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Far from Home: Chinese Farms in Africa

The complex reality of China’s engagement with agriculture in Africa was explored during a nuanced presentation at LIDC. James Keeley, of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), challenged certain assumptions about the motives for China’s involvement in African farming during the talk. The wide-ranging seminar on 27 November addressed issues including land acquisition for food security, agricultural innovation and the food crisis. The event, called China's Engagement with Agriculture in Africa: Preliminary Findings from Zambia, was co-organised by LIDC and the Africa Asia Centre – a research initiative based at LIDC.

Food security and land acquisition
Keeley began by highlighting how Li Ruogu, CEO of China’s Export-Import Bank, has portrayed Africa as a “fertile land” of “untapped resources”. He then focused on Chinese demand for agri-food commodities and the opportunity this presents for African exports. He referred to Lester Brown’s seminal 1995 work Who Will Feed China? Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet and highlighted how China has just seven per cent of the world’s arable land, but 22 per cent of the world’s population. The loss of land is a major concern for Chinese policymakers, as well as the country’s overuse of fertiliser. Keeley cited figures showing how an average of 450 kgs of fertiliser are used per hectare in China compared to a worldwide average of 150 and only eight in Africa. Chinese soya bean imports have also risen dramatically from zero in 1996 to 40 per cent of the worldwide soya bean trade today. However, Keeley did warn against overplaying the Chinese food security argument as a motive for Chinese investment in Africa. He said China remains a net exporter of cereals and it has set itself limits to avoid importing more than five per cent of its grain needs in the future.  Keeley added that products, apart from timber, from Chinese farms in Africa are marketed locally. He said: “The argument that China is setting up farms to feed itself does not hold water. A lot of the evidence is a bit scant and there is no rapid land grab going on”.

Rising food prices
Keeley also referred to Sun Zhengcai, the Chinese Minister of Agriculture, who told the world in June 2008 not to blame Chinese demand for food price rises. According to Keeley, the 40 per cent increase in food prices from mid-2007 to mid-2008 has been created by a combination of more important factors than Chinese demand, namely growing crops for biofuels, rising oil prices and speculation.

African exports and recommendations
Certain types of African exports have increased markedly in recent years, including African cotton, which now accounts for 45 per cent of China’s cotton imports. The export trade has been helped by the decision made at the China-Africa Summit in 2006 to offer a zero tariff on 452 items entering China from the least developed countries in the world.

Keeley’s advice included China supporting African agriculture and making appropriate links with local priorities in the continent. He said this includes backing trade justice, but also urged African governments to do more to bolster their agricultural sectors too.
By Guy Collender, Communications Officer, LIDC


Further Reading