Sign Up

A Chinese Farm in Africa

Can China help feed itself by helping Africa boost its agricultural output?

September 22, 2012

Can China help feed itself by helping Africa boost its agricultural output?

My real dream is to have my own farm,” 45-year-old Chen tells me as we drive through the lush countryside of rural Hubei Province in eastern China. “It would showcase environmental approaches for others to learn from.”

Chen describes his vision of a self-sufficient agricultural system integrating aquaculture, livestock, grain and vegetable production, supported by clean energy and closed-loop waste and water management. But this dream farm is not here among the vivid green potato and rapeseed fields of Chen’s hometown — this Chinese farm would be far away on the other side of the globe in Senegal.

I first met Chen in 2010 in Senegal, where he was working in an agricultural training program as part of a diplomatic mission under the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. That was where — living amongst Chen and his colleagues on a farm outside of Dakar for several weeks — I first encountered Chinese agriculture engagement in Africa.

He 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 program 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.

Now back in China, Chen has returned to his previous job in his city’s Agriculture Technology Promotion Centre,” part of a vast network of such centers throughout the country responsible for improving agricultural varieties and techniques, and introducing them to local farmers.

He drives me around the farms and shows me with pride the work that he is doing. From what I can tell, it’s much like what he did in Senegal, only without the language barriers and trouble with local partners.

In contrast to the input-intensive monocultures driven by agribusiness in China, Chen’s job is to help farmers improve their productivity while reducing their inputs of fertilizers, pesticides and labor. He develops collaborative experiments with smallholder farmers on their own land, testing out new growing techniques, organic soil treatments, and pest control.

“It is interesting and good work helping the farmers improve their production,” he tells me as we walk through the rapeseed field. “And we have good relations with the farmers. They welcome this input and are willing to experiment as long as we can guarantee the methods won’t make them lose money.”

“When they do lose money,” he continues, “we subsidize them for the loss. Usually though, our methods enable them to increase their revenue from the start.”

Chen loves his work — you can feel it in the way he talks about the new techniques they are using to grow potatoes, and hear it in the deep laughs he exchanges with his farmer trainees.

“I love working with plants, in a natural environment,” Chen tells me. “Plants are forgiving. If you mess up, you can just pull them out and start over. You can see them growing every day and watch their progress. They give me hope.”

As I walked through the fields, life teeming all around me, I too feel a sense of security and optimism about the state of China’s agriculture — with its organized network of Technology Promotion Centres and the focused attention of dedicated people like Chen.

“With things going so well here, why dream of a farm in Senegal?” It is a question I’ve been mulling over since my first trip to Senegal, and I pose it to Chen. I understand that wages for these kinds of postings are attractive, but Chen is suggesting a desire to branch out on his own — without Chinese government support.

And a growing number of other Chinese farmers are doing the same — looking to Africa for agriculture investments, trade and development cooperation.

Global media headlines would have us believe that these Chinese farmers are merely cogs in a neo-colonial machine driven by a Beijing master plan to take over Africa. But from where Chen sits, Chinese farming in Africa is more about personal opportunity — something that most all of us desire — an opportunity to do something meaningful and feel valued.

For Chen, working with farmers gives him a sense of self-worth. “Whether I’m working here in China or in Africa,” he explains, “my job is about helping other people do their work better — improving their skills, increasing their yields. It doesn’t really matter who I’m helping.”

But what does matter for Chen is how empowered he is to do that helping. And in China he feels there are limits.

He explains how lack of true land tenure in China hinders rural agriculture progress. “With only 600 square meters allocated per person, peasants have enough land to feed themselves, but not enough to develop themselves. They don’t own the land, so they can’t sell it, and they aren’t able to buy anything bigger, so they are stuck.”

“Until we have true reforms in this area, there’s not much that can be done,” 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.”

Without any language training or explanation of Senegal’s agrarian history during his time there, Chen was forced to interpret Senegal’s agriculture through the lens of his experiences in China, a country feeding 22% of the world’s people on only 10% of its arable land.

To many Chinese, China’s land is seen as tired and overused, while African soil is perceived as rich and underutilized — and in need of Chinese techniques. “Senegal has much better production conditions than China,” Chen explains, “with no winter, and three rivers full of fresh water.”

“We have relatively little land compared to other countries but a massive population,” he continues, “and yet we have been able to rely on our own abilities to feed ourselves. We can use this experience to help solve [other country’s] food supply problems.”

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.

“The work will be difficult”

Despite the problems with the project Chen worked on during our first encounter in 2010, he is optimistic that there are better ways to engage with African agriculture. He doesn’t think that his dream of his own farm is very realistic, since accessing land for such a farm would be difficult.

“And rightly so,” he adds, “since the Senegalese government needs to protect its own people and ensure we don’t take jobs away from them.”

But he finds hope in a new tripartite agreement between the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), China and Senegal (along with eight other African countries) for the implementation of South-South Cooperation (SSC) on food security and agricultural development.

Since returning from Senegal at the end of 2010, he’s been receiving French language training — he shows me his textbook and eagerly starts to practice with me, checking his pronunciation and asking about bits of grammar he doesn’t understand — and he’s also traveled to Rome for an FAO training on program monitoring and evaluation.

He’s now off to Senegal for another two year posting, but this time under the trilateral FAO food security program, and he expects this experience to be very different from the last.

“The standards with this work are much higher than before,” he explains, noting that the previous project aimed to provide ‘training’ but without specifying any clear outcomes from that training.

“This time our goal is defined by the Millennium Development Goals — to help Senegal address its food security problem — and covers all aspects of agriculture, not just a few new techniques and varieties. And we will be following the model of existing projects FAO has conducted elsewhere, so the methods are already tested.”

Structurally, Chen also notes that the work is now overseen by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture — as opposed to Ministry of Commerce — which should be able to provide better leadership for the project because they “know what should and should not be done for agriculture development.”

The new language and project monitoring skills Chen returns with still do not guarantee he can avoid the kinds of communication barriers and misunderstandings that derailed his previous efforts in Senegal.

“The work will be difficult,” he says, “because I will have to manage people who have a limited understanding of the local context and limited time within the country.”

The preparations still haven’t included any training in Senegalese socio-cultural or agrarian history. But Chen has learned important lessons from his previous work, and returns this time with a long-term strategy.

“The team is all very specialized with extensive domestic experience [in China],” Chen explains. “They’re all very capable in their own fields, but they have not yet been to Africa. My best option will be to develop their individual capacities.”

In the long-term, Chen envisions the Chinese helping Senegal to develop agriculture promotion centers similar to the one he works for in Hubei “to focus on capacity building for average citizens. It’s the people who need skills building if anything is going to change.”

Chen explains that the Senegalese government-run training centre where he worked in 2010 had no agency to “reach the masses” with agricultural information. “It would be better,” he says, “if they developed a more comprehensive program and had a plan for how to achieve it. Then in the future when we [Chinese] go there, we could just work for them. There’d be no need to do our own projects.”

I leave Hubei with cautious optimism. Chen’s vision of an agriculture extension system like his in Hubei — engaging smallholder farmers in cooperative experiments on low-input, “green” agriculture approaches — would certainly be a best case scenario for China-Africa agricultural cooperation.

In addition, the collaboration with FAO might help him and others overcome some of the communication and project management issues encountered in these exchanges.

Trilateral cooperation is touted as the answer to the rising powers and their reshaping of global development. But there is scant evidence to show that these new models offer any tangible difference for development outcomes on the ground.

It is also unclear from FAO’s project design whether the Chinese technicians will be encouraged to focus on diversified systems with smallholder farmers, as Chen hopes, or whether the aim is to apply more environmentally-destructive, input-intensive agricultural models to solve African food security problems.

As Chen heads off to Dakar, only time will tell whether the planned outcomes of the FAO South-South Cooperation work in Senegal can be achieved. But for Chen at least, it signifies another opportunity to excel at what he loves.

A few days after I return home, I receive a Skype message from Chen thanking me for the materials I had sent him on integrated agricultural systems. I reply that it is I who should be thanking him, for being such a good host and helping me with my research.

When we have exchanged a few more pleasantries, I suggest that we are a “model of mutual benefit,” echoing the Chinese government language of its relationship with Africa.

“Indeed, society is everyone’s community,” Chen replies. “No person can do without the help of others.”

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the website of the International Institute for Environment and Development, where the author is a senior researcher in the Natural Resources Group.

Chen is a real person, but his name has been changed to protect his identity.


Chinese farming in Africa is more about the personal opportunity to do something meaningful and feel valued.

"With only 600 square meters allocated per person, [Chinese] peasants have enough land to feed themselves, but not enough to develop themselves."

"In Senegal, I can reach more people and work more effectively. It wouldn't take very much to develop a strong African agricultural sector."

The logic of China's increasing support of Africa's agriculture is not to feed China per se, but to increase global food supply in general.

It is unclear whether the Chinese aim is to apply more environmentally-destructive, input-intensive agricultural models to solve African food security problems.