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Bangladesh rents African land for food

DHAKA, May 17 – Bangladesh has leased tens of thousands of hectares of farmland in Africa as part of a government drive to improve food security in the poverty-stricken South Asian nation, an official said Tuesday.

Two Bangladeshi companies have leased 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) of land in Uganda and Tanzania and another firm will sign a deal for a further 10,000 hectares in Tanzania this week, foreign ministry director Farhadul Islam said.

"The government strongly supports companies leasing farmland in Africa. The aim is to bring most of the farms\’ output back to Bangladesh to ease food shortages," he told AFP.

Bangladesh\’s 150 million citizens have been hit hard by sharp increases in the price of rice, the staple grain, which was up by an average 50 percent year-on-year in April, according to official figures.

The country was once self-sufficient in rice, but industrial expansion and population growth mean farmland has been eaten up by factories and new residential areas.

Over the last few years, Bangladesh has become a major importer of rice and wheat, with grain imports up 86 percent year-on-year to $882 million for the last seven months of 2010, according to the central bank.

Neighbouring India has also made significant agriculture investments in African countries and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to leave for a five-day trip to the continent next Monday.

"We are committed to make fresh investments in the agriculture sector to enhance our level of engagement with Africa," Vivek Katju, a senior foreign ministry official in New Delhi, told reporters on Tuesday.

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Last year, a delegation of Indian farmers visited several countries in Africa to scout for land available for long-term lease.

Since Bangladesh identified overseas farming as a key way of improving food security late last year, local businessmen have also scoured Africa for suitable land to lease, Islam said.

"African countries offer unique opportunities for farming investment," he said. "Companies from China and other countries are everywhere in Africa. If they can do it, why can\’t we?"

Abdul Matlub Ahmad, owner of Nitol Group, said his company signed a deal with the Ugandan government last month to lease farmland to grow rice.

"Under the deal, we can bring some 80 percent of our output back to the country after payment of some annual fees. We shall some employ 25,000 workers — some 90 percent from Uganda," he told AFP.

He said the group and other Bangladeshi businessmen are looking for further land lease deals in Tanzania, Benin and Guinea.

"These governments are interested to strike agreements with us. I think it will open up vast new opportunities for Bangladeshi entrepreneurs," he said.

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