2020 Democracy and Human Rights, Economic Development, Organisation and Management of Aid Other

How can an agricultural investment that never happened affect people living in poverty?

Linda Engström

Large agricultural investment projects have been popular in African development for almost 20 years. The results of these investments however, have often failed to materialize. This DDB explores the consequences for people living where such investments were promised but benefits never delivered, through a case study of a Swedish sugar-cane project in Tanzania.

The report was presented during the seminar Att omvandla policy till verklighet – lärdomar från Östafrika.

Main findings

  • A pilot study in 2012 revealed a striking gap between the extent of planned deals and the number of materialized investments – most had never left the stage of being a paper product.
  • Plans for how and when the project would develop disregarded a lot of the complexity in the local context – the plans built on many simplified ways of seeing the context.
  • Many proponents of the project had limited understanding of the local context, and the perspectives and everyday life of local people. Officers at African Development Bank and Sida, and company representatives spent very little time on the land planned for investment, with the aim of understanding people’s experiences, needs and perspectives.
  • The idea of large-scale agricultural investment is underpinned by serious simplifications in relation to land abundance.


  • The thesis points to the importance for policy makers and private actors to understand the context, and take it seriously, when designing and implementing a development project.
  • Implicit is the importance to critically reflect upon, and adjust, one’s own knowledge base and perspectives on development, and take local, every-day perspectives as the entry point for projects to truly adapt to the needs of people living in poverty.
Linda Engström defended her dissertation Development Delayed: Exploring the failure of a large-scale agricultural investment in Tanzania to deliver expected outcomes in September 2018 at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). Her primary research interests are issues of rural development and global environmental and agricultural policy, with a focus on equality in use of natural resources, relations between donor and partner countries and the effects of private sector-funded development assistance.