Agriculture for food plus agriculture for wealth: China-Africa agriculture cooperation in new cycles

Two new cycles kicked off in the year 2022 that will determine the pace of a long-standing area of China-Africa cooperation: Agriculture. 

The 8th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC8), concluded at the end of 2021, is the beginning of a new 3-year cycle of bilateral cooperation. The Dakar Action Plan(2022-2024) and the China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035, two key outcomes of FOCAC8, both feature important agriculture cooperation items and targets. And such emphasis has clearly ignited new interest from agricultural stakeholders on both sides to engage in conversations that may steer the direction of cooperation in this new FOCAC cycle and beyond.

Meanwhile, the publishing of the 14th Five Year Plan (FYP) for International Agricultural Cooperation in late January, officially began the 5-year cycle of Chinese policy implementation (the cycle should start in 2021 in theory but many sectoral plans come out slightly later in the process). It is the second time China has issued a dedicated five-year plan on this issue. The first was published during the 12th Five-Year period (2011-2015). 

With both new cycles now in motion, the Chinese side, from across the policy-research-industry spectrum, has been mobilized to push this area of collaboration forward. The 14th FYP and recent conversations in Beijing around FOCAC8 provide a glimpse of an approach that is increasingly two pronged: supporting agricultural production in Africa to ensure food security (“agriculture for food”) and enhancing Africa’s ability to capitalize on key agricultural products through the market (“agriculture for wealth”).

Chinese agriculture experts checking on a rice field in Burkina Faso, 2021. Image: Xinhua

Agriculture cooperation: from Mao era to present

The two-pronged approach shows how far China-Africa agriculture cooperation has evolved from the early models of collective state farms to a new emphasis on strengthening every link on the agriculture supply chain, from fields to tables. 

Experts in the field tend to divide agriculture exchanges between China and Africa into three main phases. The first phase started with grain donations to Guinea in 1959, the fruition of the 1955 Bandung Conference that first formed the solidarity between the African continent and the People’s Republic. Such agricultural assistance went on for about two decades. Beyond food donations, China also set up large-scale state farms such as Tanzania’s Mbarali state farm and Uganda’s Chipemba farm, reflecting its own collective agricultural model back home. 

As the Mao-era gave way to Deng’s Reform and Opening at the end of the 1970s, China’s approach to foreign aid to Africa also changed, marking the second phase of agricultural assistance. Once again, the new approach reflected the reforms going on at home: applying the successful household contract responsibility system to Chinese developed state farms in Africa, many of which faced maintenance difficulties without sustained inputs of manpower and resources from China. In Burkina Faso, rice farms previously managed through Chinese aid were contracted out to farmers who took responsibility for and benefited from the boosted yield.  

After the mid-1990s, Chinese agricultural aid to Africa became more integrated with investment and trade, as “mutual benefit” (as opposed to one-way assistance) became the new mantra. Agri-business investments by Chinese corporations are considered a more sustainable model that delivers lasting impacts on the ground. Mali’s Sukala sugar mill at Upper Kala, with a majority equity investment from China National Light Industrial Corporation (Sinolight) in 1994, is an early example of this investment-based agriculture cooperation. In addition, China has also re-structured some of the earlier state farms in Africa into market-facing commercial entities.

Mbarali farm in the 1970s. Image: Complant

New cycles, shaped by the philosophy of mutual benefit

The initiation of FOCAC in 2000, as a result of African advocacy, reinforces an agriculture cooperation model that integrates aid, investment and trade, containing both the “agriculture for food” and “agriculture for wealth” components.  

The creation of the forum also changed the predominantly bilateral conversation and made regional/continental coordination on the issue possible. One important sign of this shift is direct linkage between China’s FOCAC commitments and the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP). 

As an analysis from Development Reimagined has highlighted, China’s FOCAC commitments in the agriculture field have steadily deepened (becoming more specific) and widened (covering more issues) over the past seven cycles. 

The area of training, research and technology dissemination has been a main focus of Chinese agriculture commitments under FOCAC. The most visible elements of such cooperation are Chinese agro-experts dispatched to African countries and agricultural technology demonstration centers (ATDCs) being set-up across the African continent. This approach once again mirrors China’s domestic experience with agriculture development. China boasts the world’s largest public agricultural technology extension system that employs half a million extension workers across the country to provide advisory services to farmers while promoting agricultural inputs such as seeds and agro-chemicals. The system is credited with successfully increasing farmland productivity after land reforms in the 1970s, and its experience is now being applied through ATDCs in Africa as the main vehicle through which the vision to help Africa achieve food self-sufficiency is to be realized. 

In the Dakar Action Plan (2022-2024) achieved at FOCAC8, both sides agreed to “give full play” to existing ATDCs and focus particularly on the development and utilization of Juncao, hybrid rice and hybrid millet. China also further committed to send 500 agricultural experts to African countries and support the development of peasants’ schools. The 14th FYP on International Agricultural Cooperation adds an explicit commercial angle to this line of technological extension work, stating that such assistance should also help the export of Chinese technologies, products and production capacities.

China-Africa agricultural cooperation in investment, trade and infrastructure has long taken the turn towards commerce and market-based “mutual benefits”. The export of African agricultural products to China was formally adopted as a FOCAC action point in 2003, and has since expanded in its scope and specificity. At FOCAC8, China committed to“ actively expand the import of quality specialty agri-food products from Africa” and “speed up the inspection and quarantine procedures” to facilitate such imports. The China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035 included a numerical target of achieving USD 300 billion in overall annual trade by 2035. Bilateral trade stood at USD 254 billion in 2021, but trade of agricultural products only made up a small portion of that (USD 6.92 billion in 2018). Stronger agro-trade ties are expected in order to help fulfill the vision of enlarging bilateral trade.

Investment and infrastructure assistance to the agricultural sector in Africa follow this overall direction of trade facilitation, although such trade is not restricted to cross-continental exchanges. Intra-continental trade of agricultural products among African countries – a major focus of the African Union and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), effective as of last year – may also benefit from this area of cooperation. For instance, a big focus of agriculture infrastructure under FOCAC8 is on improving field-to-market logistics, such as the conditions of roads linking urban and rural areas, food storage and basic processing facilities, although it should be noted that yield supporting infrastructure such as micro water management and irrigation facilities has been a mainstay of Chinese agro-aid since as early as FOCAC2. The 14th FYP specifically highlights technology support to Sub-Saharan Africa for the growth, storage, transportation and processing of agro-products.

Some of the trade facilitation work for African agricultural products is going to happen in China. A China-Africa Economic and Trade “Deep Collaboration Zone” was set up in Changsha, Hunan province last year that contains a processing and trade center for African agro-products including cocoa, coffee and nuts. The center recorded RMB 2.5 billion (USD 400 million) in trade last year and the Zone is aiming for RMB 100 billion in trade with Africa by 2025.

From policy items to reality

Those action points, whether using agriculture technology demonstration and infrastructure to help Africa boost domestic food supply or deploying supply chain measures to better prepare African agro-products for the market, do not emerge from a vacuum. Recent discussions in Beijing shed light on the kind of thinking that has been shaping some of the choices in bilateral cooperation.

At a recent webinar organized by CAITEC, a think tank affiliated with China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), a particularly interesting group of government officials, think tank research fellows, ag-tech specialists and ag-company executives shared their experience with agricultural cooperation under FOCAC. The participants identified key issues in China-Africa agriculture cooperation that both sides are grappling with.

Yuan Xiaohui, Deputy Director for West Asia and Africa at CAITEC, pointed to the following issues at the core of China-Africa agriculture cooperation today:

  • The sustainability of aid: the resources for foreign aid are limited and finite. Sustaining its impact requires market-based solution integrating aid, investment and trade;
  • The extension of cooperation from production to post-production phases of the supply chain, tackling problems such as losses in storage and transportation;
  • China’s agriculture technology demonstration and extension efforts should focus on smallholders
  • The locus of agriculture technology transfer should move gradually from the foreign aid realm to the business arena, and upgrade from practical techniques to high-tech and research and development;
  • There is a general need to better understand Africa’s own developmental priorities, and link agriculture cooperation better with African developmental initiatives.

Those items reflect the challenges of China-Africa agriculture cooperation as understood by policy makers and practitioners. Sustaining the impact of foreign aid projects has been a long lasting issue since the state farm era, when the termination of Chinese input often meant the discontinuation of project impacts on the ground. And it continues to preoccupy the architects of agro-aid on both sides. As Martin Bwalya, Head of CAADP pointed out at the webinar, China has trained many agricultural experts for Africa over the years, but the challenge is how to embed these experts into local agricultural practices and bring about long-term, systematic change. He also highlighted the need for nurturing resilient African SMEs that are increasingly important in the agriculture and food security scene. Supporting them in getting access to technology, information and market is crucial in catalyzing and sustaining positive development in this sector.

In August 2020, a marketing center for African cocoa opened in Changsha, Hunan province. Image:

In this regard, China has to draw on its own experience in Africa’s agricultural fields to find a way forward. As Yu Guowen, president of Hubei Lianfeng Overseas Agriculture Development Group shared at the webinar, understanding an African country’s natural endowment and agricultural resources takes years of learning and experience. His company has invested in a farm, a plantation center and processing facilities that are connected with the Mozambique ATDC that China handed over in 2011. By purchasing and processing agricultural products from farmers trained and supported by the ATDC, the company hopes to open an international market for Mozambique’s produce. Still, the company is calling for stronger policy backing from both China and Mozambique to help it weather the high risk and low return in the agriculture market.

Yu’s comments were echoed by MOFCOM’s Deputy Unit Head for West Asia and Africa Gu Mengyin, who argued that business involvement was the key to the long-term sustainable operation of agricultural projects. But many Chinese companies are hesitant about investing in Africa’s agricultural sector for its high risks. He admitted that both sides have fallen short of doing good feasibility studies and long-term planning for agriculture cooperation projects: “Some projects do not match well with local conditions and market demands; or are unclear with their commercial or non-profit orientations; others suffer from insufficient infrastructure and policy support.”

Many African agricultural products are high-quality green products, he continued, but they face difficulties in maintaining consistent output and quality. China plans to coordinate its government, corporate and research resources to help Africa improve its agriculture supply chain and create a self-sustaining agricultural sector with international competitiveness. Africa’s food security issue has just been made all the more pressing by the crisis in Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine are major sources of food import to Africa, particularly North African countries. The disruption and volatility introduced to not only the market of food but also of key agricultural inputs such as fertilizers has created a new sense of urgency to “get agriculture right” for the continent. And China’s role is only going to be more crucial and delicate in the next cycles of agriculture cooperation.

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