Investing in African agriculture: what’s in it for Brazil?

10 September 2013

Last month, José Graziano da Silva, the director general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, underlined the importance of south-south co-operation in agricultural development in developing countries. Graziano's speech draws attention to a growing theme. Brazil recently reported a 91 per cent increase in international development cooperation from 2009 to 2010 (pdf). The number of new technical co-operation projects initiated by Brazil rose from 23 in 2003 to 413 in 2009.

Dilma Rouseff and Jacob Zuma

But why is Africa of such interest to the Brazilian government and the country's investors? Our recent IDS Bulletin on China and Brazil in African agriculture looks at some of the motivations for Brazil's interest in agriculture, an important sector for development and research, on the continent (freely downloadable submitted versions of the articles are also available).

Mixed motivations

The picture is not uniform. At an international policy level, there is a variety of motivations. First, Brazil is looking to diversify its foreign affairs beyond the North Atlantic region, and occupy top international positions. African countries were among those who supported José Graziano da Silva in the leadership contest of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Secondly, there is a powerful narrative in Brazil of solidarity towards Africa, with longstanding cultural and historical links. Former President Lula da Silva, for example, promoted solidarity as a way of atoning for the historic slave trade across the Atlantic, from which Brazil profited. Thirdly, co-operation with Africa carries the promise of ‘mutually beneficial’ business opportunities for Brazilian corporations, private entrepreneurs and farmers, which President Dilma Rousseff appears keen to promote.

The mixed picture also applies to the level of middle-range and front-line Brazilian development. Embrapa is the largest and most high-profile agency involved, but our research found over 20 Brazilian agricultural actors (public and private organisations, as well as social movements) directly involved in development cooperation activities in African countries. These actors bring different experiences, contrasting views of Africa, and ideas of what ‘modern’ agricultural development might mean. They also differ in what they expect from cooperation and why they do it.

The agenda at the top, then, may be dominated by relatively well-knit diplomatic and business agendas, but diverse encounters on the ground are likely to take that agenda in unexpected directions.

Solidarity or self-interest?

At times, Brazilian investments in Africa cause controversy and dissent. Most recently, this has been seen with the ProSavana project in Mozambique, where the views of local government officials clash with civil society groups aiming to support local people. As a growing economy, Brazil has a strong drive to secure access to raw materials, markets and profitable deals for its burgeoning businesses.

African countries, apparently relatively open to engagement by a rising power with no apparent colonial baggage, are an increasingly attractive destination for Brazilian traders and investors. The tension between solidarity and self-interest will be tested as loans need to be repaid, and large numbers of investors move into projects initially focused on technical co-operation.

The role of science and research

Science and research occupy a central role in Brazil-Africa cooperation. Although there are a growing number of Brazilian science and research institutions involved in cooperation, Embrapa is still the dominant player with a variety of research, training and capacity building projects across many African countries. In a single new cooperation project in one country – ProSavana – there are as many as 16 Embrapa specialised research units involved. Embrapa's scientists are the front-line development actors travelling to African countries to share their knowledge, skills and experiences.

Brazil is not only keen to transfer and adapt Brazilian technology: it also looks to strengthen agricultural research capacity in Africa. Brazil's so-called ‘structuring cooperation’ is aimed at moving beyond one-off training events and exchanges towards longer-term projects aiming to improve local research systems.

Looking at the 'engagements' on the ground means going beyond official policy statements. What types of knowledge are traded and why? What visions and models of agricultural development underlie the agricultural science put forward? What drives the recipient side (those in African countries) towards particular selections of technology? As interest in promoting Southern-led science continues to rise, the answers may yield valuable insights and lessons for other countries.

In the end, however, the outcomes of Brazil's emergence as a major force in African agriculture will be shaped not only by the differences among Brazilian actors over which agricultural development model to privilege, but above all by how African governments, farmers, entrepreneurs and civil society activists absorb and shape the application of the models on offer.

Lidia Cabral is a researcher on the ESRC-funded China and Brazil in African Agriculture project. Nathan Oxley is a communications officer for the Future Agricultures Consortium.

Image credit: Blog do Planalto on Flickr