This article examines various facets of China’s agricultural engagement in Africa from 1960s to the present. The main focus is on the role of the Chinese state in the history of Chinese development projects in Africa.
1) History and Diplomacy: In the 1960s, the Chinese invested in state-owned farms in Tanzania (Mbarali state farm), Guinea and sugar or tea plantations in Mali, Benin, Togo, Madagascar, Zanzibar and Sierra Leone. By 1985, China supported agricultural aid projects in 25 African countries. Increasing engagement in agricultural projects was propelled by diplomatic “South-South” relations, as evidenced by premier Zhao Ziyang’s 1982 trip to Africa. In the 1980s, Chinese teams were involved in building infrastructure ranging from building bridges to irrigation systems. The focus was on image of diplomacy, which explains the reason projects tended to be visible and were funded by Chinese grants rather than loans. Structural adjustment policies in the 1980s and 1990s created a vacuum for Chinese state-owned companies to continue projects that they had begun in earlier decades.
From 1995 to the present, there has been a general trend towards integrating aid projects and Chinese enterprises. Rhetoric of “helping out” has been enshrined in agricultural development and other project as a way to temper potential backlash against China’s extraction of resources in African countries. This has been couched in terms of “getting and giving.” However, there continues to be persistent backlash against Chinese agricultural investments intended to provide for food security in China. For example, Chinese interest in helping Mozambicans increase rice production when only a small percentage of the population eat rice brought criticism to the fore. Some Chinese officials responded with the argument that offshore farming is simply unprofitable as shipping costs are too expensive. At present, however, as the authors argue, Chinese farms cater mostly to local sales (rice, wheat, livestock and poultry) or for export to global markets (vanilla from Uganda, vegetables from Senegal and sugar from Sierra Leone).
Examples of symbolic development projects:
a) In 1988, Chinese experts were sent from Wuhan to Sierra Leone to help with rice stations. The civil war in 1991 sent Chinese experts to Freetown. The project was suspended until 1999 when teams from Wuhan were sent again to rebuild rice stations, remaining there until 2008. Magbass Sugar Complex was another project in the late 1970s, which was one of the first projects to be directed by Chinese managers. Later, Magbass became privatized and the Chinese brought tried to rehabilitate the sugar plantation. However, this project came to a halt and eventually, the Chinese company decided to renege on offers to commit to sugar projects in Madagascar and Benin as well. Land disputes were symptomatic of a rift between the locals who claimed to be the landowners of the plantation and the government, which had promised the Chinese that they could expand the size of the plantation. The Chinese were caught in the middle of land ownership claims and rising tensions contributed to their eventual divestment.
b) Joint ventures were established between Chinese companies and local companies. In 1989, a Chinese company joined Liberia’s state-owned Kptatawee rice seed multiplication farm and encouraged local counterparts to work with their experts.
Examples of contemporary, more profit-oriented projects:
a) Hybrid Rice: The global seed business is worth billions of dollars and China holds the patent on hybrid rice. “Hybrids are stronger and more productive than their parent stock, but they have limitations: they need to be purchased again and again….” They are also often controlled by large multinational companies. In the US, around 95 percent of maize is planted to hybrids. Perhaps hybrid rice might be a niche for small-scale farmers in African countries.
b) In 1990s, 80 workers from Baoding in China went to work in Zambia to build a dam. They grew Chinese vegetables near their residence. When their two-year contracts ended, some workers stayed to farm. As Baoding was enduring the 1997 Asian economic crisis, the workers promoted farming in Africa. It seems there are about 28 “Baoding villages” in 17 African countries since 1998 and around 7,000 to 15,000 Baoding farmers. The premise of their villages in “entering through agriculture, get rich through processing” has aroused resentment among local farmers who argue that the Chinese “should restrict their marketing to the wholesale level” (154).
2) Labor: The authors point to three issues that arise from further Chinese engagement in African agriculture — the competition between Chinese and African growers, cash crops as competition for subsistence crops and finally, the issue of labor. Large-scale production might drive people off their land and push them into seasonal labor. One potential solution the authors offer is outgrowing, a system whereby farmers keep control of their land and the company provides technology and fertilizer to the farmers and ensures purchase of the crop in exchange for local production on a large scale.