Africa is generally regarded as a continent with large-scale unexploited or uncultivated farmland and appallingly low levels of food productivity. Following the sharp rise in oil and food prices in 2007 and early 2008, a few countries with scarce farmland and fears of future food security have looked to the African continent for land acquisition in what has come to be referred to as 'land grabbing.'(2) These countries, including South Korea, some Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia have leased land in Sudan and Ethiopia in an attempt to grow staple crops or biofuels that are to be shipped back to their respective countries.(3) Nevertheless, their policies have faced backlash and have been criticised on economic, environmental, and social grounds.(4) Long-term land leases are also controversial, because they are seen as neo-colonial in nature; in some cases, land on the African continent that is claimed to be vacant may be owned by small-time rural farmers.
The Chinese Government and individually motivated Chinese farmers have bought and own land in several African countries due to the long history of Chinese presence in the African agricultural sector, which dates back to the 1960s. These days, China has also been linked to long-term land leasing in Africa, and although these sources are not always verified, it is worth examining Chinese interests in African agriculture. Presently, China's arable lands have become scarce, while its consumption of agricultural goods has seen stunning growth.(5) Since 2003, China has been a net importer of agricultural goods, and it has been suggested that in the future, China may have to invest in foreign countries – Africa in particular – to feed its population.(6) On their own part, African Governments have encouraged the growing interests of Chinese companies and have promoted the sharing of knowledge and skills between Chinese and local farmers.
This paper will, therefore, examine Chinese interests in the African agricultural sector and the African response to this interest. It will also analyse the accusations of 'land grabbing' levelled at China by some sources.
China's dabbling in Africa's agricultural sector
Agriculture has been and remains very important in Chinese aid projects for Africa. Chinese agricultural investments have the potential to be beneficial to African economies as they create local employment, government revenue, and foreign exchange.(7) China currently invests in agriculture, fishery, and water management in African countries such as Gabon, Namibia, and Sierra Leone.(8) African Governments have habitually requested help from China in agricultural matters and, as the Chinese Government responds, its investment in the African agricultural sector will continue to rise.(9)
China's diplomatic agricultural engagement in Africa began in the 1960s in order to counter Taiwan's agricultural aid programme, Operation Vanguard,(10) and to gain political support. Large state-owned farms were set up in several African countries as part of the Chinese projects at that time; this aid programme "continued to finance some large farms in Sierra Leone and Liberia up until the mid-1980s."(11) Up to the 1990s, Chinese corporations such as the China State Farms and Agribusiness Corporation (CSFAC) established and managed farms in countries such as Zambia, where the China Zambia Friendship Farm was set on 667 hectares to grow barley, maize, and soybean.(12)
In 2004, the Chinese Government changed policies by combining aid, diplomatic, and economic interests, thus creating the 'go global' or 'going out' strategy. This strategy was aimed at generating new opportunities for Chinese firms on the global stage and encouraging Chinese companies to operate internationally so as to increase their capability of competing globally in key sectors with leading multinationals. To facilitate the adoption of this 'go global' strategy, a range of incentives such as lower taxes and interest loans, as well as customs preferences were introduced. "Incentives such as tax breaks, credit, low-interest loans and customs preferences" were also introduced.(13) Potentially profitable areas marked out for Chinese companies and the African continent were the transfer of agricultural technology and genetically modified seed cultivation. Furthermore, training of local African farmers, sustainability, and water management were considered important.
Today, the lines between Chinese aid and profit have become blurred. Chinese ministries and provinces that previously carried out foreign aid projects in African have become "foreign co-operation corporations."(14) In other cases, Chinese companies do not transparently reveal information on internal structures and this makes it hard to determine whether a company is private or state owned.(15)
Chinese observers have viewed Africa as a prospective location to relocate Chinese farmers who had lost their land due to trade liberalisation and urbanisation. They have also proposed that Africa serve as a source of future supply for China's food security.(16) For example, the provincial governments of Chongqing's province are thought to have encouraged the mass emigration to Africa of local Chinese farmers who had lost their land.(17) Perhaps the best-known group of Chinese farmers, who chose to settle to farm in countries such as Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, and Zambia, were from Baoding, a city in Hebei province. In the 1990s due to the Asian financial crisis, some farmers from the city were encouraged to travel to Africa in order to promote farming and also gain profits.
At the same time, some African Governments have actively encouraged exchanges between Chinese and local farmers. In Nigeria, for example, Chinese farmers have been engaged by the Government to teach local Nigerian farmers through interpreters to increase food production and to work in diverse agricultural industries such as fishery, poultry, fruit growing, and water control.(18) By using Chinese farming techniques to increase productivity, the Nigerian Government has hopes to export some food commodities in order to generate further revenue. In Zimbabwe apparently, some farms seized from white farmers by the Government are now being leased to the Chinese Government.(19)
There has continually been a presence of Chinese farmers and agricultural experts in the African continent, whether as business-minded individuals or supported by either the Chinese Government or the Governments of their host countries. While there are no official figures of the total number of Chinese farmers in Africa, apparently more than 750,000 Chinese citizens are making a living in Africa, including those in agriculture.(20)
Demystifying Chinese land grabs in Africa
With Chinese analysts commenting on the favourable qualities of farming in Africa, the increasing number of Chinese farmers on the continent, and land deals between China and several African countries, concerns have arisen as to the real reasons behind the Chinese Government's long-term land leases in several African countries. Long-term land leases by foreign governments and corporations in Africa is regarded as controversial due to their lack of contribution to local food security.
At present, Chinese farmers produce the majority of the nation's consumption. However, there remains a constant threat of food insecurity, as Chinese farmers have lost arable land due to urbanisation. Under the 'go global' policies, international agricultural investments are encouraged by the Chinese Government; yet there is no policy to further large-scale investments overseas of grown foodstuff to be shipped back to China.(21) Chinese-owned farms in Africa grow wheat, corn, and rice for local markets; they also engage in livestock and poultry farming. In 2006, Chinese Government and individuals owned about 20 farms, "but all these farms were producing [food] for the Zambian domestic market."(22) Looking at China's agricultural imports based on regions, in 2008, China imported most of its grains from North and Latin America, while non-grain foodstuff and rubber came from elsewhere in Asia. As such, Africa only accounted for 4% of Chinese agricultural imports.(23)
Figures on China's land acquisition in Africa are often exaggerated; while it has been suggested that China owns over three million hectares of land in Africa by some sources, China has yet to obtain land over 50,000 hectares. There "are … no known examples of Chinese land acquisitions in Africa in excess of 50,000 hectares."(24) Despite claims and growing concerns over China's grabbing African land, within China, analysts have argued against buying land abroad in order to ship food commodities back to China. Citing logistics, security risks due to political instability, and high costs of shipping, these observers do not regard land acquisition for exportation as feasible. Furthermore, a Chinese planning agency has stressed that land acquisition abroad will not be part of a 20 year food security strategy released in December 2008.(25)
However, the increasing number of poor, landless Chinese farmers migrating to different parts of Africa in search of agricultural opportunities must not be ignored. By participating in local markets, they increase competition for local farmers, who often cannot compete with the technologies and techniques Chinese farmers bring with them. On the other hand, when Chinese farmers use their knowledge (1) to help African farms in fully outfitting farms with the latest technology, (2) in acquiring basic farming skills, and (3) managing production more efficiently, they stand to contribute locally in an ideal 'win-win' situation.
It is worth mentioning that while discussions on land grabbing in Africa often focus on foreign players in the form of governments and private companies, there is also the presence of intra-regional land acquisitions and investments. For example, South African farmers seeking greener pastures look elsewhere in Africa to countries like the Congo and Libya for cheap land, labour, and water.(26)
China's engagement in the African agricultural sector started as an effort to boost diplomatic ties and to provide aid to the continent. Recent developments have led to the Chinese Government combining diplomacy, aid, and profit in its agricultural dealings with African countries; thus Government-owned firms operating in Africa's agricultural sector focus on making profit locally. On the other hand, Chinese farmers, who upon losing their land to rapid urbanisation or government policies moved to African countries to continue farming, focus on competing in local markets. Among African Governments there are elements (such as officials) that are keen to encourage the exchange of technologies and tech niques with Chinese farmers in order to boost food production and marketing to global markets.
Constant attention is paid to claims of Chinese land grabbing African farmlands, usually while ignoring intra-regional land leasing. Furthermore, evidence suggests that most Chinese participation in African agriculture is local. Within China, foreign agricultural investment has its ardent supporters as well as its critics. However, there is nothing to suggest that China is buying large plots of arable land in Africa to grow food for its population. Yet, with the increase in China's food imports, there still remains the fear that not only China, but other resource hungry countries, will look to Africa for land.
(1) Contact Rafeeat Aliyu through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Asia Dimension Unit (
(2) Castel, V., and Kamara, A., 2009, Foreign Investments in Africa's Agricultural Land: Implications for Rural Sector Development and Poverty Reduction, African Development Bank Development Research Brief, Number 2.
(3) 'Buying farmland abroad: Outsourcing's third wave', The Economist, 21 May 2009, http://www.economist.com.
(4) Freeman, D., Holslag, J., and Weil, S., 2008, China's foreign farming policy: can land provide security?, Brussels Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies Asia Paper, 3(9).
(7) Castel, V., and Kamara, A., 2009, Foreign Investments in Africa's Agricultural Land: Implications for Rural Sector Development and Poverty Reduction, African Development Bank Development Research Brief, Number 2.
(8) Van de Looy, J., 2006, Africa and China: A Strategic Partnership?, African Studies Centre Leiden the Netherlands, pp. 1-28.
(9) Brautigam, D. and Xiaoyang, T., 2009, China's Engagement in African Agriculture: "Down to the Countryside", The China Quarterly, pp. 686-706.
(12) Freeman, D., Holslag, J., and Weil, S., 2008, China's foreign farming policy: can land provide security?, Brussels Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies Asia Paper, 3(9).
(13) Cotula, L., Vermeulen, S., Leonard, R., and Keeley, J., 2009, Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa, IIED/FAO/IFAD, London/Rome.
(14) Brautigam, D. and Xiaoyang, T., 2009, China's Engagement in African Agriculture: "Down to the Countryside", The China Quarterly, pp. 686-706.
(15) Cotula, L., Vermeulen, S., Leonard, R., and Keeley, J., 2009, Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa, IIED/FAO/IFAD, London/Rome.
(16) Brautigam, D. and Xiaoyang, T., 2009, China's Engagement in African Agriculture: "Down to the Countryside", The China Quarterly, pp. 686-706.
(17) Howard French, 'The Next Empire', The Atlantic, May 2010, http://www.theatlantic.com.
(18) John Shiklam, 'FG Adopts Chinese Farming Option', ThisDay, 16 October 2011 http://www.thisdaylive.com.
(19) Idun-Arkhurst, I. and Liang, J., 2007, The Impact of Chinese Presence in Africa, africapractice, pp. 1-40.
(20) 'Landless Chinese farmers migrate to Africa in search of agricultural opportunities, Biopact, 2 December 2007, http://news.mongabay.com.
(21) Brautigam, D. and Xiaoyang, T., 2009, China's Engagement in African Agriculture: "Down to the Countryside", The China Quarterly, pp. 686-706.
(23) Freeman, D., Holslag, J., and Weil, S., 2008, China's foreign farming policy: can land provide security?, Brussels Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies Asia Paper, 3(9).
(24) Cotula, L., Vermeulen, S., Leonard, R., and Keeley, J., 2009, Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa, IIED/FAO/IFAD, London/Rome.
(26) Hall, R., 2011, The Next Great Trek? South Africa Commercial Farmers Move North, Institute of Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, University of the Western Cape, PLAAS Working Paper Series.