Why hasn’t the enormous farmland investment in Zambia filed for bankruptcy? I often wondered when I returned to the investment site, about two hundred kilometres from the capital Lusaka. In a somewhat morbid way, I even hoped it would go bankrupt at times, so I could conclude my research on the investment with a ‘round’ story. That is, how the European agribusiness, for which I use the pseudonym Miombo Inc., after concerns were raised about the purchase of 38,000 hectares of land, aimed to become an enlightened example of large-scale land investment, yet gradually faced financial difficulties and, eventually, bankruptcy. End of the story.

Yet instead, every time I returned, Miombo Inc. continued to operate, despite the financial difficulties it has faced ever since it ran out of the initial investment around 2016. Still the story sketched above is correct for the rest of it, yet so far, without an ending – positive or negative. The investment, in a sense, ‘muddles through’ with agricultural production, and every now and then, some new activity is added. For example, in the form of a partnership with USAID or the marketing of its ‘superfoods’ for European markets. This, though, can’t hide the fact that Miombo Inc. hasn’t lived up to its financial expectations. As I have analysed elsewhere, its predictions were too rosy. ‘Unexpected’ events in agricultural production have been insufficiently considered, dams for irrigation didn’t fill up, about two-thirds of the land hasn’t been developed yet, land disputes are ongoing, and so forth.

Because that notwithstanding financial struggles Miombo Inc. has evaded bankruptcy so far, two aspects may be worthwhile to look at more closely:

  1. The temporal dimensions of the financial side of land investments. Next to a focus on uncovering the often obscure economic webs of land investments, the Miombo Inc. case shows that the time dimension is crucial to consider, too – also, because the fact that investments may turn from promising to problematic over the course of several years may impact our research and analyses.
  2. The absence among investors to honestly reflect upon potential tensions between initial promises and the development of the financial situation over time – and why a more open approach may have benefits for them, too.

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Photo by Thomas Bormans on Unsplash

31 March 2023
Macht? Macht nix! (virtuelle Workshop-Reihe)