China-Africa: win-win cooperation in the agricultural sector?



Hu Zhangliang, spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Pretoria, stated on 18 February 2016: "The Johannesburg Summit marked a turning point in China-Africa relations. And its resolutions will be implemented honestly. What we have achieved reaffirms the idea of a win-win cooperation … Our cooperation is characterised by sincerity, benefit and mutual respect … This cooperation will enable the creation of jobs, food security and the improvement of health".

This systematic reference to the win-win principle is rooted in South-South cooperation. A cooperation which, in its objectives and instruments, stands out from the North-South cooperation that remains overly permeated by a colonial and asymmetric past which, in particular, has ‘forgotten’ to finance agriculture for more than two decades. So what is the situation regarding cooperation between China and Africa in the agricultural sector?

First of all, we have to put aside rumours and accepted notions. China is not in Africa to feed its own population, and its land acquisitions are far fewer than those held by investors from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) countries. The production of rice, market garden products and sugar on Chinese land acquisitions are intended for national and regional African markets. As for cotton, rubber, cocoa and palm oil, these are purchased by Chinese traders or are intended for international markets, including that of China. This means that, until now, the nature of trade between China and Africa has been similar to that which has existed between Europe and Africa for decades: unprocessed raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods. This type of trade has not made a real contribution to the industrialisation of Africa. However, in the new Chinese-African policy presented in Johannesburg in December 2015, strong emphasis is placed on industrialisation: US$10 billion will be provided over the next 3 years to support Chinese companies establishing themselves in Africa, not to produce unprocessed raw materials but to create businesses to develop specific sectors and sub-sectors, in particular agriculture.

The Chinese strategy is based on a model for the dissemination of agricultural technological innovation through agricultural demonstration centres. The objective of these centres, of which there are currently 25, is to experiment with and popularise new food production technologies (irrigated rice, fish farming, and market garden products) using high yielding seeds and phytosanitary products imported from China. The aim of these new centres is to distribute ‘green revolution’ technological advances, but they do not address issues of access to credit or the instruments of agricultural policies (subsidies, role of the state, etc.).

Within the framework of trilateral cooperation with the World Food Programme (WFP), the plan is to put together a programme to reduce postharvest losses using techniques tested in China. Will these activities implemented by China be beneficial for Africa? Giving a positive answer to this question requires a clear vision of the scale in which these new technologies will be disseminated (which is not yet apparent), capacity of populations to acquire them, and a small risk of creating dependence by African agricultural systems on imports of seeds, fertilisers and phytosanitary products from China. The purchase of Syngenta by CHEMCHINA will undoubtedly have implications for Africa where this company already has a significant presence (Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire). Consequently, the real question is whether this cooperation is intended to meet the development challenges facing Africa (food security, rural employment, income disparities) or support Chinese companies establishing themselves in Africa.