courtesy AfromusingAgricultural investment is the one bright spot amid the gloomy outlook for FDI to developing countries as the recession drags on, according to the new World Investment Report 2009.  UNCTAD, which produces the report each year, predicts that agribusiness will be at the forefront of the next “FDI boom” as it is less susceptible to business cycles and slumps in demand than other sectors. 

FDI in agriculture brings with it the promise of direct government revenues (taxes, fees, royalties) along with jobs, market access, technology transfer and infrastructure.  On the other hand, large-scale investments and land transfers may threaten local rights, resource access and livelihoods.  Impacts may extend well beyond the actual project site if, for example, a big producer floods the national market and displaces existing small-scale suppliers. 

“Land grabs” have made plenty of headlines in 2009, but what is their real extent and impact?  One argument is that the phenomenon is exaggerated.  Recent land deals account for only 2-5% of suitable agricultural land in sample African countries, for example.  Many of giant deals such as the 10 million ha deal between the Republic of Congo and South Africa’s commercial farmers’ association Agri-SA, scheduled to be signed in October 2009, are likely in reality to involve development of much smaller contiguous areas.  Furthermore, most approved deals are yet to go into operation, raising the possibility that some at least are purely speculative.

But small total land areas do not mean low impact.  In spite of the common rhetoric that biofuels should – and will – be confined to “marginal” or “waste” land, the reality is that large-scale agricultural projects are targeting the best land.  In Mali, the national land registry shows that large-scale land acquisitions for biofuels and food over the past five years have been confined to the highest potential, irrigated lands.  These are the areas that are most likely to under existing uses and claims.

There are two key issues at stake.  The first is whether there is a place for large-scale agribusiness in the local and national economy – this is a question that every country needs to explore, preferably through open and wide-reaching public debate that weighs up the pros and cons honestly.  The second is that the actual substance of agricultural investment deals is key to long-term benefits and outcomes.  Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for instance, has been particularly alert to opportunities to renegotiate the terms of major natural resource contracts, leading to more equitable terms on taxation, transparency and local benefits in the country’s deals with ArcelorMittal and Firestone.

According to conventional wisdom, there probably never was a great time to pay an unpredictable Latin American country with a dodgy debt reputation a lot of money not to sell a resource which your economy is dependent on. That was essentially the reaction of the majority of the international community when Ecuador´s President Rafael Correa first asked for international “compensation” not to exploit the estimated 960 million barrels of oil in the Ishpingo Tambacocha Tipituni oilfield, located deep in the heart of the Yasuni National Park. No amount of arguing about the benefits from protecting unrivalled biodiversity, isolated indigenous groups, or even the planet´s climate could move international governments to give Correa´s flagship environmental policy anything more than faint praise. So why, in the middle of recession, have the German government just made a concrete offer of $650m over the next 13 years?

In fact, the environmentalist arguments in favor of not exploiting the ITT have never been in doubt. What has changed is that Ecuador has made various compromises in order to transform the proposal from an environmentalist pipe dream to a viable alternative to an apparent development-conservation dilemma:

1 – Ceding a certain amount of autonomy to the financiers about the use of the money, be it in biodiversity conversation, renewable energies, or social programmes.

2 – Providing guarantees to investors, by selling bonds which would convert into debt with interest if any future government were to proceed with exploitation.

3 – Agreeing that the administration of any contribution would happen under the auspices of an international organization, possibly the Inter-American Bank.

4 – Accepting that governments and companies would only invest in the Yasuni-ITT if they could use it to offset their carbon emissions.

On the German side, the Government appears to be demonstrating that there is no inherent reason for governments to suddenly ignore environmental issues due to budget constraints. Beyond that, the willingness to put money into such an unconventional initiative demonstrates that governments can and should look beyond the short-term realities of the slump, and actually make investments in initiatives which do not simply entail a smooth return “business as usual” based on unbridled fossil fuel extraction.

The Yasuni-ITT Initiative is unprecedented for so many reasons, but perhaps the most interesting is that it threatens to marry an unlikely couple: carbon trading, and the non-extraction of fossil fuels. If we consider that the most consistent criticism of carbon trading is that it perpetuates a fossil-fuel based economy, it becomes clear that the Ecuadorian Government has taken the concept, and given it new significance. It is still early days, and Ecuador will be hoping to lure substantial new investment before exploitation can be explicitly ruled out. Nevertheless, in pushing the climate change debate towards a focus on non-resource extraction as the only secure way to ensure environmental security, the Ecuadorian and German governments have pointed the way towards a fundamentally new way of resolving the world’s environmental problems.

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The relationship between economic growth or income and consumption is frequently discussed in the realm of economics and beyond. The economic crisis provides ‘laboratory’-like conditions in which to explore how stagnating or declining economies, falling incomes or decreased purchasing power affects what we buy and consume.

14698176_7c44839711Demand for fish, for example, has been argued by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to be ‘sluggish’ in 2009 compared to 2008, which was a record year in fish production and consumption. According to the FAO ‘sales are sluggish in all major markets and prices and margins are under pressure for most seafood products’. Meat, dairy and fish have commonly been argued to be elastic products – that is, as incomes rise, consumption of these products also increases significantly. The crisis has demonstrated that the reverse is also true – as incomes fall, consumption decreases. However, the sheer variety of fish and seafood deems any generalised analysis of elasticity problematic. Cheaper, more ‘staple’ fish, for example, cod, may be inelastic and difficult to substitute, whereas more expensive fish, for example, tiger prawns, may be more elastic and can be replaced by other fish types or protein sources. For example, in the UK, some have claimed that fish and chips may be recession proof. More disaggregated data of fish consumption (by type or species) during the crisis is needed to draw any meaningful conclusions about elasticity, but we do at least know that consumption of fish overall has declined.  

For fish stocks the economic crisis may therefore come as a welcome break. Though a large proportion (approximately 45%) of our fish comes from farmed sources – aquaculture – the dominant proportion is still sourced from capture fisheries, i.e. the open sea. Concerns about the sustainability of fish stocks, particularly in regards to bluefin tuna, have dominated the media in recent months. A particularly controversial study carried out in 2006 argued that commercial fish stocks will have completely collapsed by 2046.

The New Scientist reports that there is some initial evidence that commercial fish stocks are recovering, although 63% of world fish stocks are still found to be at unsustainable levels, particularly in the developing world (which produces 80% of the world’s fish). Though the partial recovery in some stocks has been argued to be due to effective ‘conservation measures’ the economic crisis may well give these efforts an added boost.

The economic crisis may have momentarily achieved what many a public campaign could not and may signify a crucial turning point in the survival of some stocks. Ironically, the length of the recession may be a crucial determinant. However, there are equity issues involved, with the majority of people in the developed world eating fish in excess of their dietary needs whilst many in the developing world lack the purchasing power to consume enough fish to fulfil their basic nutritional needs. In the EU and US, people consume on average approximately 19kg per annum, whilst people in South America and Africa consume on average 8kg per person, per year.

For many the crisis will have a significant impact on total food consumption and may lead to far higher numbers of people who lack sufficient protein in their diets, are undernourished and go hungry.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some countries around the world the recession is having an impact on the levels of carbon dioxide – a gas that plays a key role in contributing to atmospheric warming – and other greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere.

In the European Union (EU), for example, a 1.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions has been reported for 2008 (compared to the previous year) for all 27 members of the EU, by the European Environment Agency (EEA). In addition a 1.3% reduction in the EU 15 has been reported – the 15 wealthiest and oldest members of the EU. This reduction has been attributed to lower carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the energy, industry and transport sectors which has occurred as a result of the economic recession.

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Similarly, a study in the UK has concluded that there has been a 31% decline in traffic on motorways over the past two years. This story is likely to be similar in other developed countries that have been affected by the recession and where car ownership and use is high. The fall in traffic in the UK is thought to be due to falling numbers of people travelling during morning and evening rush hours as unemployment rises. In addition people who have been fortunate enough to remain employed have made cost-savings by working at home, sharing lifts with other people and using public transport.

The United Nations Environment Programme also argued that 2008 was the first year when new investments in renewable energies were greater than investments in fossil-fuelled technologies.

Whilst these changes may bring some temporary respite for the environment, evidence suggests that as the economic crisis wanes old patterns will be re-established. However, if the recession has provided ample opportunity and motivation for investment in renewable energy in order to replace fossil-fuel based energy use then the recession may well have provided just one, although not insignificant, silver lining.

Smallholder farmers are the mainstay of agricultural production in the developing world. It is estimated that over 2 billion people in the developing world depend on smallholder farms for their livelhoods.

However, smallholders face several barriers and challenges both for domestic production and production for export. Access to credit is just one of these and has long been a key barrier to production for smallholders, undermining smallholders’ abilities to invest in their farms and production, often leading to declining levels of productivity. In cocoa and coffee production – an important source of foreign exchange and income for many developing country governments and farmers –  a lack of access to credit (or at considerable expense) has meant that farmers have been unable to invest in new trees and have relied on older trees which have declining yields and, therefore, diminishing returns.

The UN has argued that access to credit and financial services is ever more important in the context of the financial crisis and declining levels of remittances, which serve as an important safety net for much of the world’s poor.

In April this year, the first ever meeting of G8 Agricultural Ministers took place. Kanayo Nwanze President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) said at the meeting that:

“Protecting and increasing the access of poor rural people to financial services is even more vital now…the well-being of 2 billion poor people who depend on smallholder farms in developing countries hinges on it…that is why we are encouraging ministers to return home and make sure that in all countries, rich and poor, we work together to keep agriculture at the top of their national agendas”.

IFAD argues that private sector involvement in agriculture is more important than ever, particularly with regard to the provision of services such as finance and marketing. 

For many large businesses who source from smallholders in the developing world, sustainability concerns (related in particular to climate change) are driving projects to ensure that smallholder production is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. An example of this growing trend is the shift of two major confectionery brands – Mars and Cadbury’s – to using certification (in these cases, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade) as a means to bring about sustainable production. As part of these transformations, support services are also provided to the smallholders involved, a gap that developing world governments have often been unable to fill. For example Cadbury’s is implementing farmer education programmes that explore best cocoa management practices leading to improved quality cocoa and increased yields and offering enterprise loans to start up farming or small businesses. Several examples  have shown that investing in services for smallholders can be a win-win for businesses.

Let’s hope these trends continue and the recession provides ample evidence of the importance of private sector investment in agriculture.

Whilst researching the impacts of the recession on the demand for crocodile leather and stumbling over some tales of recession-induced woes, it seems Hermes, an internationally renowned luxury fashion brand, is the shining star – bucking all trends, and potentially single-handedly fuelling demand for exotic skins, like crocodile leather.

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Hermes sales rose by 3.2% at current exchange rates to €428.4 million over the first 3 months of 2009, despite the wider market context of a floundering global economy. Much of that growth is attributed to sales of leather goods, which rose 21.7% to €206 million and has been driven by ‘robust’ expansion in China and Korea (Hermes 2009).

Hermes’ Birkin bags fanatics, including celebrities like Victoria Beckham, are paying up to $US50,000 (with bags made from exotic skins hitting the 6-digit mark) for a single bag with a waiting list of 2-3 years. Beckham reportedly owns $US2 million worth of Hermes Birkin bags (Murray and Williams 2009). Three thousand coveted Saltwater crocodile skin bags will be made this year, and limiting them in number maintains the exclusivity, luxury image and mystique surrounding them. No doubt it helps that Hermes’ key clientele are unlikely to be affected by the recession and are seemingly “recession proof”, but Hermes ability to conjure such furore over a handbag can only be admired. The exclusivity of its brand is partly reflected in its differing sales results for own stores versus distribution networks, with a 16% growth in sales (at current exchange rates) in the former and a decline in the latter. Clearly stepping into Hermes’ own stores is a far more compelling shopping experience than that found in its distribution stores.

Experts argue that “the people who can afford these goods are not affected by the recession. Even if they lost millions of dollars in the market, they are still worth hundreds of millions of dollars. If you want something super special, if you want a handmade crocodile bag and you can afford it, Hermes is the only place you’ll go”.

Hermes, usually very closed-book about its activities, has claimed that “we cannot meet demand. We are facing massive over-demand. We are limited by our ability to train new craftsmen” [Patrick Thomas, CEO, cited in Goldman (2009)]. Craftsmen in a small French town of Pantin, spend up to 2 weeks preparing each bag. In order to guarantee supply Hermes is vertically integrating its supply chain, establishing new farms in Australia: “It can take three to four crocodiles to make one of our bags so we are now breeding our own crocodiles on our own farms, mainly in Australia,” and it is looking to add to its existing number of 1400 craftsmen to alleviate the bottleneck it currently faces in turning the leather into the exclusive Hermes handbag.

Whilst Hermes success might not be replicable in any market other than the ‘luxury’ fashion market, its role in fuelling demand for crocodile skin, and in driving the demand for 8 high quality skin and skilled, highly trained craftsmen can not be ignored.

This article is cited in the Crocodile Specialist Group Newsletter. See: http://iucncsg.org/.

The financial crisis is hitting but not crippling African airlines. And those that are performing poorly, particularly SAA and Kenya Airways, are doing so owing to poor hedging strategies over oil prices rather than passenger and cargo management, which for KA volumes are up 10%.focus-4

And some, like Ethiopia Airlines, are booming, up 45% this calendar year. And investments in new airports, and new hubs – in Rwanda and Swaziland, indicate the private sector share confidence in the projected 9% year-on-year expansion in passenger numbers, which is estimated by IATA.

From an economic development viewpoint, aviation has an immediate impact on land use as options for marketing produce change. Managing this change is key to dictating whether the impact of more aviation in a new place is good, sustainable and viable. Once establised, the gradual growth over time of aviation has more mixed benefits.

The transfer of technology (soft and hard) is a key enduring benefit for many developing countries. There are legitimate concerns however that this is always in the interests of the nation, the workers, and particularly smaller businesses, and the poor.

Is this resilience in the aviation sector in Africa a sign of buoyant economies, fertile trades? What role can aviation play in securing sustainable economic development in the continent?

The need for host governments with growing aviation sectors to invest rents in ensuring that development is appropriate and managed.

Whilst the ‘Dairy Milk goes Fairtrade’ story has been around since early this year, it has now become a reality, despite a wider context of financial crises and a stagnation and decline in sales of some certified produce such as Organic.

On Monday the Bournville factory in the West Midlands, churned out its first line of Fairtrade Dairy Milk bars. A first in the world of ‘mainstream’ chocolate. Fairtrade has existed on the ‘fringes’ of most commodity sales (1-20% of all commodity sales in Europe and the US, Fairtrade’s biggest markets), albeit with growing sales, with most Fairtrade cocoa traditionally associated with niche or gourmet chocolate. It has now been propelled firmly into the mainstream. 

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The Fairtrade certification of Dairy Milk is expected to increase UK Fairtrade sales by 25%, after they reached £712.6m last year. Cadbury’s adoption of Fairtrade for its largest brand, Dairy Milk, is the sign of a big commitment. Cadbury’s claims that other varieties such as Fruit & Nut and Wholenut will follow once Fairtrade sources for ingredients such as hazelnuts and raisins are established (The Guardian).

And despite now being a time of financial difficulties for many companies, for Dairy Milk the transition to Fairtrade in the midst of a recession, should not be too finanically taxing. Cocoa is currently trading at $2,000 on the open market — well above the  minimum floor price of $1,750 a tonne for cocoa set by Fairtrade. This will mean no impact on purchase prices in the short term. However, the Fairtrade commitment does means the company is now locked in to paying higher prices than that on the open market if prices fall. Cadbury’s biggest driver for certification is thought to be that of securing supply and guaranteeing the sustainability of supply. This they regard as a necessary investment, rather than a cost.  

Cadbury’s may well be on to something here, as prices for cocoa rise due to shortages in supply, and as they have the added benefit of reduced reputational risk and increased shareholder value. This can only be a positive thing as the recession has severely undermined our faith in big businesses. Undoubtedly the commitment of a brand like Cadbury’s will only encourage others to follow suit and this trend is already emerging. Mars has pledged to buy 100% of its cocoa from sustainable sources by 2020,  working with the Rainforest Alliance. Nestlé, meanwhile, is working with the International and World Cocoa foundations.

to letAs the recession appears to continue unabated, it becomes clear that in any given situation there will always be winners and losers. And the recession is no exception.

As new building developments stand empty and construction sites remain unfinished it becomes evident that the recession has paused the purchase and development of new residential and commercial space. In the U.S. some states are removing or reducing impact fees – charged by municipalities nationwide to pay for the additional services that come with increased development, such as schools, sewer lines and roads – to try and bolster development in these financial trying times (Boston.com).

Whilst the financial crisis has halted development and expansion for the vast majority, others are using this ‘construction pause’ as an opportunity. Some retailers have been able to benefit from falling land and property prices and the quicker processing of planning applications, to expand their operations into both new land and deserted ex-retail space.

Seemingly unaffected by decreased access to credit, large retailers are snapping up land and new developments. With retailers like Woolworths and Zavvi going bust, new sites are constantly emerging and this pattern is likely to continue as long as the recession does. For example, earlier this month Sainsbury’s announced that it would seek to raise additional capital worth £445m as a direct response to the opportunities currently available to develop new space. This investment will enable Sainsbury’s to open an additional 15% gross space, equating to 2.5m sq ft of additional selling area, over the next two years.

Morrisons also announced in March 2008 that it had identified up to 100 new locations which could accommodate one of its stores and would therefore add a further one million square feet on top of what was initially set out within its ‘Optimisation Plan’ (IDG).

Whilst on the surface this may seem like a simple trend of expansion, for supermarkets in particular, expanding retail space is an important factor in gaining market share and cornering markets, particularly to anticipate increased sales when the recession ends. This spatial expansion has ramifications for the smaller or independent stores who may no longer have the same options in terms of their own expansion into new retail space and may be crowded out by chains of supermarkets that come to dominate the high street.

The recession serves to amplify strengths and weaknesses – almost a process of natural selection – as the strongest and largest (in terms of size and financial strength) are better able to hold their position and even better it, whilst the smaller and weaker retailers are likely to struggle, at best maintaining their position, at worst, folding. To reiterate then, there are always winners and losers but closely monitoring this trend and what it may mean for suppliers and producers, particularly in the developing world, may reveal a great deal about supply chain dynamics and the impact these dynamics have on producers, either positive or negative. This could ultimately help better inform policy.

World wide the informal economy is booming during recession with OECD estimating more people employed in informal sector than the formal – 1.8 bn to 1.2bn. The constituency of this growth is worrying with ILO estimating an extra 200 million people earning less than $2 per day by 2010 – all in the informal economy. Yet some are from formal jobs, using the informal sector as a cushion, an insurance, until things pick u again. photo-1

Historically, the informal economy has been seen as problematic by developed country governments owing to lost tax revenues, workers’ lack of unions rights, low wages and the exploitation of the poorest. And developing country policies and approaches to economic planning and management are largely apeing the developed world’s model.

Yet, the recession is alerting us to the inherent resilience in the informal economy globally. It has existed for far longer. It is an evolved, even natural economy, suitable for local interactions. It cushions formal employment dropouts. And in developing countries it is larger, on average 40% of GDP over 17%.

But right now it is being stretched in developing countries. More informality coupled with less demand, owing to the recession’s cumulative impact, equals lower prices, and an even more competitive market. While the informal economy might be able to apparently support growing numbers of entrants (see this India example), it is unclear if this means lower overall individual earnings and margins? “Smaller-and-Smaller Slivers of a Shrinking Pie

The simultaneous growing informality and poverty is clearly a worry. Yet the apparent resilience of the informal sector hints at a solution; that developing country governments would be wise to reroute their economic development planning from the path of the developed world, and to make visible the informal economy, give voice to its participants and begin to validate their presence as useful and welcome economic actors through targeting them with appropriate economic policies. How can the developing world’ governments help the informal economy without formalising it?