Are China and Brazil transforming African agriculture?

10 March 2016

China and Brazil are set to increase their influence in Africa, with the recently launched New Development Bank opening offices in Johannesburg this month and preparing to issue its first loans in April. New research on China and Brazil in African Agriculture published in acclaimed journal, World Development, reveals that the picture on the ground is far more complex and more contested than generic policy statements about South-South cooperation or win-win partnerships would have us believe.

Chinese-English sign in an African field. Credit: I. Scoones - IDS

Agriculture, which employs 65 percent of Africa’s labour force and accounts for 32 percent of gross domestic product, presents a major area of engagement for both China and Brazil with the continent.  Additionally, both countries may claim to be particularly well positioned to help African countries develop their agriculture sector.

China offers win-win partnerships with unparalleled pragmatism that is much welcomed as an alternative to the increasingly obsolete aid industry. Brazil offers tropical technology that is claimed to be well suited to Africa’s similar soil-climate characteristics and an approach to the cooperation exchange that is arguably more horizontal.

But despite being often clustered together as leaders of the South-South paradigm, China and Brazil are quite different, both in rhetoric and in practice.

World Development Special Issue on China and Brazil in African Agriculture digs behind South-South Cooperation rhetoric

Edited by Ian Scoones, Kojo Amanor, Arilson Favareto and Qi Gubo, this special open access collection digs behind the rhetoric of South-South cooperation and win-win relations to reveal the reality of South-South encounters.

At its launch, co-editor Professor Scoones noted that policy ideas and technology travel from China and Brazil to Africa in the context of South-South relations. They do not end up the way they were first designed though but get transformed and reconstituted through negotiation and mutual learning.

The eight articles in this open access collection looked at cases of Chinese and Brazilian engagements in four African countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – as well as the origins of Chinese and Brazilian agricultural policies, technology and capital by looking at the two countries’ domestic contexts.

They reveal a rich mix of engagements, including:

  • agricultural investments by private and state owned enterprises
  • tri-lateral development cooperation efforts
  • technological adaptation initiatives
  • training programmes
  • ‘under-the-radar’ involvement in agriculture by Chinese migrants. 

These diverse experiences challenge simplistic narratives of either “South–South” collaboration or “neo-imperial” expansion of “rising powers”.

Research reveals no singlular Brazilian or Chinese model 

There is therefore no singular Brazilian or Chinese model but engagements in Africa reflect struggles back home in Brazil and in China that meet other struggles when they land in diverse African countries.

These are struggles for power and resources as well as battles between competing visions on agriculture and development. They are local struggles but they are also global struggles that need to be situated against the geopolitics of aid and international development and the changing global configurations of capital.

Three papers from the collection were briefly discussed at the recent Rising Powers Young Researchers conference, hosted at IDS. One looked at the case of China’s Agricultural Technological Demonstration Centres and two focused on Brazilian cooperation programmes symbolising the agribusiness-versus-family farming dualism in Brazilian agriculture.

A closer look at China's Agricultural Technological Demonstration Centres

The Chinese demonstration centres were presented by Xiuli Xu, professor at the China Agricultural University, as an example of a top-down policy being implemented at the grassroots.

The 23 centres found in Africa were established by Chinese companies from different provinces in China, with support from their government. The Chinese government emphasises state-business relations and the need to ensure long-term financial “sustainability” of these centres for technical cooperation. The companies in turn hope to develop a potential market for their seeds, machinery and other technology in Africa. In the meantime, they operate as ‘aid workers’ interacting with local communities and learning about the trade of cooperation.

Brazil's cooperation programmes reflect agribusiness-versus-family farming dualism in its own agriculture

The Brazil story revealed contestations beyond the agrarian dualism formulation.

Family farming is disputed in Brazil and this is reflected in the practice of More Food International, one of Brazil’s flagship cooperation programmes in Africa analysed by one of the papers.

Lídia Cabral, one of the authors, noted that the programme has so far been mainly about selling Brazilian farming machinery and tractors in particular and that the policy advocacy thrust of the programme – of reproducing a family farming-based development trajectory – got lost in translation. African governments are attracted by a modernisation ideal where family farming is at best a transitional mode into mechanised commercial farming.

The other Brazilian case-study presented, focused on ProSAVANA in Mozambique, discussed the role played by imagined landscapes of the Brazilian Cerrado and the Mozambican Savannah both in the promotion and contestation of the programme.

Alex Shankland, co-author of the paper, highlighted that the contestation of ProSAVANA has been at the centre of the making of Brazilian cooperation. It has produced spill over effects to other Brazilian programmes and raised questions about Brazil’s South-South narrative and its solidarity and horizontality claims.

Useful lessons from Brazilian and Chinese enagements in African agriculture

There are many useful lessons to be learnt from the Brazilian and Chinese engagements in African agriculture for other countries. For example, a key feature is the role of state-business relations in driving and shaping engagements that provides valuable insight for agencies such as DFID (the UK's Department for International Development) which has an interest in the role of the private sector, and in public-private partnerships.

But as suggested by this research, these relations have to be understood as part of competing interests, power dynamics and conflicting ideas about development, locally and globally, and should not be treated as anodyne win-win solutions.

Image credit: I.Scoones - IDS