Book Review: Will Africa feed China?

The latest book by the world’s leading expert on China in Africa debunks the myths and presents the human side of Chinese investors

Engagingly written with scholarly rigour, the latest book from Deborah Brautigam  –a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC and one of the leading experts on China in Africa  –  is an essential read for those concerned with China’s growing presence in Africa, the charged debate on ‘land grabbing’ and the future of Africa’s agricultural development.

But Brautigam’s book offers more than myth-busting. The collective stories of hardships experienced by Chinese investors illuminate the broader China-Africa relationship, making it a must-read for anyone who wishes to stake a claim on the charged debate on China’s role in Africa’s development.

Get the facts right

First, the book challenges four widespread beliefs about Chinese investment in Africa’s agriculture circulating through the media, NGO reports and academic writing:

1. The Chinese have acquired large areas of farmland in rural Africa;

2. This “land-grabbing” is orchestrated by the Chinese government using state-owned companies and funds with strategic priorities;

3. China invests in Africa to feed the Chinese people; and 

4. A large number of Chinese famers plan to settle on the continent.

Brautigam debunks these myths by presenting meticulous evidence – collected over years of painstaking fieldwork by the author and her research team– and the human stories behind China in Africa. Take the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Chinese investors were reported by media to have grabbed 3 million hectares – half the country’s cultivated land. In reality, the Congolese government only granted 200 hectares for an oil palm plantation deep in the forests of Equateur province, where the Congo River is the only link to the outside world. After travelling by boat for seven days up the river and encountering numerous sandbars blocking their way, the Chinese investors concluded it was not economically viable and promptly halted the project.

This case shows the reality on the ground is staggeringly different from conventional wisdom.

The key success of the book lies in its portrayal of the Chinese side of the story. Brautigam skilfully presents Chinese voices along with a diverse range of African perspectives (local communities, manual labourers, NGOs and government), building the more complete story readers deserve.

With similar elegance, the author also tackles the dry policy question – whether the Chinese government has masterminded a plan to convert Africa into China’s breadbasket – by detailing the numerous Chinese policies shifts in this field. The quick answer is no, but read the book for greater nuance.

Beyond myth-busting

The uninitiated reader may come away with entertaining stories and a more critical lens through which to analyse stories about Chinese agricultural investment in Africa. Yet, the book offers much more than that. The stories that emerge offer insights critical to understanding the broader China-Africa relationship. As a Chinese person working for a London-based development think tank, I believe these evidence-based insights can help the international development community and African NGOs engage more effectively the Chinese government and businesses.

In particular, three points are noteworthy: the key role played by African governments; the diversity within the Chinese business community; and why Chinese businesses make the wrong assumptions and decisions about their investment deals in Africa.

African agency, Chinese diversity

Brautigam details the critical role African governments play in facilitating investment deals. In the case of Mozambique it was top officials at the Ministry of Agriculture who approached the Chinese and other investors to help modernise the country’s agricultural sector. A new wave of research shows the key role of national and local elites in large-scale land acquisition – and the author shows that this holds true in the Chinese-linked deals.

Another key theme is the diversity within the existing portfolio of Chinese investment. From foreign aid and technical assistance, and from state-owned enterprises to private investors, the book demonstrates the need to differentiate between Chinese actors in Africa. African policymakers and civil society organisations should use targeted strategies to hold different types of investors to account and ensure positive environmental and social impacts on the ground.

Chinese investors’ psyche

Finally, from the accounts of the expectations and challenges of Chinese investors in Africa, the reader starts to understand an obvious but often neglected point: Chinese investors innocently expect Africa’s investment environment to mirror that of China. If Chinese businesses show a relatively low level of awareness of local land rights issues, this is because this is not a concern back home, where powerful local governments deliver the promised piece of land without dissent from Chinese farmers. As a result, Chinese investors faced a steep learning curve in countries such as Benin and Mozambique. Similarly, the author shows that Chinese investors’ zeal to transform rural “wasteland” into productive land mirrors the national land reclamation project in China in the 1980s.

In my own fieldwork in East Africa, I’ve met Chinese investors who believe that they have contributed to local development by using such land. But the local environmental authority and NGOs criticised the companies for cultivating wetlands with significant environmental value.

Understanding the psyche of the Chinese investors – and why they make certain choices in relation to sensitive social and environmental issues – is invaluable for African and international civil society if they want to move toward constructive engagement.

Building a constructive dialogue

In my own work
, I have encountered numerous African and Western journalists and NGO workers who hold biased assumptions about Chinese investors due to a lack of communication. In turn, I have seen Chinese investors, unused to dealing with press and the civil society in China, who believe that opening their door will only invite unreasonable western criticism driven by a desire to oust China from Africa. The erroneous media reporting described in the book only deepens these misunderstandings.

I have seen how constructive dialogue is possible among African and Chinese governments, NGOs and business players if built on solid evidence and unbiased research. For a development researcher and practitioner like myself, the real value of Brautigam’s book is that she succeeds in building this critical knowledge base and bringing the two sides a step closer together.

Together with her first book “the Dragon’s Gift” and her popular blog, the author is essential reading for any journalist or NGO practitioner wishing to stake a claim on China’s engagement in Africa and what it means for Africa’s development.