Brazil and China roles in African farming explained

    Dai Yuzi (46) supervising Zambian workers weeding vegetable crops at the Lao Hu Farm Limited. The women get paid 15 Kwatcha (GBP 1.47) a day at the 50 acre farm growing Chinese vegetables and raising some pigs. Their customers are almost entirely the Chinese population in Zambia. In recent years as many as two million Chinese have made Africa their home and by some estimates 70,000 have moved to Zambia. Elsewhere, around Lusaka, other Chinese are growing vegetables. Some do so to supply the Chinese population who prefer to eat the same foods they are used to in China.

    China and Brazil’s activities in African agriculture go beyond “simplistic narratives of South-South collaboration”, which has implications for improving technology transfer, says a report.

    A special issue of World Development, out this month, details how the two countries’ investments are impacting the African economy. It revealed “a complex set of engagements, which contrast with existing patterns of western-led development and investment” in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

    “There has been much debate about the role of the rising powers in African economies, and agriculture has been highlighted as an important area of investment,” says Ian Scoones, a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. He notes that claims made about the Brazilian and Chinese presence range from “accusations of land grabbing to the importation of huge numbers of workers”.

    “Both Brazil and China have substantial experience in agricultural development, with top-quality expertise in agricultural technologies and agronomic techniques suited to tropical areas,” he says. “Both countries also have initiated high-profile aid and investment programmes in Africa, linked to an argument for South-South solidarity and mutual exchange.” Yet, not every technology generated in Brazil and China has landed easily in Africa, notes Scoones. “There have been rejections, resistances, and also revisions and recastings,” he says.

    Technology transfer, when it does occur, is “context-specific, political, and negotiated”. “We will definitely not see massive expansion of Brazilian and Chinese agricultural concerns, aiming to feed the world, or China in particular, as some have predicted,” Scoones says. “We can expect incremental, slow change, with successes most likely geared to sharing experience around smallholder agriculture, rather than transferring large-scale agricultural models.”

    The work, organised via the Future Agricultures Consortium, was supported with roughly US$1 million in UK Economic and Social Research Council funding. Case studies include the role that Chinese migrants are playing in the Ethiopian and Ghanaian agri-food sectors, an agricultural development programme to introduce the Brazilian cerrado model of savannah development to Mozambique and China’s 23 technology demonstration centres on the continent.

    Some of the papers specifically delve into the rhetoric of South-South cooperation, and how narratives influence “what technologies are chosen, which investments are funded, and who gets trained”, Scoones and his co-authors write in the opening paper.

    Scoones describes the outcome of the project as one where no single story emerged, but rather a “complex set of engagements”. Deborah Bräutigam, professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, United States, says the new studies are far more nuanced than narratives of large amounts of land being acquired and plans to export food home. Bräutigam noted that the studies centred on Chinese technology transfer are particularly useful for researchers working on food security issues, tech transfer and emerging economies.