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China in Africa: The Real Story

A Chinese Farm in Africa

Deborah Brautigam

One of the most popular guest posts I've hosted here on the blog was Lila Buckley's "Eating Bitter to Taste Sweetness". Now Lila has written a short update of her continued research on Chinese agricultural engagement, on the website of her employer, the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED). As can be expected, it's good.

In A Chinese Farm in Africa, Lila reports on her follow up meetings in China, with "Chen", one of the Chinese posted to Senegal in her original research visit, in 2010. Chen
 ... and 14 other Chinese agronomists had spent two years on two separate sites as part of an ongoing collaboration between the Chinese and Senegalese government to promote development of Senegal’s agriculture sector.
But the programme was wrought with difficulties—communication barriers, lack of trust on both sides, project design flaws— that left both the Chinese and their Senegalese collaborators frustrated much of the time. It was a difficult two years for Chen—his first time outside of China, working in an unwelcoming environment, far from his family.
Fluent in Chinese and French, interested in participant observation anthropological methodologies, Lila was an ideal researcher to shed light on the lived experience of Chinese aid workers in Africa. This new posting continues in the careful, well-researched and well-written mode established by Lila's guest post and master's thesis. Back in China, Chen says:
"Here in Hubei farmers appreciate our help, but in reality we can’t have a big impact. In Senegal, a small change in watering technique or soil management can increase yields dramatically, so I can reach more people and work more effectively. It wouldn’t take very much to develop a strong African agricultural sector.” ...
 I especially like one of Lila's final comments, which is confirmed by my own experience.
This is the logic of China’s increasing support of Africa’s agriculture:  introduce Chinese farming techniques to Africa, not to feed China per se, but to increase global food supply in general.
Photo: Chen showing Lila Buckley his innovative method for growing potatoes in straw nests. Credit: Simon Lim