2014 Conference Summary

China’s food security, and Chinese investments in Africa, are both subjects of intense global interest. Many believe that the Chinese government is acquiring large expanses of African land to grow food to send back to China. On May 16, 2014, SAIS-CARI hosted its inaugural conference: China’s Agricultural Investment in Africa:  ‘Land Grabs’ or ‘Friendship Farms’?

The conference was structured into several panels, promoting both depth and a broad comparative understanding of these issues.

The first panel, China’s Agricultural Investment: Mapping and Comparisons was chaired by Dr. Robert Thompson, visiting scholar at SAIS and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Deborah Brautigam, director of SAIS-CARI and the International Development program at SAIS, opened the session by offering an overview of her own research on Chinese agricultural investments in Africa from her forthcoming book on the subject. Her findings indicate that popular media outlets and some scholarly research alike have overstated the presence of new Chinese actors in the agricultural sector. Margaret Myers, director of the China and Latin America program at the InterAmerican Dialogue provided an introduction to Chinese involvement in agriculture in Latin America, where most investors are still relatively small and private, despite appearing to operate in line with government food security policies. Dr. Eckart Woertz, senior researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) also supplied a comparative perspective, focusing on investment from the Gulf states in Africa. He argued that, despite the news coverage, highly publicized projects are often never carried out leading to a gap between projections and implementation.

The second panel, Joint Ventures, Transitions and Borderlands chaired by Dr. Yoon Jung Park, Chinese in Africa/Africans in China (CA/AC) International Research Working Group Network Coordinator, addressed the evolution of Chinese projects in Africa. Solange Chatelard, Ph.D. candidate at Sciences Po and associate at Max Planck Institute and Jessica Chu, Ph.D candidate at SOAS, discussed their collaborative research on Chinese farmers in Zambia focusing specifically on the rising number of private farmers in the country who are operating independently from the Chinese government. Nama Ouattara, Ph.D. candidate at Université Paris Sud in economics provided an overview of her research on Chinese investments in the sugar sector in Mali and their social and environmental impact. Finally Dr. Xiuli Xu, Associate Professor at the China Agricultural University, contrasted realities and narratives surrounding Chinese agricultural SOEs in Africa and their impact.

The third panel, Business Models and Dreams was chaired by Lila Buckley, senior researcher at IIED, and introduced several case studies of Chinese farm projects in Africa. Josh Maiyo, Ph.D candidate at VU University Amsterdam, provided a survey of the limited Chinese agricultural investments in Uganda highlighting the challenges faced because of language barriers and limited understanding of the local conditions in two case studies (the private Hubei Hanhe Farm and an aquaculture demonstration project supported by China’s aid program). Jiao Yang, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida, discussed his research in Ghana and Nigeria, where he found no large scale land grabs but rather promising models for improving production and technology transfers. Xiaochen Chen, China Business News Institute, offered an overview of the Sisal Farm project in Tanzania focusing on the evolving relationship between Chinese managers and local managers and workers. Last to present on this panel was Zhou Jinyan, Ph.D. candidate at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, whose research in Angola indicates that several Chinese companies are operating as contractors for the Angolan government, building large state farms. The large Chinese construction companies claim that these contracts are not profitable. Is this a case of political interests outweighing economic ones? China is, however, still a small player in the Angolan agricultural sector.

The last panel Problems and Challenges: Between Business and Cooperation, was chaired by Dr. Peter Lewis, Associate Professor and Director of African Studies Program at SAIS and addressed the social, political and environmental impact of Chinese investments in Africa. To this end Dr. Sérgio Chichava, senior researcher at the Instituto de Estudos Socialis e Económicos (IESE), discussed the Wanbao farm in Mozambique, a large-scale Chinese rice project that has led to significant controversy. The Wanbao investors currently sell to local markets but have long-term hopes of supplying regional and even the Chinese market. Dr. Louis Putzel, senior scientist at CIFOR, provided an introduction to the environmental and social impact of Chinese-backed rubber plantations in several African countries. Dr. Tang Xiaoyang, resident scholar at the Tsinghua-Carnegie Center and assistant professor at Tsinghua University, presented on his research on Chinese contract farming investments working with African farmers in the cotton sector in Southern African countries and their consequences for politics and society. Henry Tugendhat, research officer at the IDS Sussex and Future Agricultures Consortium, talked about his fieldwork investigating Chinese agricultural training courses for African officials. These are having a positive effect on diplomacy and personal development even though technology and skills transfers are limited in practice.

In conclusion, most of the researchers at the conference found little evidence that the Chinese government is directly pursuing food security by investing in agriculture in Africa. While increasing world food production is seen as beneficial to China, market forces seem to play a crucial role in explaining the, still modest, flow of investment towards African agriculture. The variety of the projects, which range from the large Wanbao farm in Mozambique to the small-scale private investments in Zambia, also mean that different drivers will apply to different cases. Moreover, given the limited size of China’s involvement in the sector it is still unclear what the future will look like.

To learn more about the findings of our conference, read our policy briefs.