Tracking down the elusive data on land deals in Malawi

Author: Madalitso A. Kamenya, Agricultural Economist, Land Matrix Africa (hosted by the University of Pretoria)

Land is one of the most valuable assets in Malawi, but is considered underdeveloped. To increase productivity, efforts have therefore been made to increase large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) throughout the country. However, information on these deals remains scarce.

As with many other developing countries seeking to grow its economy, Malawi’s markets are open to foreign investors in search of land to be used for agriculture, mining, and forestry. Moreover, as a member of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa, launched in 2012, the country has created a number of favourable conditions to encourage investments and further promised to release 200,000 hectares of land for large-scale commercial agriculture. This may be good news for investors, but what does it mean for local Malawian communities, for whom land is a critical resource? And who keeps track of these LSLAs and updates the records, when much of the land – from customary to private – is controlled by different groups?

In my efforts to find out, I conducted desk research on land deals in Malawi using the Land Matrix database as a starting point. The aim of this exercise was to understand the size of land in hectares that is under contract, the nature and status of the contracts with the government or the authorities responsible for these LSLAs, and the extent of consultations and approval from the surrounding communities in acquiring the land. However, only three investments have been captured in the database for Malawi since 2012.

With the desk research proving disappointing, I then decided to make direct contact with some of the investors instead – but again, this did not result in any insights. While some investors did not reply to initial emails or phone calls with the request to provide basic information on their investment, others did not respond to follow-up phone calls and emails after initial commitment to talk to me. In some cases, I even tried to establish face-to-face contact with stakeholders, with no success. Still, I did not give up.

My next attempt was to contact the Ministry of Lands with the aim of finding out the nature of these land deals, the status of records on such deals (and whether they can be accessed by the public), and if the companies are held accountable to maintain the social responsibilities stated in the contracts. Once more, my efforts did not yield any results.

But why, when LSLAs could play such an important role in the country in terms of job creation, economic growth, and income for government, was finding even the most basic data about these deals so challenging?

One reason for this lack of information could well be the nature of the processes used by companies to acquire land in the country, depending on who owns the land: the state, or traditional authorities. For example, there have been cases where an investor has gone directly to a chief to acquire land without the knowledge of the government or of the community members who own part of the land, resulting in conflicts between communities and their leaders over the transfer of land without their approval. On the other hand, the failure of the Ministry of Land to provide any information suggests that there is a lack of government commitment to keep a data repository of these deals and ensure easy accessibility. It is also possible that the government’s objective of attracting foreign investors to stimulate growth in the agricultural sector was not achieved, and that these deals thus simply do not exist.

While many questions remain, including how to overcome this access to data obstacle at present – or even why it persists – one thing is clear: keeping track of these deals is of the utmost importance if transparency, monitoring, and accountability of LSLA processes in Malawi is to be ensured, not only on the side of investors, but for government and, crucially, the communities themselves.

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Madalitso Kamenya is a PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria and is currently working as a research assistant at the Land Matrix Africa.

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