Category Archives: agriculture

China’s Engagement in African Agriculture

“China’s Engagement in African Agriculture” by Deborah A. Brautigam and Tang Xiaoyang in China and Africa: Emerging Patterns in Globalization and Development (2009)

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.

On Colonialism

Any reasonable discussion of colonialism on the African continent must be accompanied by an analysis of the differences in political economy. If one examines West Africa, for example, its political economy of colonialism was concentrated in the hands of local producers and large foreign firms, in sharp contrast to South African economy, which was shaped by the British South African Company. In his magnificently fine-grained book The Political Economy of West African Agriculture, Keith Hart delineates multiple factors that contributed to its underdevelopment.

Factors include ecological challenges, the detrimental effects of the slave trade on the social structure and production of the region, and above all, the “growing discrepancy between labor productivity in Europe and West Africa during the period of mercantilist expansion.” It was Europe’s Industrial Revolution and especially Britain’s that changed West African palm production. It’s important to note that West Africa was put in a vulnerable position by relying on palm oil production due to World Bank stipulations. Let’s look at another example provided by Hart — rubber production. In 1926 the Firestone company of tire production bailed out the Liberian government in exchange for leasing a million acres of land for 99 years at low rent. This is an example of colonial corporate/state rule which guaranteed cheap labor and low pay. What’s fascinating about the cocoa industry in West Africa is high level of success by indigenous farmers. Early farmers relied on family labor and at times, they formed companies in order to purchase and distribute land before dividing them into individual enterprises (60). Many people who went into the cocoa business had capital to invest; this capital usually came from profits made on palm oil, rubber and slaves. Hart argues: “one major reason why the productive organization of the cocoa industry has remained so determinedly small scale and noncapitalist is that the state has skimmed off much of the wealth it has produced, through monopsonistic marketing arrangements, thereby reducing incentives to reinvest in farm maintenance and improvement.”

Compared to West Africa, the southern part of the continent was shaped in large part by the discovery of minerals. The British South African Company received a charter from the British government in 1880s which enabled it to profit tremendously from the extraction of resources such as gold and diamonds. Resource extraction had significant implication for labor. In the case of copper mining in Zambia, colonial officials imposed multiple taxes which essentially had the effect of coercing Zambians into the cash economy and the mining industry. Audrey Richards, also a remarkable scholar and anthropologist, mentions in her book Land Labour and Diet that Bemba youths went to mines in groups of five or six for a year or two and this changed the social structure of their communities by placing a group of older men in charge. The lack of young productive labor in the villages led to decline in agricultural output. Over time, those working in the mines lost interest in village life.

In southern Rhodesia, the colonial government began to institute labor boards designed to manage labor pools. Labor boards changed laws to make it possible for people to enter the labor pool and impose new levy taxes and so forth. Sara Berry, who draws from Frederick Cooper, makes the brilliant observation in “Debating the Land Question in Africa” that British colonialism was concerned with development insofar as it involved measures to stabilize the labor pool. Strikes broke out in the Zambian Copperbelt in 1935 and thereafter, demonstrating to colonial officials that African workers were similar to European workers in wanting higher wages, better conditions, family allowances, benefits and compensation, decent housing and healthcare. When faced with the prospect of extending welfare programs beyond the labor market to colonial society as a whole, colonial administrators withdrew. They appropriated and used “tradition” and “progress” whenever it suited their needs. When Africans went on strike they were told they were forgetting their traditions (Berry 16). Yet they instituted policies that privileged the modern, “progressive” African farmer by allocating private property. “In effect, Africans were being asked to act like economic men and tribesmen at the same time: to build a modern, commercial agrarian order on the foundations of tribal solidarity.”

When examining the current state of African countries, one must consider the vestiges of the past. As Berry puts it, “colonial regimes left behind a series of hastily built governing structures, and an improbable vision of Africans as selfless modernizers, drawing on a communitarian past to create new societies that would combine the benefits of European commerce and technology with the virtues of traditional self-help…they ignored the profoundly destabilizing effects of colonial rule….”

If we are to understand China and African relations, we must analyze it not as a “new” event marked by a departure from the past, but rather a piece in continuity of Africa’s long and complicated history