The Green Revolution that ended food shortages in parts of the world decades ago may be coming to East Africa, bringing the promise of bountiful harvests in a region more often associated with drought and famine. But from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, critics see the project as a neo-colonial land grab.
Farming in Ethiopia is a battle for survival. Peasants using ancient methods are totally dependent on the weather, and on the government, which owns the land and provides fertilizer subsidies. When the rains fail, as they often do, their very survival depends on food aid from abroad.
It has proven to be a recipe for perpetual poverty. In a country where 80 percent of the population works in the farm sector, one in six needs food assistance.
To breathe new life into Ethiopia's stagnant agriculture sector, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is wooing foreign firms with offers to lease huge tracts of land at rock bottom prices.
"The policy of the government of Ethiopia regarding agricultural land development has always been based on the small-scale farmer," said Meles Zenawi. "But the strategy also included the possibility of the private sector playing a supplementary but vital role."
The offer of cheap land has attracted wide interest, from governments like Saudi Arabia that import most of their food, to multi-nationals like the Indian giant Karuturi Global. At two sprawling farms totaling more than 300,000 hectares, Karuturi earth movers, tractors, and water well drilling rigs are transforming the pastoral landscape.
Critics describe Karuturi as a neo-colonialist or agro-imperialist, grabbing Ethiopia's land at bargain prices and exporting profits and food while Ethiopians go hungry. But owner Ram Karuturi says food grown here will be consumed here.
"What Karuturi is doing is what Africa needs, wants and deserves," said Ram Karuturi. "What we put in is our money into Africa, which nobody else is doing."
Karuturi says his big machinery more than doubles the output of traditional farms, and creates jobs where there were none. Speaking through a translator, 30-year-old Ababu Nagari says the roughly 80 cents a day she earns harvesting maize is changing her life.
"I don't have my own land, so I have no way of feeding my family," said Ababu Nagari. "Now I have work and a little money. I am happy these investors come."
But not everyone is happy. Four hundred people have signed a petition saying they received no compensation after being evicted from land taken over by Karuturi. They say their families have farmed and grazed their animals here for generations. One farmer spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity.
"We are for development of our country, but we cannot develop our country when land is in the hands of the government," he said. "You can work on your land, and all of a sudden, they push you out of your land."
Environmentalists say land already degraded by farming will suffer, and loss of trees will cause an imbalance in the eco-system.
Opposition politicians say the government is giving away land to buy diplomatic support, and that wages paid to farm workers are below the World Bank's poverty threshold.
But Ram Karuturi argues investments like his, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, are revolutionizing African agriculture.
"The Green Revolution missed this continent 20 years ago," he said. "There are not more than 1,000 tractors in private hands in this country. And for a country of 80 million people and 120 million hectares, that's a tragic situation."
So is Africa witnessing its Green Revolution, or simply a neo-imperialist land grab? Ethiopia is betting that the World Bank is right when it says investing in agriculture is one of the most effective ways to speed economic development in Africa.