Africa, begging with a golden bowl

The cover of Deborah Brautigam’s book “Will Africa Feed China?”

The cover of Deborah Brautigam’s book “Will Africa Feed China?”

Stanely Mushava Literature Today

Africa’s vastly underutilised agricultural potential is under spotlight in much of the book, with the continent urged to consider China’s example of broadly mechanised agriculture and strategic courting of foreign investment into the sector.

China’s geopolitical profile has leapt from a sleeping giant to an outbound, resource-hungry dragon with fierce expansionist ambitions.

Western media echo chambers routinely portray the world’s most populous nation as spreading neo-colonial tentacles into the developing world.

Meanwhile, Africa has not made much headway economically, rather maintaining the dubious tag of the richest continent with the poorest people.

Africa continues to play the surrogate to former colonisers, thanks to technological stagnations and unfair trade deals.

And now, a predictable match has been in the news, locating Africa as the principal destination of an aggressively charging Chinese empire.

Over the past decade, headlines have recurred about China’s alleged land-grabbing mission in Africa, ostensibly to outsource food security for its one billion citizens.

Speculation about the dragon’s state-sponsored land-grabbing has been passed for authoritative by influential, mostly Western, media, scholars, think-thanks and even creative writers.

Agriculturalist and noted China expert, Deborah Brautigam, puts the speculation to test in her 2015 book simply titled “Will Africa Feed China.”

Drawing on extensive field research in several African nations, Brautigam explores conventional narratives about China-Africa relations, initially the claim that the Chinese have acquired large areas of African farmland.

Claims that the Chinese government is leading this effort through its state-owned firms and sovereign wealth funds, the Chinese are growing grain in Africa for export to China and, more sensationally, the Chinese are sending large numbers of peasants to settle on the continent are also up for scrutiny.

“Many media stories have featured Chinese companies (or, more commonly, simply ‘China’ or ‘the Chinese’) as central players in African land acquisitions,” the author observes.

“‘China . . . now has extensive holdings in Africa, including pending or attempted deals for millions of hectares in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Tanzania, with many thousands of Chinese workers brought in to work on these lands,’ a reporter wrote for Inter Press Service.

“We read on an Israeli news website: ‘Chinese farms control most of Zambia’s agriculture.’ CBS News published an article stating that ‘China recently purchased half the farm land under cultivation in the Congo,’” she notes.

The important topics of food security, land grabbing, and the fate of smallholder farmers in the wake of the Asian giant’s newfound interest in African villages, Brautigam laments, have been compromised by inadequacy of data.

The China-Africa narrative has suffered from its data-starved hype and allusiveness to secondary, sometimes conveniently opinionated, sources rather than on-the-ground investigation.

Brautigam’s book seeks to debunk popular myths that have fed into conventional wisdom on the subject over time, responding with extensive fieldwork and a wealth of experience in the area.

The author’s investigation of Chinese agricultural investments in rural Africa refutes the four conventional narratives, at least the scale and immediacy with which they are pitched in the media.

She points out that while a growing number of Chinese agribusiness companies have pursued investments in Africa, their interest has not translated into significant land acquisitions.

Chinese-controlled farmlands, she points out, are not being used to export food to China but to supply Chinese food outlets and, in some cases, to export cash crops.

As for the book’s general query, the author suggests that China is exporting food to Africa, rather than the other way round, thanks to the continent’s perennial tardiness and declining productivity .

Some of the investments, which the author says are much smaller or more complicated than widely hyped, are reflective of China’s developmental framework and general global orientation but should not be attributed to state coordination.

The author omnivorously processes files on China’s African footprints, separating the empirical from the apocryphal.

A 2011 Voice of America (VOA) story to the effect that a Chinese company had leased “over a quarter of a million acres of land in southern Zimbabwe for the raising of maize, which it exports back to China” is one of the narratives short-circuited by the book.

VOA enriched the story by an interview with an American professor and co-author of the book, “Death by China”: “There are a lot of Chinese farmers there now tilling Zimbabwean soil, growing crops that are sent back to China while the people of Zimbabwe starve.”

But, counters Brautigam: “Had this been true, it might have confirmed many of the fears about Chinese investment in Africa, yet both experts were simply recirculating what we might call a ‘rural legend’ a 10-year-old rumour about a non-existent Chinese farm.”

She alludes, instead, to other problems such as tense working relations, disgruntlement of displaced peasants over compensation terms, side-lining of local labour and elusive initiatives.

These problems are discussed in ephemeral fashion although they might be as important as the foreground data in determining the central concerns of the book.

China’s sustained appetite for raw materials is discussed in passing and its footprints in the continent’s mining sector are altogether left out although this could be where the Asian giant’s role is more clearly defined.

Tomorrow is, however, not left to its own custody. The research is deployed not just to short-circuit conventional narratives but to arrive at a more definitive China-Africa forecast.

Africa’s vastly underutilised agricultural potential is under spotlight in much of the book, with the continent urged to consider China’s example of broadly mechanised agriculture and strategic courting of foreign investment into the sector.

While some African countries are climatically suitable to grow enough and to spare, sparsely irrigated and poorly mechanised farmlands have not been performing.

Only 40 percent of African farmland is technologically optimal, vast swaths have not been tamed and the bulk of production is subsistence-motivated.

The China-Africa relationship can yield other benefits beyond aid and trade. As Zimbabwe’s former education minister, Cde Fay Chung, says in her book, “Zimbabwe Looking East,” the nation should look to Beijing not for the money but primarily for the model.

“Agricultural modernization requires investment. Asia’s green revolution involved government-research partnerships that produced and disseminated high-yielding seeds, fertilizer, and other inputs,” Brautigam says.

Government-directed improvements in Asian villages, the author cites a 2008 World Bank report, explained more than 80 percent of rural poverty reduction.

This could be the case if African governments move to empower in earnest the rural population which, now, is manually labouring on the soil for declining produce under an increasingly hostile climate.

“Government and private spending on research and development is generally meagre in Africa, and a shortage of funds can mean that extension agents are unable to bring even these limited research findings to the farmers,” the author complains.

“Nebraska’s wheat farms and China’s rice paddies achieve some 80 percent of the yields in the gold standard of controlled trials, but maize farmers in much of Africa are reaping yields only 20 to 30 percent of those achieved in controlled conditions,” she says.

“Will Africa Feed China” goes beyond debunking conventional myths about the China-Africa relationship and considers options for maximising productivity in rural Africa.

Stanely Mushava can be contacted at [email protected] and blogs at jitknowledge.blogspot.com

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  • haiwawo

    Africa begging, period.

    More appropriate is “Africa giving away valuable resources for little in return” as a result of the corrupt and inept leadership in much of Africa.