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2014 Conference

Event Details

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2014 Conference

  • 1717 Massachusetts Avenue Northwest Washington DC 20036 United States of America (map)

China’s Agricultural Investment in Africa: “Land Grabs” or “Friendship Farms”?

The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) held its inaugural public conference on May 16, 2014 and private (invitation only) researchers workshop on May 17, 2014, at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.

Watch video recording:

May 17, 2014 Conference Webcast »

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.

Conference Overview

Due to its size, and its rapidly growing middle class, China is likely to play an unprecedented role in the stability of global food prices and access to food supplies. Nowhere is this role likely to be more impactful than in Africa, a continent that suffers from a chronic food deficit. Over the past five years, reports of Chinese interest in large-scale land and agricultural investment in Africa have emerged regularly into the media. Today, many believe that the Chinese government is directing efforts to secure large tracts of land in Africa and elsewhere to ensure China’s own food security. This SAIS-CARI conference investigates the realities of Chinese agricultural engagement in Africa, in comparative perspective. Scholars from around the world will present their fieldwork on Chinese policies toward outward agricultural investment, case studies of Chinese investment in Mozambique, Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, Ghana, Angola, Mali, the DRC, Cameroon, Malawi, Zimbabwe and elsewhere, and close analysis of the economic cooperation model and the overlap between business and foreign aid. Researchers will complement this analysis with reports of Chinese investment in Latin American agriculture, and Gulf States investment in Africa. From the grassroots to the boardroom, the realities of Chinese investment in African agriculture are long overdue for an evidence-based analysis and appraisal. This is the aim of our conference.


Friday, May 16

8:30 – 9:00    Sign-In and Coffee

9:00 – 9:10     Welcome: SAIS Dean Vali Nasr, Prof. Peter Lewis, African Studies and Prof. M. David Lampton, China Studies

9:10 – 9:20     Introduction: Prof. Deborah Brautigam, IDEV and SAIS-CARI

9:20 – 10:50    China’s Agricultural Investment: Mapping and Comparisons

• Chair: Robert Thompson, SAIS Global Agriculture
• Deborah Brautigam, Johns Hopkins University/SAIS
“China Going Global: Policies, Preferences, Problems”
• Eckart Woertz, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB)
“Gulf Agro-investments in Africa: Motivations, Implementation Gaps, Politics: Comparison with China”
• Margaret Myers, InterAmerican Dialogue
“China in Latin America: Comparison”

10:50 – 11:10      Coffee Break

11:10 – 12:40     Joint Ventures, Transitions and Borderlands

• Chair:  Yoon Jung Park, CA/AC Network Coordinator
• Solange Chatelard, Max Planck Institute/Sciences Po and Jessica Chu, SOAS, 
“New Chinese Agricultural Investments in Zambia: A Grassroots Analysis”
• Nama Ouattara, Université Paris Sud,
“Responsible Agricultural Investment: China’s Investment in Sugar in Mali”
• Xiuli Xu, China Agricultural University
“Business Borderlands: China’s Overseas State-owned Agribusiness”

12:40 – 1:30        Lunch

1:30 – 3:00          Business Models and Dreams

• Chair:  Lila Buckley, IIED
• Josh Maiyo, VU University Amsterdam,
“China’s Ag. Engagement in Uganda:  ‘Land Grabs’ and ‘Friendship’ Projects”
• Jiao Yang, University of Florida
“Chinese Agribusiness Entrepreneurship in Africa: A Case Study in Ghana”
• Xiaochen Chen, China Business News Institute
“Adaptation to the Local Environment: the Story of a Sisal Farm in Tanzania”
• Zhou Jinyan, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
“Chinese Agricultural Investment in Angola”

3:00 – 3:30         Coffee Break

3:30 – 5:15          Problems and Challenges: Between Business and “Cooperation”

• Chair: Peter Lewis
• Sérgio Chichava, Instituto de Estudos Socialis e Económicos (IESE)
“China’s Agricultural Investment in Mozambique. The Case of Wanbao”
• Louis Putzel, CIFOR
“Chinese Agricultural Investments in Africa: CSR, Scalar Efficiencies, and Local Folk”
• Tang Xiaoyang, Tsinghua University
“Competition for Loyalty: Chinese Investments in Southern Africa’s Cotton Sectors and their Impacts”
• Henry Tugendhat, IDS Sussex and Future Agricultures,
“Chinese Training Courses for African Officials: a “Win-Win” Engagement?”

5:15 – 5:30                 Closing Remarks: Conference Organizers

The conference was free, and open to the public, although seats were limited. SAIS-CARI thanks co-sponsors: SAIS International Development Program (IDEV), China Studies, African Studies, and the SAIS International Agriculture Initiative.

We especially thank the International Development Program and Smith Richardson Foundation for co-funding this conference.