Impacts of Large-Scale Land Deals on Rural Women Farmers in Africa

Large-scale land deals have been a recurrent phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa, since 2008, with a new face which is conjured around land access in Africa. 

April 25th, 2015

Large-scale land deals have been a recurrent phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa, especially since 2008, with a new face which is conjured around land access in Africa. This has been triggered by the proliferation of large multinational companies from the West, other parts of Africa and Asia whose primary interest now rests in land accumulation in Africa so as to grow flex crops. However, this new wave of land investments has affected the populations in African countries and it is particularly important to note that women have been the most affected of the citizenry. 

In this article, the author explores the reasons behind women being the most disadvantaged as a result of these land deals, the nature of the land deals and the negotiations that tend to be masculine and thereby playing a leading role in undermining the land-based livelihoods of women. The analysis is based on the theoretical reflections of what the author terms the women, law and development approach. This framework argues that, in any developmental paradigm, women should be taken as active citizens of that development. This has been echoed by several feminist scholars. This framework, however, offers a more holistic approach related to land rights. The author also puts forward alternative policy models that should be incorporated by governments which are premised on the gender, law and development approach, thus appreciating the role of women as important citizens in national development discourses that centre on land distribution programmes. The author concludes by suggesting the need to take women as the starting point in land investment deals by the state and non-state actors.

Most large-scale land investments being tracked in Africa have a new dimension. What is now emerging is a new wave of the land deals involving new actors including individuals, companies and legal processes, a phenomenon that was not evident until 2008. Zoomers (2010) points out that we are witnessing the ‘foreignisation’ of space due to globalisation, foreign direct investment and the liberalisation agenda which has now taken land as a market commodity.

The author defines large-scale land investments as gigantic, cross-border land deals or transactions that are carried out by multinational companies and are initiated by foreign governments. A lot of information exists on their size but very little reliable information exists about their actual impact, especially with regard to rural women in Africa. Eighty percent of agricultural production in Africa is undertaken by women but, due to patriarchal forms of land governance, they merely have usufruct rights to land despite being the actual tillers of the land (Berhman, Meinzen-Dick & Quisumbing, 2012). Encouraging large land investment affects this group and particularly rural women whose daily sustenance depends on land-based activities. 

The author unravels the negative impacts women face due to these land deals using a thematic approach which draws on experiences from several African countries. The author elucidates the reasons behind women being the most disadvantaged in these cases and the nature of the land deal negotiations and proposes alternative policy models that should be incorporated by governments which are premised on the gender, law and development approach. This is important in appreciating the role of women as important citizens in national development discourses that centre on land distribution programmes. She concludes by suggesting the need to take women as the starting point in land investment deals and negotiations by state and non-state actors.

Theoretical Reflections

Feminist understandings of how rural women are affected by large-scale land investments have not yet been clearly articulated due to the sudden recurrence of this phenomenon. This could be explained by the lack of a synthesised approach to what constitutes rural women’s experiences and also the issues of homogeneity, class differences, political and economic differences that affect the urban women who tend to be behind the advocacy of rural women’s needs. In order to offer a viable frame of analysis, the author adopts the women, law and development approach which is premised on the fact that rural women are active agents of development (Paradza, 2013; Mutopo, 2014; Wegerif et al, 2013) and should be taken as the starting point for any useful legal regulations that govern land access. This has been elucidated at international conventions such as the Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) and the African Protocol on the Rights of Women (2003) (see NCHR, 2009).

All these legal instruments emphasise the notion of non-discrimination against women in development and taking women as the starting point in any human development with rather wider notions of national development. The use of legal connotations to development in this article should also be understood in the evolving nature of the living law, that is, the laws that govern resource use and everyday forms of life in African societies.

Effects of Large-Scale Land Deals

Land-based livelihoods

Case study-based evidence from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana and Tanzania (Mutopo, 2012; Mutopo, 2014; Ngowi, Tandon, Wegerif & Mutopo, 2012; Wegerif et al., 2013) reflects that land is a critical resource which underpins the lives of the majority of rural women in Africa. Land acts as a symbolic, economic and political resource that women attest to as forming an important part of their daily livelihoods and those of their communities. Discussions with the women from Zimbabwe who have been affected by the operations of Green Fuels in Chisumbanje and the establishment of the Zimbabwe Bio Energy Company in Mwenezi reflect how the women feel that their lives had been shattered by losing their land and paving the way for large-scale land investments (Mutopo, 2014). This loss of land is also understood as a form of death by the women in a way since land demonstrates the life one has within a community and they are now left grief-stricken. This is reflected in the extract below which emanated from a focus group discussion with women in Mwenezi in March 2011: 

The fact that our land has been taken from us, we are just moving corpses because we really do not have any means of survival and without land in our cultural norms you are just as good as the dead (Mutopo, 2014).

Losing land affected these women’s capacity to feed their families and to engage in meaningful economic activities that arise from being in possession of land. In Zambia, women in the Mimbolo communal area pointed out that the large-scale company, ZAMBEEF, and the annexation of their land led them to view themselves as unworthy citizens, as reflected in the following remark by one woman in Mimbolo in July 2012: 

We are now second class citizens in our own country imagine, as we cannot survive and take care of our families; this company is now the owner of this land that has been our home for decades (Mutopo, 2012). 

This is also reflected in Ghana and Tanzania where women complained that large-scale foreign investments led to a loss of their shambas (women’s fields) and therefore compromised their capacity to maintain a decent standard of living. They had enjoyed the use of these shambas before and now all they have is small patches of land around their homesteads which is insufficient to sustain them (Wegerif et al., 2013; Ngowi et al., 2012; Daley, Osorio & Young, 2013).

The land acquisitions by large conglomerates led to further disempowerment of the women as they have to focus more on food security, water and childcare burdens affecting their capability for achieving independence and assertiveness. The impact of land loss also differs among the women. Widowed and single women from our research faced a bleaker future because they had nowhere to go and relocation has proven extremely difficult for them. One elderly widow in Chisumbanje, Zimbabwe, noted: 

I feel very much afraid and do not know who will help me build new huts, how I will relocate and whether I will not lose the property and livestock that I have acquired at the farm during the past years that we have stayed at Chigwizi. I feel that the government should have been considerate and allowed us to continue staying on the farm since this is the only home that I now know and have. My livelihood security is under threat as it is still not clear whether I am being moved to a new farm or to the communal areas north of the Tokwe River (Mutopo, 2014).

These cases reflect the tragedies caused by the neglect of women and their exclusion from the major discussions on large-scale land investments in Africa. Human development is about the individual and the failure of local living laws and codified laws to protect women from the loss of their land reflects the failure of governments to create sustainable best practises for ensuring women’s rights to land are protected and to avoid a loss of their livelihood.

Water Grabbing – A Violation of Rights

Loss of land-based livelihoods is connected to the loss of water rights which are a codified human right in the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (NCHR, 2009). Field-based evidence from Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe reflect that when land is lost to investors, water sources that are on the land are also automatically lost. The women now have to face the burden of walking longer distances in search of water. Investing long hours in the search for water is problematic and increases the strains on these women as they still have to undertake other household tasks as well as growing food for themselves and their families. In Zambia, it was reported that: 

When ZAMBEEF came in, all the perennial rivers were fenced off so that we could not have access to them. Now we have to also buy water which is unfair, since traditionally water from perennial rivers and streams is for free as it is a God-ordained resource (Mutopo, 2012). 

This case demonstrates how the land investments also lead to water grabbing (Mutopo & Chiweshe, 2014). Water sources are seized together with the land. By fencing off the water sources from the communities, the water automatically becomes a private commodity. These cases of water grabbing therefore lead to an increasing burden on women who are required to pay for the water and, in some cases, have to exchange water for other social commodities such as labour as they do not have the money to pay for the water. Loss of water rights by the women affects their capacity to care for their hand-irrigated gardens as they cannot water the vegetables due to a lack of consistent water supply. 

Furthermore, most rural women cannot afford to sink boreholes to ensure a constant supply of water for domestic use and agricultural production (Ngowi et al., 2012). Water grabbing and the phenomenon of water fencing are therefore impediments in terms of creating sustainable rural communities – with the burdens placed on women continuously increasing. 

The failure of governments and investors to see the impact of water losses should be questioned and thoroughly examined. These injustices might translate into water wars as water is increasingly becoming a scarce public resource. This is particularly so since the women become discontent with engaging in multiple and complex efforts in search of water that are cumbersome and time consuming and will become increasingly so in future.

In as much as communities have living laws regulating water sources, these are often ignored when investors take over the land. However, some countries do not have well-defined water laws which make it easier for the investors to access the water sources without opposition.

Forests now also out of bounds for women 

Another important dimension that should be scrutinised is that when the rural women lose their land to large-scale investors they also lose access to forests. When the investors occupy these areas, forests have not been spared in the process. Rural women rely on forests for their everyday livelihoods. The forests serve as places for collecting firewood, an important source of energy. The trees in the forests provide timber for construction purposes and women look for termite mounds, small edible insects, fruits and medicinal plants from the forests. In the two case studies from Zambia and Zimbabwe, once the investors took over the land, they fenced out the communities from the forests and the women lost access these resources (Daley et al., 2013; Mutopo, 2012; Mutopo & Chiweshe, 2014). Forestry resources are very important for the women as they serve as a conduit for their livelihood. As in the case of water sources, losing access to firewood also led the women to walk longer distances in search of firewood. This poses other threats to the women such as criminals or wild animals they encounter on their long trips on foot in search of firewood and other resources from forests.

Additionally, the loss of women’s access to forests and water sources affects others in the community. For instance, sick members of the community rely on women for their care and recovery as they provide medicinal plants which must be accessed from the forests. In most instances, the forest laws are still colonial and have not been revised. For instance, in Zimbabwe, the laws have remained unchanged and the long out-dated colonial legislation makes it easier for large-scale land investors to occupy the forest lands. It is a myth that that forest resources are abundant in Africa, that the people in Africa do not use them and the forests are thus available to be exploited (Berhman et al., 2012; Ngowi et al., 2012; Daley et al., 2013).

Entrepreneurial Activities

Since rural women rely on land, water and forests for their survival, this has a significant bearing on the entrepreneurial activities they conduct. Loss of access to land has led to a loss in women’s productive capacity in terms of horticultural commodities in Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe (Mutopo, 2012; Mutopo, 2014; Ngowi et al., 2012; Wegerif et al., 2013). These are commodities such as vegetables, fruits and other produce that women would sell on a daily basis in order to acquire income for their sustenance. In addition, women sell fruit gathered from the forests and medicinal plants, thereby enhancing their livelihoods.

The women’s entrepreneurial activities stretch beyond the local markets in some cases and pervade regional markets. For instance, in Zimbabwe, agricultural produce by women in the Mwenezi district was typically sold in South Africa (Mutopo, 2014). Loss of land for the production of the horticultural produce affects the entrepreneurial activities and leads to the rural women becoming impoverished. 

Any benefits for rural women? 

An analysis of the large-scale land investments and their effects on the lives of rural women should also explore the potential advantages. It has been argued that the rural women gain employment when such investments are set up. For instance, at the Chisumbanje plant in Zimbabwe, this has occurred and the women earn some livelihood from the income gained through working for these companies. In some cases, the investors build infrastructure such as roads, schools and clinics, which should benefit the communities generally (Mutopo, 2014). Many have regarded the investments as a positive benefit when women access such services and some have reported a reduction in maternal deaths as the women receive treatment from qualified personnel at the clinics and hospitals (ibid).

However, these seeming advantages have been criticised in other spaces because the women tend to be general employees and are not involved in any managerial positions that require skilled, competent staff. Some have dismissed this kind of employment as cosmetic since the women are not well paid. In the case of purported improvements in access to medical care in Zambia, the women revealed that the medical centres only treat women whose husbands worked at the ZAMBEEF company (Mutopo, 2014). 

Others were not able to access medical services. These services are thus not fully beneficial for women as they either have to pay or be connected to someone who works for the investment company in order to receive treatment which is not always possible (Mutopo, 2014). 

Policy Alternatives

There is a need for governments to craft national gender policies that include rural women as important agents of national development processes so that dual development activities are safeguarded. A public policy is defined as a purposive course of action that a government adopts to deal with a problem (Anderson, 2001). This definition serves as evidence that governments have a crucial role to play in order to safeguard the interests of rural women farmers from the negative influences of large-scale land investors.

Since women farmers have the major responsibility of food production, land policies should be clearly formulated so that they are prevented from losing land. Constitutional provisions that ensure equity, non-discrimination and links to international human rights and local-level rights should be upheld so that the women do not lose their land. There is also a need to create policy spaces in which the women farmers can participate in land agreements and negotiations, especially where land investments are concerned so that the women farmers can communicate what the land means for them as a crucial source of their livelihood and why it should not be parcelled out by governments to multinational companies.

The experiences posited above are similar for all the countries referred to and are therefore occurring on a grand scale in Africa, it is vital for all governments to come up with clear uniform legal and policy regulations which emphasise and entrench women farmers’ role in negotiations. Local languages should be used so that the women farmers and the national governments are not exploited by investment companies. The investment companies send experienced, persuasive lawyers when they engage in land negotiating forums and they use complicated language which the women and others may not fully understand. As a result, the deals tend to favour the large-scale land investors (Cotula, 2013). 

Policies should also be put in place to regulate issues relating to water and forest annexation. Some countries do not have clear water laws resulting in access to land becoming an automatic right to access the water. For example, Zimbabwe has the Water Act of 1998 but there have been so many changes with regard to land and water governance resulting in the need for a realignment of these issues with the new political history of the country. Policies that centre on women’s water and forest use should be put in place so as to protect the use of these natural resources by women farmers.

It would be noble for the African governments to engage in gender realignment policy frameworks that are cognisant of the local living norms, customs and laws of the communities. Such policy expediency is important in creating legal rules to create non- discriminatory natural resource governance that does not threaten the lives of the rural women who are most often the disadvantaged. This could be encouraged through enhancing the local constitutions of the countries so that they are written in light of the changes in land issues that are currently emerging at a rapid pace. Constitutional provisions that are aligned to these changes can also help in safeguarding the interests of the rural women so that they do not lose their land. This will help women understand the national processes surrounding the land acquisition in the different countries.

At the continental level, the African Union should come up with clear legal and policy regulations that place women at the centre of natural resource legislation since the issue of land losses to large-scale companies is a common problem across the continent. It is high time that policies which encourage sustainable livelihoods of women especially are put in place at both the community and government levels. This reduces the loss of viable physical, social and natural capital that is crucial in livelihood enhancement of rural women.


It is noted that large-scale land acquisitions have had both negative and positive effects on rural women. However, a careful examination of the daily realities of rural women reveals that the process has had more negative effects than benefits. The author has elucidated how the loss of land, water, forest resources and entrepreneurial activities leads to a loss of livelihoods for rural women. Empirical research from Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe illustrate these dynamics clearly. The aim of this discussion is also to illustrate the importance of the women, law and development approach. If human development and national development are goals for governments, policy priorities should shift towards making women the starting point in land governance. Rural women are the tillers of the land and losing land can mean destruction for them and reinforces their lack of empowerment in terms of defending their rights to the land. The policy prescriptions advanced in this article have been based on the need for a holistic approach that places women at the centre of development and land governance models in Africa. Thus purposive courses of action should be followed with the centrality of women as the starting point.


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