Opinion

China-Africa: A win-win cooperation?

Ian Scoones

How is China reshaping African agriculture?

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, the numbers of imported Chinese workers, and the areas of land ‘grabbed’ for investment are much lower. And, as her recent book shows, Africa will not be feeding China or China feeding Africa any time soon.

Working with African, Chinese and European colleagues, our team investigated Chinese engagements in agriculture in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, reported in a new open-access Special Issue of the journal World Development. It proved surprisingly difficult to find information. The data on land acquisition, investment flows and aid projects is limited and confusing.

The Chinese role in agriculture – in terms of business investment, technology transfer, demonstration efforts, training and more – is growing, and shaping perceptions. 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 programme. They are run mostly by companies, and linked to a commercial model for training and technology demonstration and sale. However, as Xiuli Xu and colleagues show, the centres’ performance depends on who is running them, 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. 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 grow rice and develop a contract-farming arrangement with surrounding farms. It has not been easy. Kojo Amanor and Sergio Chichava describe the changes in company leadership, disputes with local communities, and shifting alliances with local elites.

The training of government officials is an important aspect of the Chinese engagement in Africa. Over 10,000 are trained 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. While there have not been many immediate impacts, the longer-term building of relationships and the exertion of ‘soft power’ diplomacy is important.

Perhaps the most far-reaching but least understood dimension of Chinese involvement in African agriculture is the growing number of migrants involved in the agri-food sector, from farming and processing to retail and restaurants. Seth Cook and colleagues discovered a growing investment in supplying specialist Chinese foods to burgeoning expatriate Chinese populations. Those involved often came as part of Chinese government contracts, established businesses and then encouraged 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, which 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 will not likely come from Africa. As a new global power, however, 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.

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.