Will Africa Feed China?

  • 24th February 2017
  • by secretary
Deborah Brautigam
Oxford University Press, 2015, 222 pages
Is China building a new empire in rural Africa? Over the past decade, China’s meteoric rise on the continent has raised a drumbeat of alarm. China has 9 percent of the world’s arable land, 6 percent of its water, and over 20 percent of its people. Africa’s savannahs and river basins host the planet’s largest expanses of underutilized land and water. Few topics are as controversial and emotionally charged as the belief that the Chinese government is aggressively buying up huge tracts of prime African land to grow food to ship back to China.

Deborah Brautigam is Professor and Director of the International Development Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC and the author of The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Who Will Feed China?
  • Long March: History of Chinese Agricultural Engagement in Africa
  • The Mountains are High and the Emperor is Far Away
  • Zombie Investments
  • Green Shoots
  • The Future
Brautigam’s book seeks to overturn several of what she cleverly calls “rural legends” — urban myths for farmers.

  1. One is that the Chinese have acquired large tracts of land in Africa, something she finds categorically false. According to her, for example, ZTE’s supposed 3m hectares turned out to be a tiny 200 hectares. As so often, the company made grandiose claims that bore no relation to African realities. “It illustrates the sometimes surprisingly unrealistic scale of ambition of entrepreneurial Chinese with little or no experience in Africa,” she writes, arguing that journalists and academics have too often taken hearsay as fact. 
  2. The second myth is that the push into Africa is state-driven. There is, she says, “not an organised attempt by the Chinese government to acquire land”. That will strike some as controversial. The FT itself wrote in 2008 about a Chinese Ministry of Agriculture proposal to boost Chinese food security by securing large overseas farms, including in Africa. Brautigam takes issue with the article, and others like it, which she links to a third myth: that China intends to exports large numbers of Chinese displaced farmers abroad. “As of 2015,” she writes, “there is no evidence that anything like this is happening.” 
  3.  Finally, she argues, there is no truth to the idea that Africa is being used to export food to China. If only it could, she suggests. In general, costs are too high and yields too low to make such a proposition feasible. When she asks a Chinese manager of the 630-hectare China-Zambia Friendship Farm if he exports wheat, corn and soybeans to China, he points to the fact that Zambia is landlocked and its transport costs high. “If you grow food in Zambia to send to China, you will lose money,” he says. “Food in China is very cheap compared to here.”