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What are ‘appropriate technologies’? Pathways for mechanising African agriculture

Capital goods are essential for agriculture, whether for tillage, irrigation or threshing. Mechanisation of agriculture is therefore seen as a core aim for agricultural development, and is widely pushed as a route to increasing production and efficiency. But what scale of technology is appropriate? Where can farmers find the right sort of technology to meet their needs? Does trade in capital goods respond to market demands? Do aid projects help or hinder?

These are the sort of questions we have been puzzling over in Zimbabwe as we’ve been looking at the role of various types of capital goods used in agriculture in land reform areas. Capital goods range from large tractors to small pumps, and these are being used across farms of different sizes, from A1 resettlement farms, with typically under 5 hectares of cultivated land, to much larger A2 medium scale resettlement farms. Size matters, both of the technology but also of land areas and the scale of operation, but so also does capacity, flexibility, maintenance requirements and politics.

Tractors: the symbol of mechanisation

Tractors have always been the symbol of mechanisation in agriculture. From Soviet mass production under Stalin to aid projects across Africa. As a previous blog discussed, the promotion of tractors has a long history in Zimbabwe too. While there was a healthy trade in the large-scale commercial sector, with imports from different parts of the world, the record of tractor projects in the small-scale farming areas was dismal. But land reform from 2000 has changed the dynamic. The large-scale sector is much diminished, replaced by a mix of medium-scale A2 farms and a larger number of smaller A1 farms, where dynamics of ‘accumulation from below’ are evident. This has generated a new demand for tractors.

As part of a wider study on mechanisation and commercial agriculture in Africa under the APRA programme, new work from Mvurwi area, a high-potential tobacco growing area north of Harare, has shown how tractor use has been expanding. Despite various projects, including the Brazilian More Food International programme, much of this has been based on a private market. Official figures suggest that tractor numbers increased nearly six-fold between 2011 and 2017, mostly in the medium-scale farming areas, and predominantly through a second-hand market of machines originally imported for former large-scale farms. These figures may be an underestimate, however, as survey data show that in the small-scale A1 resettlement areas tractor hiring has increased significantly, as tobacco successful small-scale farmers invest in tractors and hire them out.

The Brazilian tractor cooperatives have contributed to this, but are only a very partial element of a bigger story. Large four-wheel tractors are expensive items and only some are able to buy them, even when old, battered and repaired for a second-hand market. Collective ownership through the Brazilian coops potentially open access to others, but the politics of coops are notorious, and the ones in Mvurwi have become embroiled in turf-wars over control, with coop leaders fending off attempts at political capture by party officials. Tractors of course are always political.,

Tractors in Mvurwi these days are therefore a mix of very old machines imported several decades ago (usually ancient Massey Ferguson and John Deere models), and more recent Chinese models (imported in the flurry of investment under the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe programmes of the mid-2000s) and a few new Brazilian models (as in the picture above). Perhaps surprisingly, it is the older ones that are the most common and the most likely to continue to function, as there are both the skills to mend them, and a (declining) second-hand spares market. For any mechanisation programme, the ability to repair and reconstruct is essential, and often forgotten in the eagerness to bring in new, shiny machines that support a domestic industry (in China, Brazil, Belarus, India, Iran or wherever) through an aid programme.

Small-scale pumps: opportunities for farmer-led irrigation

The tractor story contrasts with that of small-scale irrigation pumps, which have expanded massively in recent years across the new resettlement areas. As discussed in a recent paper, focused on sites in Masvingo, small, cheap, Chinese-made pumps, together with flexible plastic piping, have transformed the capacity for farmer-led irrigation in a dramatic fashion. This process has largely been ignored by policy-makers and aid agencies alike.

The process is being driven by an agile private market, involving a network of players that link importers with retailers with a growing cottage industry in repairs. Gone are the days when you could only buy a pump set if you were seriously rich or the beneficiary of an NGO project in a ‘group garden’. Costing only US$250, virtually anyone can get one, and start irrigating from rivers, streams, dams and vlei ponds. This has expanded the opportunities to many, including young people without land. The onward links to horticultural markets and processing opportunities in turn all generate employment and local economic growth.

It is both the characteristic of the technology (small, mobile, flexible etc.), but also the market context, that allows small-scale pump irrigation to thrive, and makes the technology ‘appropriate’. Upgrading and scaling up is possible too. Some choose to buy more small pumps to maintain flexibility, while others buy larger, fixed pumps and dig boreholes to expand irrigation.

There are therefore many pathways of innovation and mechanisation. These must suit different people’s social and economic conditions, as access to cash, technology, land and labour is managed together. Appropriate technologies are always socio-technologies, with technical, social and political lives intimately linked.

Rethinking agricultural mechanisation policy

Mechanisation of agriculture is occurring apace in Zimbabwe, but not as the planners would wish it. The irrigation engineers remain sceptical about the small-scale pump revolution, fixated as they often are with ordered, regularised irrigation schemes with fixed, large-scale pump technologies. Meanwhile, the engineers in the mechanisation departments dream of bigger tractors, with more horsepower and linked to drillers, seeders, combines and the rest, in order to create a vision of commercial agriculture derived from the textbooks. Aid programmes, such as the Brazilian coops, often replicate such visions, as technicians import a perspective from their own context of what ‘tropical technology’ should be, without thinking about need and context.

However, under the noses of the technicians and planners things are happening. These are largely private ‘below-the-radar’ initiatives, linked to locally-embedded markets, and with entrepreneurship not only linked to supplying the kit, but also adapting, maintaining and repairing it. For tractors, the second-hand market is thriving allowing more timely tillage of larger areas, and with small-scale pumps, the cheap, flexible sets have transformed irrigation.

But there are limits. As the stock of tractors, and particularly spares, declines, there are challenges in meeting demand. Hiring businesses, including via cooperatives, are an alternative, and particularly important for small-scale production, where owning a large tractor just for yourself doesn’t make much sense. This is why the connections between A2 and A1 areas is important, and such coordination requires facilitation. For pumps, the semi-disposable pump sets are ideal for starting up, but upgrading is a big step, and borehole drilling remains very costly. Issues of ground and surface water access and management for sustainable use of course become important as pump use expands.

In the wider technological landscape there are gaps too. Two-wheeled tractors, for example, for use on small plots might have an advantage for some, while intermediate level pumps and cheaper drilling options may help upgrading. Investments in linking hiring options through online applications have emerged in some places, while support for training in repairing diverse types of equipment may encourage local businesses. With a better idea of the nature of what ‘appropriate technology’ means a role for coordination and facilitation by state or NGO players emerges, including encouraging south-south trade in capital goods.

Silent, hidden green revolutions

Despite the narrative of state-led, directed innovation and mechanisation, agricultural green revolutions rarely happen in this way. Much more common is a flexible bricolage of initiatives that emerge, based on pulling together options that fit. As Steve Biggs and Scott Justice argue for the Asian experience:

“In regions where smaller-scale mechanization has taken place, there has also been a growth of rural industries and strong linkages with the broader national economy. Whether by design or not, it appears that markedly different patterns of smaller-scale rural mechanization over time have led not only to agricultural production increases but also to broad-based rural and economic development…. It is our hope that there will be increasing interest in the “silent and hidden” revolutions of the spread of smaller-scale equipment and that broad-based rural development, such as worthwhile rural employment and careful and intensive use of water and energy sources, will again become important goals of economic development. There is now empirical evidence on a grand scale that shows it can be done”.

This empirical evidence is emerging in Zimbabwe too, and a wider recognition, along with selective coordination and facilitation by state and aid players, is essential if Zimbabwe’s agriculture is to transform in the post-land reform setting.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

 

 

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Roads, belts and corridors: what is happening along Africa’s eastern seaboard?

The main port at Nacala, Mozambique

The eastern seaboard of Africa from Kenya to Tanzania to Mozambique has become a major focus of attention. The ports – from Bagamoyo to Beira – are seen as the gateway to Africa, a place where great riches can be found. Such ports, and the road and rail links that connect them, are now being redeveloped at a frenzied pace. Much of this is about mineral export, but agriculture is part of the picture too, as a number of the new (or often revived) corridors are seen as ‘agricultural growth corridors’, a term on the lips of many ambitious planners and investors.

Eastern Africa’s ports are also vital staging posts in China’s massively ambitious ‘belt and road’ initiative to connect to the rest of the world. The maritime ‘roads’ across the India Ocean, connect to ‘belts’ that stretch across Asia to China, and through Africa and Europe. The Chinese vision, promoted enthusiastically by President Xi Jinping, is one of an interconnected world, supported by the best of Chinese infrastructure, providing new opportunities for profitable exchange and market-driven export-based development.

For the sceptics this is a replaying of colonial exploitation; imperial ambitions in a new age with new loci of commercial power. An interest in the eastern seaboard of Africa is of course not new. The ports, roads and rail links of played other roles in previous eras – from the slave trade to colonial extraction. For those with strategic geopolitical interests in the region, not least India who sees the Indian Ocean as important militarily and economically, recent developments have major implications.

 

A canon pointing out to sea at the Portuguese colonial slave fort on Ilha de Moçambique

The Nacala corridor: more than coal?

I recently spent a week in Nampula province in northern Mozambique. This is the location of the Nacala corridor, which stretches from the coal mining region of Tete through southern Malawi to the port of Nacala. The visit was part of a project, led in Mozambique by Euclides Gonçalves, on the political economy of agricultural growth corridors in eastern Africa. It is a small component of the new DFID-funded APRA programme, which has just produced its first Working Paper by Rebecca Smalley on this theme.

The Nacala corridor has been the subject of much controversy around the Prosavana project, a trilateral development cooperation project involving Brazil, Japan and Mozambique, discussed in earlier work on China and Brazil in African agriculture. In its early incarnations Prosavana was aiming to roll out massive agricultural investment projects along the corridor, focusing on Brazilian investment and expertise, replicating the much hailed success of the Cerrado in Brazil. These grand plans however unravelled through a combination of organised international opposition, collapsing commodity prices, the Brazilian political crisis and the plain fact that investing in large-scale agriculture in Africa is incredibly difficult, requiring very deep pockets given the risks.

Now things have moved on. The grand plans – at least in their original form – have been put on hold, but there is much happening below the radar. The rail line carrying coal from Tete is fully functional, as is the new port facility at Nacala. There is a new airport at Nacala and the road is in good shape. Land is cheap, good quality and relatively plentiful, and the processes for transfer of ‘DUATs’ from communities to investors is relatively straightforward, as long as some bureaucratic and consultation hoops are jumped through. Locally and nationally there is much political will supporting external investment from the Mozambican party-state, seen as a way of generating growth in a poor part of the country prone to supporting opposition groups. As a source of patronage and backhanders no doubt there are other incentives too.

The Vale coal rail line cutting across the rural Mozambican landscape

At one level the corridor to the new Nacala port facility, established on the other side of the bay to the original Nacala port, is only about exporting coal. Vale, the huge Brazilian conglomerate, has invested millions, now in partnership with Japanese investors. The rail line is increasing freight capacity, although local passengers have limited opportunities to use the railway and local villagers must wait ages for long trains to pass as the rail line cuts through their lands. Others are involved too. For example, Chinese construction companies are also involved in infrastructure development. With improved facilities in the original port, and the potential, as yet unrealised, for the railway to be used for more than coal and the odd passenger train, others are eyeing up the region too.

Agribusiness and development

From established agribusiness operations, such as Rift Valley Corp’s Matanuska banana operation near Manapo, to smaller, more prospective investors in agriculture from Brazil, South Africa, Portugal, India, Jordan, Canada the US and more, the corridor appears to be generating interest, although not at all as part of a coordinated grand plan. Such investments are often supported by international ‘aid’ funds that help to ‘de-risk’ investments or provide opportunities for cutting costs (such as the use of Brazilian tractors supplied through the More Food International programme; again the subject of earlier research being continued under APRA).

A Brazilian tractor in use on a new commercial farm

Local farmers may benefit too. Such operations generate employment opportunities, although the labour conditions are poor, and they may not benefit villagers in the immediate locality. Outgrower arrangements are often mooted as part of improving local relations, a model heavily promoted earlier by AgDevCo in the Beira corridor as part of a UK aid programme, but many fail because generating export quality, regular supplies in sufficient quantities is seriously tough. Local players are also jumping on the corridor bandwagon, with government officials and business people investing in land, and linking up with new external investors.

Who benefits? Political economy questions

It is a highly dynamic situation that the research is only now starting to examine. Corridor investments clearly provide much needed infrastructure in locations that have been marginalised, and remain extremely poor. But who will benefit? An extractivist regime that sees the corridor merely as transport route to export natural resources (in Nacala’s case coal) may see limited local benefits, as the rail line acts more like a ‘tunnel’ connecting mine to port, with little interaction with local people and economies along the way.

A more integrated corridor development may yet emerge, however, as the corridor becomes an attractor for economic activity that spreads out as a network, rather than an isolated, linear connector. For this to happen, as in the old ‘growth pole’ model, other economic activity has to be attracted, and the benefits of infrastructure development shared locally, and also more widely. In this case to the hinterlands of the eastern seaboard, across regions to the landlocked countries of Malawi and Zimbabwe, for example.

But, even if such wider activity happens, some will appropriate the spoils more than others. As in other areas where rapid economic transitions happen through land investments, there is plenty of room for speculation, patronage and deals that create new elites, excluding others. Political economy really matters, and in contrast to much existing research on growth corridors that focuses on the ‘business case’ and the sequencing of infrastructure, this is the emphasis of our research in Mozambique (Nacala/Beira), as well as Kenya (LAPSSET) and Tanzania (SAGCOT).

The longer history of corridors along eastern Africa is one of exploitation and extraction: from slaves to plantation crops to minerals. But how can contemporary investments – which I believe should not be naively rejected – be made to work for the majority, not just the few? This is the underlying challenge, and one our research hopes to investigate, engaging along the way with investors, local villagers and the brokers and intermediaries among state and non-state actors who can make a difference to the way corridor development pathways emerge.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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Empowering chickens: why Bill Gates’ plan may be flawed

gates chicken3

Are chickens the route to rural women’s empowerment? Bill Gates thinks so. In a recent Gates Notes comment piece he announced ‘a big bet on chickens’ with an initial distribution of 100,000  to rural women in Africa. With just 5 chickens, he argued a woman could earn $1000 in a year. Melinda Gates meanwhile emphasises the empowerment angle, arguing in a blog that “raising chickens is considered women’s work, and the money from selling chickens and eggs belongs to women to spend as they choose”.

Simply handing out chickens and expecting these to improve livelihoods is of course not so straightforward. That is a big income from an initial 5 chickens! There have been many well-meaning projects that have done the same over many years. The relationship between poultry, disadvantage and empowerment for women is complex.

As Joseph Hanlon and Teresa Smart point out for Mozambique commercial poultry production is a costly business. Successful businesses require basic infrastructure, veterinary care, assured supplies of day-old-chicks and effective markets. Few manage this, and as our profiles of new agricultural entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe, the new poultry producers must rely on established businesses and services for support, and not all the beneficiaries of such enterprises are of course women. Most rural people rely on a few chickens of local breeds that require little maintenance and provide an important source of nutrition and income, but not sufficient for economic empowerment, by any stretch of the imagination.

gates chicken2

In our surveys across the resettlement areas, nearly every household has a few indigenous, village chickens. These are widely used, but do not provide a stable or significant income. Across 400 households in our A1/A2 sample in Masvingo province, we found 16 new broiler operations, but only two of these exceeded the $1000 profit level being suggested by Bill Gates; most made about $500 profit and many much less. These were 50 to 100 bird operations, reliant on significant and expensive inputs, not available to most women, except in the few cases when they were organised in groups.

Hanlon and Smart contrast the Gates NGO model with that of Brazil. In the last few decades, Brazil has become a major producer and exporter of chickens. Frozen chicken cuts from Brazil undercut local production in many parts of the world including Africa. The Brazil model, heavily invested in by the state investment bank, BNDES, relies on large producers of chicks, and a major support network established through contracting arrangements with small-scale producers. This realises massive economies of scope and scale, which are very difficult to replicate in African settings.

In Zimbabwe, large-scale commercial farmers are often crucial links in the value chain in a fast-changing commercial poultry sector. In Masvingo for example, the Mitchells’ farm supplied day-old chicks to many farmers, and continues to do so across the communal and new resettlement areas, despite attempts at land grabbing. The presence of such an operation, with all the infrastructure, skill and market connections that it requires, has been crucial to the success of the medium-scale new entrepreneurs that we profiled. As Hanlon and Smart argue:  “As usual, the aid industry can only see the two extremes and ideas that come from outside – Bill Gates’ five hens or Odebrecht’s [a Brazilian company] millions of chickens. The successes in the middle, and the successes developed locally, are ignored”.

Bill Gates and his team have to understand the changing global political economy of poultry production in their announcement, as well as the range of enterprises that actually exist. As Jim Sumberg and colleagues point out for Ghana there are many competing narratives about the role of poultry production in economic development. Too often the NGO vision – often tied to naïve ambitions of local economic empowerment – dominates but does not match the facts on the ground.

Major evidence gaps exist in the debate, and the Gates proposal has fallen foul of these. In Ghana, as elsewhere, we simply don’t know how many chickens there are, and in what sized flocks they are being kept. There are confusions between a generic ‘chicken’, and different types – broilers, layers, and the ubiquitous ‘road runner’ chicken, seen in villages across the continent. Each require different inputs, feeds, management care, and levels of capitalisation, and they usually operate in very different markets. ‘Indigenous’ chickens are valued for taste, ritual slaughter and other uses; broilers and the ‘improved’ breeds that the Gates Foundation are distributing do not cut it.

Patterns of consumption of meat are changing too, with chicken often favoured over for example beef, due to cost. But it is the very cheap imports (from Brazil in particular, but also Europe and the US) that have driven this in urban areas, along with the opportunities that supermarkets provide for frozen products. This is not the vision of the mini flock of village chickens owned by newly empowered women. In Ghana as elsewhere, policy is confused and conflicting, as different interest groups compete, but often with a poor understanding undermining any pretence at ‘evidence-based’ policy.

Empowerment of course is a political process. It’s about recognition, rights, voice and participation, not just about chickens, and new sources of income. Empowerment must also challenge the wider structural political-economic factors that keep poor people poor, and women disenfranchised. Cheap frozen chicken from Brazil will not go away as long as free trade regimes and cheap oil allow transnational value chains that can often undercut even the most diligent producers in rural Ghana, Mozambique or Zimbabwe. As we’ve long learned, giving women new assets without the requisite changes in gender relations and shifts in power relations in the domestic economy, can result in intra-household struggles, with men often benefiting more than women.

Easy gestures from rich philanthropists are insufficient, and must address these wider issues if the highly commendable focus on poorer rural women and their empowerment is to be addressed. Handing out chickens may not be the simple solution that it first appears.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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Rethinking Chinese engagement in Africa

One of the projects I have been running over the last few years has focused on how China and Brazil have engaged in African agriculture. It involved research in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, as well as China and Brazil.

The results have been published in a special issue of World Development, available free to download. As I reflected in a recent blog on The Conversation site, Chinese engagements are often not what they seem, and run counter to many of the standard media narratives. A SciDev article recently featured the project too, summarising key findings.

In a recent ChinaFile podcast, I explained some of the results to Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden. Here’s what’s on the ChinaFile site, and the podcast is below:

“The Western and African media have long fuelled the myth that Chinese investors are buying up vast tracts of land across Africa as part of a neo-colonial plan to export food back to China. Sure, on one level, the theory appears plausible: China has around 20 percent of the world’s population with less than seven percent of the planet’s arable land, so it seems obvious that Beijing might look abroad in search of farmland to feed its people. There’s only one small problem. That premise, no matter how convincing it may sound, is just flat-out wrong.

Johns Hopkins University professor Deborah Brautigam detailed all of the reasons why this myth remains so durable in her 2015 book Will Africa Feed China? A lot of it, according to Brautigam, has to do with a mix of bad journalism, Western narratives of African victimization, and the Chinese themselves who oversell their ambitions in Africans.

Now, though, there’s a twist to the story. Not only are the Chinese not on a land-buying spree in Africa, it appears they are actually doing more to support African agricultural development than any other country in the world.

Professor Ian Scoones from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex recently completed a four-country research project on Chinese agricultural engagement in Africa and discovered that the combination of Chinese immigrant farmers in Africa along with the deployment of Chinese agricultural technology and People’s Republic of China government training programs that have brought some 10,000 African officials to China have all had a remarkably positive impact on Africa’s struggling agricultural sector.

Professor Scoones joins Eric and Cobus to discuss why Chinese engagement in African agriculture is not what it seems.”

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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Are China and Brazil transforming African agriculture?

china brazilA new Open Access Special Issue in World Development based on our work on the changing role of China and Brazil in Africa’s agriculture is now available (links to individual articles are below, and also via here).

The work was developed under the ‘China and Brazil in African Agriculture’ project of the Future Agricultures Consortium. The project was supported by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (grant: ES/J013420/1) under the Rising Powers and Interdependent Futures programme.

The research involved studies in Ghana, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, as well as China and Brazil. There were over 20 research collaborators involved, from Africa, China, Brazil and Europe, and it was a massively rich, if sometimes challenging, experience. Our research looked at 16 different case studies, involving a mix of agricultural investments by private and state owned enterprises, tri-lateral development cooperation efforts, technology demonstration initiatives, training programmes, as well as ‘under-the-radar’ involvement in agriculture by Chinese migrants.

There was no single story emerging, but a complex set of engagements, which contrast in important ways with existing patterns of western-led development and investment, and offer important opportunities for reflection and learning. These 8 papers (along with over 20 other Working Papers on the project website) are the result. Do download, read and send us feedback! It’s been a lot of work putting them together!

Ian Scoones, Kojo Amanor, Arilson Favareto and Gubo Qi A new politics of development cooperation? Chinese and Brazilian engagements in African agriculture
Kojo Amanor and Sérgio Chichava South-South cooperation, agribusiness and African agricultural development: Brazil and China in Ghana and Mozambique
Jing Gu, Zhang Chuanhong, Alcides Vaz and Langton Mukwereza Chinese state capitalism? Rethinking the role of the state and business in Chinese development cooperation in Africa
Alex Shankland and Euclides Gonçalves Imagining agricultural development in South-South Cooperation: the contestation and transformation of ProSAVANA
Lídia Cabral, Arilson Favareto, Langton Mukwereza and Kojo Amanor Brazil’s agricultural politics in Africa: More Food International and the disputed meanings of ‘family farming’
Seth Cook, Jixia Lu, Henry Tugendhat and Dawit Alemu Chinese migrants in Africa: Facts and fictions from the agri-food sector in Ethiopia and Ghana
Henry Tugendhat and Dawit Alemu Chinese agricultural training courses for African officials: between power and partnerships
Xiuli Xu, Xiaoyun Li, Gubo Qi, Lixia Tang and Langton Mukwereza Science, technology and the politics of knowledge: the case of China’s Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centres in Africa

The papers examine how agricultural technologies, practices and policies travel across the world as part of investment and development cooperation. Technologies and policies always have histories, and emerge in particular social and political contexts. Yet China and Brazil both argue that theirs are perhaps especially relevant to Africa, given common agroecological conditions, and similar histories of agricultural development. We were interested in finding out how things travelled, and what happened during the journey.

Of course the transfer of technologies and policies, as we’ve long known, is not simple or linear. Assumptions are often deeply embedded (such as what a farmer is, what scale is appropriate, and how different sorts of technology are important), but they do not always translate into new contexts. Not surprisingly, despite the claims, not everything generated in Brazil and China has landed easily in Africa. There have been rejections, resistances, and so revisions and recastings; all of which highlight the importance of ‘development encounters’ and the negotiations about knowledge (and technology, practice, policy) that must go on during development cooperation – whether with a western aid agency or with Brazilian and Chinese actors.

Together, the papers show how historical experiences in Brazil and China, as well as domestic political and economic debates, affect how interventions are framed, and by whom, and so influence what technologies are chosen, which investments are funded, and who gets trained. The papers argue for a focus on the encounters on the ground, moving beyond the broader rhetoric and generic policy statements about South-South cooperation. For example, a key feature of Brazilian and Chinese engagements in African agriculture is the role of state-business relations in shaping and steering development; something that other agencies such as DFID interested in the role of the private sector, and public-private partnerships, might usefully learn from.

The special issue asks if a new paradigm for development cooperation is emerging, and argues that we must move beyond the simplistic narratives of either mutual benefit and ‘South-South’ collaboration or ‘neo-imperial’ expansion of ‘rising powers’. As the introductory paper argues, we need a more sophisticated account than this simplistic binary, and to “look at the dynamic and contested politics of engagement, as new forms of capital and technology enter African contexts”.

Do read, share and comment on the papers. We hope they will generate a debate about the role of the ‘rising powers’ in African development, and help us move towards a more nuanced appreciation and away from the rather simplistic frames that have dominated the debate to date.

 This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

 

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Why tractors are political in Africa

In May last year, the long-awaited tractors from Brazil arrived in Zimbabwe. There was a bizarre handing over ceremony at Harare showgrounds, with the tractors all lined up and the President was there to receive them.

Tractors New Zimbabwe (May 2015)

This has been a long-running saga, reported on earlier in this blog. The tractors are part of Brazil’s international cooperation programme, supported by the Ministry of Agrarian Development in Brazil under their ‘More Food International’ (MFI) programme, and purchased from the Brazilian company, Agrale. Under the first phase of a $98m loan (based on highly concessionary interest rates, spread over a 15 year term), Brazil has supplied Zimbabwe with 320 tractors, 450 disc harrows, 310 planters, 100 fertiliser spreaders and 6 650 knapsack sprayers valued at $39million. A second phase is, according to the Brazilian ambassador to Zimbabwe, expected soon. MFI is based on a Brazilian programme that supports public procurement of agricultural equipment to support small-scale ‘family farmers’. In Brazil tractors and other forms of mechanised farming equipment are a useful addition to what in Zimbabwe would be called medium-scale commercial farms. Run by families, but not often not that small by African standards.

In international development this mismatch of languages causes much confusion, as Lidia Cabral discusses in relation to Brazil-Africa development cooperation. What is small scale in one place (say Brazil – where there are some very, very big farms) is large somewhere else (including Zimbabwe). So approaches – or ‘models’ – generated in one place do not easily travel. The argument of course from Brazil is that they have long experience of successful agriculture, across scales, and that their ‘tropical technology’ is transferrable, as they have the technical and agronomic skills based in similar agroecological settings. Quite how ‘tropical’ the Brazilian tractors prove to be, we will see. And whether they are preferable to the non-tropical Chinese, Iranian, Belarusian, American or British versions.

So where are these tractors supposed to go, and how are they supposed to be used? As I have discussed on this blog before, there is a long history of failed attempts to encourage ‘tractorisation’ of small-scale farming in Zimbabwe. The big problem is that farms are too small and undercapitalised for a single farmer to usefully use one, and collective arrangements have largely failed. That said, there is certainly an increase in tractor usage in the new resettlements. Some have bought second-hand tractors are successfully hiring them out. In our Mvurwi sample for example, about 5 per cent of A1 farmers own tractors, most purchased in the last few years. Ownership is concentrated among the richer farmers, with 17 per cent of farmers in our top ‘success group’ owning them; some coming via government programmes. With larger land areas, and such a premium on timely ploughing with increasingly erratic rainfall (although sadly this year it may be a complete write-off due to the El Nino drought), tractors do make sense. The interaction between (smaller-scale) A1 and (medium-scale) A2 farms becomes important here. With many A2 farmers having tractors, they hire them out to their neighbours on A1 farms, making the new spatial configuration following land reform crucial.

But tractors in Zimbabwe are indelibly associated with corruption and patronage. The Chinese tractors that arrived in numbers in the 2000s at the height of Gideon Gono’s bizarre attempts to salvage the economy were handed out as deals to those in power. Many have ended up as sad memorials of this period, rusting in people’s compounds. I hope this will not be the fate of the Brazilian tractors. They have been handed over in good faith, even if with a certain naivety about the context. But the omens are not good. As symbols of modernity and power, tractors just have this effect.

While I was in Zimbabwe at the end of last year, the Grace Mugabe roadshow was in full swing. This seems to have become an annual event in the build up to the ZANU-PF Congress. Many are bussed to her rallies, and not showing up is certainly noticed. As in all political rallies, these are opportunities for high-flown rhetoric and for handing out goodies. The expense is extraordinary. Newspaper reports of a rally near one of our research sites in Matabeleland South listed the following: 220 tonnes of maize, 120 tonnes of rice, 4440kg of washing powder, 5000kg clothes, 3000kg salt, 2000 pairs of shoes, 5280 bars of washing soap, 3000kg of bath soap, 1800 litres of cooking oil, 220 tonnes of Compound D fertilizer, 20 tonnes cotton seed, 10 soccer kits, 30 netballs and 30 soccer balls. All chiefs who attended received food hampers and 100 litres of fuel each.

And of course there were also tractors. I cannot verify that these were part of the Brazilian shipment, but I assume so – and there have been other accusations in the press, and series of court cases trying to prevent this. It seems the tractors – as many times before – are already being used for exerting patronage in the name of development. Tractors do seem to be so deeply entwined with the practices of patronage, and despite the (somewhat misguided but nevertheless genuine) goodwill of the Brazilians it has it seems to have happened again. It is sad, but perhaps inevitable, and is a warning to any agency that patronage and aid are tightly linked. Well meaning, good governance protocols may not be enough, and resources get wasted.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

Photo from NewZimbabwe.com

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BRICS and development: new hubs of agrarian capital

When talking about the BRICS countries and their role in development, there is a lot of hot air surrounding debates on ‘South-South cooperation’ and plenty of warm words offered about ‘mutual learning’ and ‘solidarity’. But it was refreshing to be at a conference last week at PLAAS in Cape Town on the engagement of Brazil, China and South Africa in patterns of agrarian change to start from a different perspective: the influence on development pathways by the BRICS as new hubs of capital. The proposition of the BICAS group – similar but with different emphases to the CBAA project (also affiliated to the Future Agricultures Consortium) – is that we have to understand the origins, political and economic driving forces and limitations of the new hubs of capital, in order to get to grips with new dynamics of agrarian change across the world. There was a huge amount discussed at the conference, and the details are only now sinking in, but let me offer a few first thoughts on the emerging debates and their implications.

Emerging dynamics

Despite the hyperbole often associated with ‘rising powers’, one thing that struck me from across the presentations was the limits to accumulation and the extension and penetration of new forms of capital. There has been much debate about ‘land grabbing’, alongside much misinformation and confusion about its extent, but many of the big investment deals that were profiled soon after the 2007-08 crisis have not materialised, and even very high profile programmes – such as Prosavana in Mozambique, the subject of much debate and a panel at the conference – have not really materialised on the ground.

Capitalist accumulation of course takes many forms, and not always those of violent displacement and dispossession. Instead, a much longer, quieter pattern of accumulation may be happening, driven by a new global configuration of capital. This is what Jun Borras called for southeast Asia, the ‘thousand pin pricks’ of small scale transfers of land and extension of (often) Chinese capital in the region. In Africa too, while land grabs still continue, Ruth Hall emphasised the extension into processing, input supply, agricultural technology including seeds, transport and retail. The multiple ‘value webs’ created are crucial in understanding the impacts of the extension of capital from the new hubs. Compared to dramatic grabs, the slow, cumulative ‘dull compulsion of economic relations’ may have as big an effect in the end. But, participants argued, this requires a different lens to understand its dynamics.

Of course since the financial crisis, the possibilities of accumulation have changed. Africa with its vast land area, and apparent emptiness, was seen as a new frontier. But since then commodity prices have collapsed, and the urgency of seeking new markets via Africa – to Europe and beyond, possibly assisted by aid-funded preferential access and state support from African governments eager for investment – has receded. Africa in particular has proven a tough place to extend business ventures. Red tape, local politics, harsh environments, poor infrastructure plague new capital, just as they have old capital.

Domestic political contexts and economic imperatives in China, Brazil and South Africa have changed too. Talk in China is of the ‘new normal’ where consumption demand stabilises, and growth rates decline from the supercharged levels of a few years ago. As China turns to rebalancing and making the economy more sustainable, the massive commodity demand has tailed off. This of course has a direct impact on Brazil, where the decline in commodity prices, particularly in agriculture, has major consequences. This has combined with the domestic political crisis dominated by corruption scandals and a backlash by the middle classes. Concerns again are more inward looking. South Africa has its own economic and political crises, reflecting its failure to deal with the legacies of apartheid, as discussed on this blog last week. This at one level pushes capital to seek alternatives elsewhere, but also highlights the rather fragile claim to be a ‘rising power’, when perhaps Nigeria will prove its economic might in the region if conflicts in the north can be addressed.

Another theme running through the conference, and now more thoroughly understood thanks to some great new work, is the influence of financialisation. This is transforming land and agrarian change, as new players – be they equity funds, sovereign wealth investments, or banks of different sorts – see land and agriculture as new asset classes and investment opportunities. As Moises Balestro commented, the old landowning rentier class of Brazil has a new ally in financialisation. This transforms the way capital operates – no longer necessarily driven by companies associated with nation states (whether BRICS or not), but often truly globalised flows of finance that upset the notion that new political blocs centred on states rule the roost. Such finance has no particular national character, nor any form of political accountability, yet has enormous power and influence.

The mirror effect

Alongside these changing dynamics of capital and accumulation trajectories, another theme of the conference was how the political economy of the new hubs of capital establish the nature and direction of new investments abroad. This is a strong theme of the CBAA project that argues that the histories of domestic political economies in China and Brazil, and the associated imaginaries and narratives of agriculture and development, strongly influence what forms of agricultural development cooperation arrives in Africa – and so the meanings of agriculture, farming and development, and with this the pathways that emerge through these encounters.

In Brazil the long-running tension and political accommodation of both agribusiness and ‘family farming’ with agrarian reform, that Sergio Sauer and Sergio Schneider both talked of, is exported in various projects and technical assistance programmes. Models appropriate to Brazilian contexts – and reflecting this on-going very Brazilian political struggle – arrive in Africa, resulting in frequent confusion, as various cases under the CBAA project describe.

From China, the tension between ‘filling the rice bowl’ and the need to keep a stable, rural peasantry and the narrative of agricultural modernisation was discussed by Ye Jingzhong. This is also reflected in its ‘going out’ policy, as elaborated in CBAA work by Chinese Agricultural University colleagues led by Li Xiaoyun. Thus in different Chinese Agricultural Technology Centres, emerging from different provinces in China, very different visions of agriculture and development are reflected. There is no one China, and variegated forms of capital, reflected in the range of emphases of Chinese State Owned Enterprises that generally run these centres in Africa.

South African capital as it extends into Africa reflects a more unified vision, with its projection of large-scale commercial farming and vertically integrated value chains. This of course mirrors the historical evolution of South Africa’s agrarian sector, from the apartheid era to today, linked closely to what Ben Fine calls the minerals-energy complex that has historically defined South Africa’s political economy. With the power of large agribusiness even more entrenched by the processes of post-apartheid liberalisation, and now reinforced by financialisation, the extension of South African capital, perhaps especially in retail, processing, transport and logistics, but also technology and input supply is, as Ruth Hall and Ward Anseeuw, described, pushes a very particular logic and vision.

There is thus a striking mirroring of domestic struggles, tensions, accommodations and political-economic dynamics as capital extends from the new hubs. This imposes particular directions for accumulation and investment, and smooths certain paths for capital, and so the nature of investments. For this reason, in order to understand agrarian change, the scope must be cast wider, as much activity is focused on roads, mines and infrastructure development. Across the world, aid and state backed investments in ‘corridors’ and ‘investment zones’ are providing conducive conditions for capital accumulation. New agribusinesses follow on behind, often as the second or third wave of investment. This is a long game, where the quick wins of the speculative post-crash boom have gone, but state-capital alliances are forging longer term patterns, setting in train investments and visions of development framed in very different contexts, as Chinese, Brazilian and South African hubs (as well as Indian, Turkish, Indonesian, Vietnamese and other new hubs) extend their reach.

Beyond the rhetoric of South-South cooperation

To my mind, this is the context in which the high-sounding rhetoric around ‘South South cooperation’ must be set. For Zimbabwe, ‘Looking East’ to China – or to south of the Limpopo to South Africa or across the Atlantic to Brazil – must be seen in this light. While ‘conditionalities’ are not as imposed by the west or the old International Finance Institutions of the World Bank or IMF, there are consequences of engagement. Transfers are not just cash or technology, but much more. They include visions and trajectories of development that were constructed elsewhere, and so carry with them different politics and economic relations.

Talking about the emergence of a class of new entrepreneurial farmer, linked to urban markets, in Tanzania (very similar in many ways to what we see in Zimbabwe today), Marc Wegerif, only half jokingly, commented that being low on the World Bank’s index for doing business may be a good thing, providing some level of protection for smaller, domestic economic players. No-one denies Zimbabwe needs investment, but this conference reemphasised that understanding the wider system of finance and capital accumulation in a regional and global context is essential, so this can be responded to strategically.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland

 

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