Ever since Karen Blixen published Out of Africa in 1937, people have been captured by the fierce romance of this huge continent. “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” read the famous opening words of Blixen’s book, later turned into a film with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. She described her life as a woman running a farm alone among the Masai at an altitude of 6,000ft, 100 miles shy of the equator.
“From the Ngong Hills you have a unique view, you see to the south the vast plains of the great game-country that stretches all the way to Kilimanjaro; to the east and north the park-like country of the foothills with the forest behind them, and the undulating land of the Kikuyu Reserve, which extends to Mount Kenya a hundred miles away,” she wrote. To the west she saw the moonscape of the low country, dotted with thornbushes, meandering riverbeds, giraffe and rhino.
These days, the great and the good are drawn like moths to Africa’s flame, keen to travel through its forests and grasslands, watch the wildebeest migrating in their tens of thousands across the Serengeti and hear the song of the lion in the star-studded nights. While they are there, they use their influence to bring poverty, violence and disenfranchisement to the world’s notice. Conspicuous philanthropists have included the actors Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, chat-show host Oprah Winfrey and musicians Bob Geldof and Bono, as well as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Over the past decade, foreign companies and governments have also become interested in buying land in Africa, partly driven by the search for virgin ground to grow crops. Forecasts suggest that we will need to produce 70 per cent more food by 2050 to feed the rapidly expanding global population. A 2013 World Bank report, Growing Africa: Unlocking the Potential of Agribusiness, identified Africa as having more than half of the world’s fertile yet unused land and utilising only 2 per cent of its renewable water resources. The warm, tropical climate, high rainfall and good soils make it seem attractive.
Yet the sale of property and land, especially farmland, is still only a nascent market and – as it always has done, from the days of early colonial settlers and tea farmers to Ernest Hemingway’s big-game-hunting expeditions of the 1930s – it attracts adventurers and pioneers. “It is a land of opportunity, the last frontier,” says Paddy Dring, head of international property at Knight Frank. “It is relatively untapped and there are still political challenges and security issues to face, but if you can overcome that, it is very rewarding.” In spite of the shopping-centre shoot-out, the prime property market in Nairobi went up by 25 per cent in 2013.
“It is an incredible part of the world, where the privileged and underprivileged live together and it is possible for people to feel they make a difference. Wealthy visitors start with the big romantic ideas and then become more involved. In Africa they are exposed to things they would never see in their normal lives.” He says buyers need to be environmentally sensitive and willing to be drawn into the local community and contribute to water, education and health projects. “You have to be ready to engage with all of that if you buy in Africa.”
There are many different entry levels. On the outskirts of Nairobi you can find gracious mansions such as Hogmead on the Langata Mukoma secure private estate (available through Knight Frank for $6.5m), wrapped in 10 acres with views of a giraffe sanctuary and the Ngong Hills. The sweeping staircase, outside sitting room with fireplace and bar, 12 bedrooms (six in the main house, six in the garden wing), 12 staff rooms and wildly colourful birdlife filling the sky around the private dam have all the grandeur of the colonial period. The point here is that it is only a short trip from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. Properties further afield often involve an arduous journey from an international airport by car on bad roads, or a light-aircraft ride to a local landing strip.
Occasionally, slivers of game reserves come up for sale, perhaps with permission to develop a boutique lodge. Out in the central Masai Mara, thick with game, Knight Frank has 80 acres of savannah with a borehole for water and licences to build a low-impact bush camp ($1.25m). Access involves a short flight from Nairobi to the local airstrip at Mara Explorer Camp 20 minutes away. Small private conservancies and lodges are being promoted because they give the Masai a better income than small-scale cultivation, and visitor numbers are kept low so that the environmental impact is minimal. It is thought to be good for the animals, too, as it provides rangelands for wildebeest and lion.
Or you can buy a slice of a property pie that has already been developed. On the slopes of Mount Kenya, set against the ice-capped peaks, is Mukima Ridge, which consists of 10 safari ranch houses with stone-flagged verandas ($650,000 through Knight Frank), each one set in 12 acres of private wilderness on a former colonial cattle ranch with magical views of the Aberdares, and just 20 minutes’ drive from Nanyuki local airport.
The market is now at a point where “there are real investment opportunities”, according to a Savills report last year entitled Spotlight: African Farmland. Africa, it says, should not be written off as uniformly risky, explaining that significant “growth corridors” are being developed by governments, from Beira in Mozambique to Zambia and Zimbabwe, and from Dar es Salaam to Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The average holding is in the region of half a hectare. Most of the land is either state-owned in one form or another or held by tribal or other local communities,” it states. The corridors should change this ancient form of agriculture into something much more lucrative and sophisticated.
Knight Frank established a presence in Zambia in 2000 and its resident expert, Tanya Ware, was born and raised in the country. “There is so much interest in the market here,” she says. “The government is progressive and is opening up tracts of land to foreign investment, offering 99-year leases with secure title deeds.” Those who buy in the growth corridors know that they have government backing and that efforts will be made to keep roads open and the electricity supply running.
Farmers and investment companies are buying with their eye on the feed-the-world agenda. “They are opening up areas close to old farming districts so that newcomers have the support of the agricultural community and the expertise of families who have farmed here for generations,” says Ware. “Our climate is fantastic. In the summer it is warm, humid and wet. It used to start at the end of October and last until April, but now it starts in late November and finishes at the end of March. The heat is here, the soils are fertile, there is lots of rainfall and virgin land, so the yields are good.”
In Zambia, too, there is a greater feeling of security than in some of its neighbours. “We have never been through a war, so there is no historic unease, and the people have a respect for businesses coming in and creating employment. We do expect investors to give something back, and owners are encouraged to build schools and clinics and help local villagers.”
Overseas buyers tend to look for a return of 10 years or more. ”Five years ago, good land with irrigation and so on was selling at $500-$600 per acre. It is now selling at $1,500-$2,000 per acre, so prices have increased quite a lot. But you have to deduct the cost of seed, fertiliser, building and labour, which is going up all the time.”
It is possible to buy farmland and the safari-lodge experience folded into one package. Ware is selling Kotakota Hills ($10m), a vast private peninsula on Lake Kariba with a glamorous game lodge made of stone and thatch, and a variety of sleeping arrangements, including bedrooms carved out of rock on the lakeside, plumbed luxury tents with their own boats, and chalets. “This is a huge 7,500-hectare fenced game farm, teeming with elephant, buffalo and antelope, and there is leopard, too,” she says. “There’s the potential to increase the game, explore crocodile farming and possess your own airstrip 35 miles from Lusaka. It is also a beautiful place to bring friends and colleagues.”
Another private game lodge – Mumbuluma, over on the Nanzhila River in Kafue National Park and also priced at $10m – has 2,468 hectares and is running with lion, cheetah, leopard, wild dog, crocodile, elephant, hippo and antelope. “This is interesting because it is a part of the national park that they have cordoned off, where the owner has his own game scouts and patrols. Which means the animals that congregate there are protected from poachers.” There are six bungalows, a dining room, a bar, lounges, game-drive vehicles, a boat for river cruises, nine staff and three rangers, and the nearest airport is Ngoma private airstrip 70 minutes away.
South Africa’s highly developed tourist industry means buyers are often first introduced to the country via big-game safaris and trips along the Garden Route. To keep the industry going there is a burgeoning interest in breeding top species to put back into the game reserves. Huge money is now made at game-farm auctions in South Africa for sable and roan antelope. Wayne Rubridge, manager of the Karoo region for Savills associate Pam Golding Properties, has seen overall turnover in one auction house alone increase by 485 per cent in the past five years and the sales turnover for the top five rare game species grow by 49 per cent year on year. “Game farming facilitates the conservation not only of Africa’s rare species, natural habitats and ecosystems, but also our unique heritage as South Africans,” he says. “It is critical to repopulating the rest of Africa with animals that have been exterminated there through habitat loss, poaching and hunting.” The price of land varies enormously. In the Kruger National Park concession areas, for instance, land with five-star lodges can cost from R30,000-R80,000 (about £1,630-£4,350) per hectare.
South Africans place significant emphasis on the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino). One very unusual property now available through Savills is Elands Moon in the Eastern Cape (about £5m), once owned by 19th-century Boer commander Andries Pretorius. It is good for hunting, breeding and ranching and is suitable for the Big Five; it has an 18th-century house, three homesteads and its own runway. The surrounding wilderness lies unspoilt and is bounded on one side by mountains. There are centuries-old olive groves, dirt roads, a 10-bedroom hunting lodge, dams, natural springs and a river. The grasslands run with kudu, mountain reedbuck, red hartebeest, eland, oryx, steenbok, mountain zebra, Burchell’s zebra and bushbuck. It is truly remote, 14,000 hectares of Africa that have remained unchanged over two centuries.