SLU news

Development agendas for rural Africa miss the target

Published: 09 March 2023

A study based on large-scale agricultural investments in four regions in Tanzania, concludes that two major, global development agendas for rural Africa - large scale agricultural investments and land formalisation - intended to bring poverty reduction and land security, instead caused severe land loss for rural communities.

Since the early 2000’s, allocating large tracts of land to investors for large-scale agricultural production has been promoted in rural Africa, by development agencies/banks and governments alike. Expected developments include improved food security and poverty reduction. At the same time, insecure land access for small farmers has become one of the biggest concerns associated with this land rush. Thus, simultanously, formalising land by identifying and mapping community borders has become a mainstream ’solution’ to protect rural communities against losing land to investors, building on the assumption that if communities’ land rights are not formalised, they risk losing land and/or do not benefit (as expected) from land deals.

In the paper, based on 27 months of ethnographic fieldwork, the researchers describe the practical implementation of four key Tanzania’s legislative acts and policies related to these two development agendas, aiming to explore their combined effects on land use, something which has been little studied before. Moreover, since the study includes a large share of the farmland deals in Tanzania, it is possible to generalize findings in a unique way.

Key findings

  • In practice, the processes of land formalisation and acquisition for large-scale agro-investment are inseparable: in all of the 13 cases investigated, formalisation processes were carried out in order for investors to access land.
  • During such processes when borders of villages were identified and mapped, government officials (in most cases) used loopholes in the laws and/or their political power, to make decisions about land borders that reduced the village land area.
  • In all 13 cases, the decision to allocate land to investors was disputed by local communities. In all cases, they were overruled by the government.
  • As a result, large areas of land were transferred from being under the control of the villages to the government.

The conclusion is that rather than fulfilling development policy expectations of land security for smallholder farmers and poverty reduction, the combination of these two development agendas in Tanzania has led to increased land conflict and widespread land loss for herders, smallholder farmers and their villages.

– These findings are important, to achieve intended results with our development collaboration, we need to understand the way these processes work in practice, says Linda Engström, lead author of the paper. Our paper shows the complex and political dimensions to address when designing future development interventions.

Link to the publication


The fieldwork was funded by the Swedish Research Council and Sida U-forsk, the University of Ottawa, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the University of Toulouse and the Rurban Project, France.