Food systems in Africa and China
Food systems comprise the environment, people, activities, institutions and infrastructure that produce, process, distribute and ultimately consume food. To be successful, food systems should result in food and nutrition security; be environmentally sustainable; and generate rural and urban livelihoods that create economically vibrant territories. This is sometimes referred to as the triple challenge of the food system.
The technical and financial support that is provided to agriculture, including research, training and agri-logistics, are critical components of food system transformation. In the case of most African countries, despite commitments to increase public investment, such support is not adequate due to the pace of change. Key drivers of this change include urbanisation and population growth; economic prosperity and the growing middle class; and climate change.
According to the African Union, public and private investments of over US$45 billion per annum will be required over the next decade if the agriculture value-chains of Africa’s countries are to realise their potential: a potential estimated to be US$1 trillion. This excludes investments that will be needed to ensure that urban food consumption environments provide safe, affordable and nourishing food.
The Forum on China African Cooperation (FOCAC) is one way in which the required investments, markets and innovations can be leveraged. FOCAC is sometimes regarded with suspicion, especially by Africa’s trading partners in the West, but also by African stakeholders concerned about the risk of debt, the dumping of inferior Chinese industrial products and the lack of technology transfer from China. However, FOCAC has resulted in increased commerce and investment. Trade between China and Africa has grown 20-fold and reached $208.9 billion in 2019. Total Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa was $49.1 billion in 2019, reflecting a 100-fold increase. And more than $200 billion in Chinese financial support had been provided by 2019. If strategically managed by all stakeholders, including pan-African institutions, FOCAC can play an important role in the attainment of desired food system goals.
African food systems
There is no single African food system. With over 2,000 languages, 3,000 ethnic groups, and 54 countries, the continent contains a diversity of food cultures and food environments. At the same time, the drivers and components of any food system are part of a worldwide food regime that encompasses the biosphere, a globalising political economy, and cultural globalisation.
The most productive 10 African countries generate 75% of Africa’s farming output. Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria are the top three Africa countries with the highest GDP contribution from agriculture in 2017. Statistics from the World Bank indicate that average agriculture contribution to GDP declined from 20% in 2009 to 16% in 2017 in sub-Saharan Africa. According to African Development Bank, Africa’s 2017 food import bill of US$35 billion is estimated to rise to US$110 billion by 2025. The 10 main exporters of agricultural products to Africa provide around 52% of total African agricultural imports: the USA is dominant while the significance of the European Union is low and China supplies just 3.7% of imports to Africa. The reliance on food imports is reflected in the continent’s cereal import dependency ratio, which was one of the highest in the world at 31.1% between 2016-2018.
At the same time, the continent accounts for 60% of the world’s global uncultivated arable land, estimated at 600 million hectares. According to the FAO, only 14% of Africa’s total 184 million hectares of arable land is under cultivation, with 93% of that dependent upon rainfall and fertiliser usage is low. Glaringly, Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria, has the 9th largest arable land in the world, most of which is underutilized.
FOCAC, BRI and agriculture in Africa
Following the creation of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, China–Africa trade rose from US$2 billion to US$170 billion in 2019. By 2018, ten African countries had also signed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) cooperation agreements.
FOCAC and BRI are important in improving the contribution of African food systems to the continent’s progress toward the SDG’s. One aspect of this relates to investments in infrastructure, particularly road and rail transportation. Intra-African agricultural trade as a percentage of total African agricultural trade consistently remains below 20%, one of the lowest for any region. Total trade between African countries was just 2% during 2015–2017, compared to 67% for intra-regional trade among European countries, 61 per cent for Asia, and 47 per cent for North and South America. The AU’s Agenda 2063 embraces the development goal of increasing the share of intra-African trade to 50% of Africa’s total trade and increasing Africa’s share of global trade to 12% by 2045. 49 AU members have signed the Agreement Establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA).
This move is significant to the ambitions of FOCAC since trade is also the foundation of China-Africa cooperation. Between 2005-7 and 2016-18, China rose from ranking seventh among Africa’s agricultural export destinations to fifth, displacing traditional destinations such as the UK and Italy, and accounting for 4.7% of agricultural exports from Africa. Sino-African trade provides opportunities for imports that are potentially tailored to meet the needs of small-holder farmers.
Research shows that there is a positive and significant relationship between imports and the agriculture industry that shows that technological imports from China have increased agricultural production. This is because these goods are not only cheaper than those already available but they are better substitutes compared to what is already on the market. Positive impacts of FOCAC have been found on both exports and imports of African countries. Many African countries have started importing more from China as compared to their other bilateral trade partners. At the same time, African countries are exporting more within themselves when they are both members of FOCAC.
Some projects in Africa are linked to construction of roads, ocean ports, airports, rail, and schools, which are not directly related to agriculture but may foster food system change in the long term by upgrading physical infrastructure, technology, and human capital. But it should also be recognized that some Chinese aid and investment is designed to build goodwill in African countries to create business opportunities for Chinese importers and contractors.
What role for food crops?
Rice is one example where strategic use of FOCAC collaborations could make a significant impact. The cultivation of rice in Africa dates back more than 3,000 years. Over 240 million people in West Africa currently rely on rice as the primary source of food energy and protein in their diet. However, the majority of this rice is imported. Local rice production covers only about 60% of current demand in sub-Saharan Africa, resulting in Africa accounting for 32% of world rice imports, making the continent a big player in the international rice trade. The demand for rice is growing at more than 6% per annum: faster than for any other food staple in sub-Saharan Africa.
Although a net importer of rice, Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer and is among the top 15 producers globally. The Nigerian government has announced that the country will soon become self-sufficient in rice production. Nigeria also grows about 50% of other grain crops produced in West Africa and is the 3rd largest millet producing country in the world after India and China.
There are examples of support for rice production in African countries. For example, small-holder farmers in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania are being supported by EU countries to increase their rice harvests and improve product quality. FOCAC is also involved and is supporting investments in rice production in Uganda and in Namibia's national flagship Kalimbeza Green Scheme Irrigation Project that is running trials of 15 Chinese rice varieties to test adaptability. A pan-African collaboration, the Competitive African Rice Initiative (CARI) aims to reduce dependency on imported rice while supporting low-income rice farmers.
The Chinese approach to development cooperation does not separate aid, diplomacy, and commerce. Chinese financing is recognised as being neither free nor altruistic. But, as the Brookings Institute points out, that is not the point. Rather, how Africa better utilizes the opportunities China creates and avoids the traps it brings is the issue that requires attention. At risk is that inappropriate technologies may be pushed onto African-owned enterprises, and that even if well-meaning, Chinese agri-technicians may lack the developmental expertise that is required to work in Africa’s rural communities. Key for meaningful FOCAC contributions to food system transformation in Africa is that the design, management and practice of agriculture technology transfer projects more effectively address the tension between sharing Chinese knowledge and learning from African partners.