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.
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.”
Chinese engagement in African agriculture is not what it seems…..
In December 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping flew into South Africa for the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation with great fanfare. There were lots of announcements about prospective investments across Africa. Agriculture featured prominently. But what is the real story of China in Africa on the ground, beyond the hype?
As Deborah Brautigam’s investigative research has so effectively shown, the assumptions about China’s role in Africa are often not borne out in reality. The level of investment and linked aid flows are much lower than the high numbers sometimes touted; the numbers of imported Chinese workers are much lower than often suggested; the areas of land “grabbed” for investment are small compared to the vast areas identified by some.
And, as Brautigam’s recent book shows, Africa will not be feeding China or China feeding Africa anytime soon.
Reality on the ground
We set about finding out what was happening on the ground. Working with African, Chinese and European colleagues, our team investigated Chinese engagements in agriculture in four countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. All have featured prominently as priorities for Chinese investment and aid.
Our just-completed project is reported in a new open access special issue of the journal World Development. So what exactly has been going on?
This proved surprisingly difficult to find out. The data on land acquisition, investment flows and aid projects is limited and confusing. It often doesn’t add up. Ghost projects are listed that never happened, and others are missed out.
Our original idea of doing a simple geomapping exercise based on available data was quickly abandoned. Instead, we had to triangulate between multiple sources to find out what was happening where.
Certainly there is a great deal going on, and the Chinese presence in Africa is important. The Chinese role in agriculture – in terms of business investment, technology transfer, demonstration efforts, training and more – is growing, and shaping perceptions.
We chose cases across the four countries to investigate in more detail. The studies aimed to explore the detail of investments, technology projects, training and development encounters more generally.
The central question we asked was: is China reshaping African agriculture?
No singular ‘Chinese model’
The Chinese Agricultural Technology Development Centres are flagship investments. There are now 23 across Africa, funded in their first phase by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce under their aid program. They are run mostly by companies, and are linked to a commercial model for training and technology demonstration and sale.
As Xiuli Xu and colleagues show, the centres’ performance very much depends on who is running them. Different provincial companies have very different characteristics, demonstrating that there is no singular “Chinese model” of development, or state-business partnership.
We also explored a number of cases of business investments in agriculture, primarily led by Chinese state-owned enterprises. Chinese development efforts mix aid with commerce, linking both provincial and central state involvement with different businesses.
For example, as Jing Gu and colleagues explain, in Xai Xai in Mozambique, the Wanbao agricultural development company from Hubei province took over 20,000 hectares on a state farm to farm rice, and develop a contract farming arrangement with surrounding farms.
It has not been easy. There have been a number of changes in company leads, disputes with local communities, and shifting alliances with local elites, as Kojo Amanor and Sergio Chichava set out.
The training of government officials is an important aspect of the Chinese engagement in Africa. More than 10,000 are trained in numerous courses in China each year, many in agriculture. This far exceeds any training initiative of any western aid programme.
Henry Tugendhat and Dawit Alemu explored the impacts of these courses, participating in training in China, and interviewing officials who had returned home to Ghana and Zimbabwe. While there have not been many immediate impacts, the longer-term building of relationships and the exertion of “soft power” diplomacy is important.
The role of informal Chinese migrants
Chinese migrants supply specialist Chinese foods to burgeoning expatriate populations. Reuters/Noor Khamis
Perhaps the most far-reaching but least understood dimension of Chinese involvement in African agriculture is the growing number of informal migrants getting involved in the agri-food sector, from farming to processing to retail to restaurants.
Seth Cook and colleagues investigated this in Ethiopia and Ghana. They discovered a range of activities: relatively few farmers, but growing investment in supplying specialist Chinese foods to burgeoning expatriate Chinese populations.
Those involved are very often migrants who came as part of Chinese government contracts, and have since established business connections and stayed, encouraging others to join them from China.
Through our work, we were able to gain a snapshot of the early stages of Chinese engagement in African agriculture. Our results show successes as well as failures. But Chinese engagement is certainly not yet at the scale sometimes assumed.
In the longer term, activities may accelerate as more opportunities open up. But China is also changing. As its economy restructures to a “new normal”, there are different demands. Food will certainly remain one, but this is not likely to come from Africa.
As a new global power, China will want to maintain business, aid and diplomatic relations with Africa, and sustaining relationships will be important. China plays the long game, and our studies were observing just the opening stages.
A 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
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.