A community garden in Muhuya village in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A new book points to the high costs and low yields of agriculture in parts of Africa.  REUTERS/HABIBOU BANGRE
A community garden in Muhuya village in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A new book points to the high costs and low yields of agriculture in parts of Africa. REUTERS/HABIBOU BANGRE

SEVERAL years ago, when food prices started rising sharply, triggering riots from Bangladesh to Yemen, stories began circulating about enormous Chinese landgrabs in Africa.

In Zimbabwe, a Chinese company was said to have leased 100,000ha to grow maize for export to China, even while hunger stalked Zimbabwe itself.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, ZTE, a Chinese telecoms company keen on diversification, was apparently investing in a 3-million-hectare palm oil plantation. Chinese businesses were said to control most of Zambia’s fertile farmland.

If the stories were to be believed, Chinese companies were engaged in a co-ordinated effort across the continent to take control of agricultural land to feed their ever-more prosperous people back home.

It was not the first time that fears had surfaced of land-focused neocolonialism emanating from Beijing. As long ago as 1966, Fulbert Youlou, the first president of the Republic of the Congo, wrote that China "would in due course turn the entire continent into a gigantic rice field". So far that hasn’t happened.

Deborah Brautigam’s interesting, thorough, if narrowly focused book Will Africa Feed China? sets about explaining why it is not likely to occur any time soon. Brautigam is a political economy professor at Johns Hopkins University in the US and her research has made her a leading expert on Chinese-African relations.

According to her fieldwork in several African countries, from Mozambique to Sierra Leone, as well as around China itself, there is more hype than reality about Beijing’s grand design on African farmland. Rather, she finds scattered investments, mostly unsuccessful and on a relatively small scale, aimed at selling local crops to domestic markets or, occasionally, at exporting traditional cash crops such as rubber and palm oil.

"There is no evidence to support the notion," she writes, "that Chinese firms in rural Africa are the beachhead of a rising imperial power." The Chinese, she writes, are not "embarked on a state-sponsored quest to lock up vast tracts of African land".

Brautigam’s book seeks to overturn several of what she calls "rural legends" — urban myths for farmers.

According to her, for example, ZTE’s supposed 3-million hectares turned out to be a tiny 200ha. As so often, the company made grandiose claims that bore no relation to reality.

"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.

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 Financial Times 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 export large numbers of Chinese displaced farmers abroad.

"As of 2015, there is no evidence that anything like this is happening," she writes.

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 630ha China-Zambia Friendship Farm if he exports wheat, maize and soya beans 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."

The book has some interesting anecdotes, from the Chinese "Ostrich King" in Cameroon to the former Chinese nurse who became the stuff of legend as a Zambian farmer.

The prose flows well, particularly for what is essentially an academic work. Yet, for the general reader, there are two drawbacks.

First, the book is dedicated to proving a negative: that there is no Chinese plot to control African land. If Beijing’s dastardly plans have not yet penetrated your consciousness, it may be less than astounding to find out they don’t exist.

Second, Brautigam focuses narrowly on agriculture. The Sino-African relationship goes deeper than that, embracing mining, oil, infrastructure and diplomacy.

Brautigam touches on some issues of huge importance to Africa, but because of the Chinese focus, she doesn’t develop them as fully as she might. Central is the question of Africa’s ability to feed itself and to earn foreign currency from exports.

Much of the continent farms as though the green revolution never happened. Africa, which has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, has some of the world’s lowest yields. Farmers have been hobbled by policies designed to keep food prices low to keep city dwellers happy.

A combination of terrible agricultural policies and vile politics led to devastating famines in places such as Ethiopia and Sudan.

Even countries with good land, such as Zambia and Zimbabwe, or export powerhouses, such as Ghana with cocoa, have mostly squandered their agricultural legacy.

Brautigam argues Africa can learn from China, which has pursued what she deems mostly successful agricultural policies. China, she says, could play a role in helping African farmers raise their game.

So far, though, the book suggests, this is not happening. Despite all the hype, China’s presence in rural Africa is not yet big enough to make much of a difference. ©

The Financial Times Limited 2016