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Is China Planning to Exploit African Agriculture?

Sudan13793483There is a consensus in Africa that agriculture is one of the keys to achieving sustainable and inclusive growth there. Most of Africa’s population and its poor depend on agriculture, so this sector can provide potentially significant gains. Agriculture also has the potential to become one of the growth engines of the continent, help Africa’s industrialization through agro-processing and agro-business, and reduce the dependence on the services sector, which is currently the main driver of growth. Because of these advantages and despite its current low production, its high poverty, and the looming threat of climate change, Africa is uniquely placed to be a rising agricultural leader.

Indeed, Arezki, Denininger, and Selod (2012) find that a country’s attractiveness to foreign investors correlates directly to large amounts of uncultivated land with the potential to generate significant output. Now, where on planet Earth would we find such a treasure? Well, Africa accounts for about 60 percent of the world’s arable land, and most of its countries do not achieve 25 percent of their potential yield. No wonder, therefore, that there has been an increased interest on large-scale investment in agriculture in Africa, especially by China.

In light of this opportunity, China—with an already rapidly growing economic interest in the continent—has been accused of an abundance of “land grabs” in Africa. But is China really planning on badly exploiting African agriculture? Have these “land grabs” been as widespread as some critics imply? What might be the detriment to Africa? In her new book Will Africa Feed China? Deborah Brautigam discusses these questions and debunks myths around China’s interest in African land and agricultural resources as well as enters the larger discussion: How do we increase investment in African agriculture?

Africa has not yet achieved its “green revolution,” the initial jump in a region’s agricultural productivity and because of current its low cereal yields—the lowest in the world—it is experiencing a food deficit. In fact, the region spent more than $30 billion to import basic grains in 2011 according to the FAO. For every $1 it earns today in agricultural exports (mainly coffee, cotton, and cocoa), the region spends nearly $2 on agricultural imports, mainly food. Africa has a serious problem, which some countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, and Nigeria among others are addressing. Senegal has created a program that creates communal farming areas and equips 74,131 acres of farmland with infrastructure for water retention, electricity, roads, and other essentials (hyperlink in French). Côte d’Ivoire has surpassed 3 tons per hectare in cereal yields, which could be a very big deal.

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