource-rich - African nations. In reality, that's not much different from sourcing rubber, minerals and other commodities from these nations, which often have low levels of consumption of those commodities. It's hard not to suspect that there may be injustice taking place when you have the picture of a rich, productive plantation shipping food out of a starving country. But, something else may be happening here that's far from obvious.

Rwanda is a microcosm of sorts for what is possible and where expectations can be turned upside down. Here in Rwanda, there's less land per capita than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. Much of that land has lost its topsoil, and chronic hunger still impacts nearly 50% of all children. However, Rwanda has demonstrated that with an understanding of the basics and with the right kind of investment in both agricultural education and infrastructure, communities can go from being food consumers to being net exporters.

Food cooperatives and farms in Mayange, the site of the Millennium Village project, have turned this formerly poor enclave - the epicenter of the Rwandan Genocide 16 years ago - into a place where farmers are creating prosperity for themselves and the greater community. A group of 600 farmers recently opened a cassava flour mill which will provide them with additional incomes as high as $1,000 annually per household. Before the mill even opened, hundreds of farmers carted their cassava on bikes to Burundi and made enormous profits. If a village that grows its crops on laboriously constructed terraced hillsides can become an exporter of food to surrounding communities and also to overseas markets in the way Mayange has, then imagine how a country like Ethiopia, rich in fertile land, could similarly - if not more fully - benefit.

What happens in Mali, Sudan, Senegal and other nations will depend upon foreign leases being negotiated so that Africans enjoy real benefits. By requiring that local laborers are hired, guaranteed a good wage, and given the skills required to grow different kinds of crops, these deals can create a generation of farmers who are a repository of knowledge and abilities they can teach to their neighbors. Requiring that a portion of lease fees go to improving agricultural infrastructure and identifying the most nutritious crops that do best in local environments will ensure that the countries granting leases can support their own agricultural progress. If done with transparency, investments that could be secured via lucrative leases will lead to the kind of stability we have seen blossom in Rwanda, Tanzania and other sub-Saharan countries.

It's true that there is the potential for Africans to fail to get the full benefit these relationships can bring; if deals are poorly brokered, than the result will truly be agricultural imperialism. But, if arbiters can work with the Saudis and farmland-rich nations, these arrangements should more properly benefit the peoples of both countries. That way, the Saudis not only get the food they need, they essentially create advantages and opportunities that lead to the creation of reliable and plentiful food supplies in Africa.

With transparency, stability and prosperity will follow. It's important that African nations get these deals right.