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South-South Cooperation in African Agriculture: China, Brazil and international agribusiness

April 2014

Amanor, K.S. 2014. South-South Cooperation in African Agriculture: China, Brazil and international agribusiness. GREAT Insights, Volume 3, Issue 4. April 2014.

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South-South cooperation is significant in the context of agricultural development in Africa since economic restructuring has done little to foster agricultural development in Africa.  New approaches, new social configurations of actors and new investments are now seen as critical to overcoming the constraints in African agriculture.

Some commentators have argued that emerging powers can play an important role in revitalising agriculture. They argue that both Chinese approaches to smallholder agriculture[1] and Brazilian experiences in transforming the Cerrado region are highly relevant to Africa.[2] However, both Brazil and China have gone through processes of economic restructuring in the 1990s and 2000s, resulting in the emergence of significant private sector agribusiness.  Agricultural sector management in most African countries has also been considerably reshaped by economic restructuring and interests in attracting multinational agribusiness. To what extent are these the dominant forces shaping new agrarian investments by emerging powers rather than notions of South-South solidarity?

South-South cooperation claims to challenge the inequalities of conditionalities imposed by Western aid on Africa. It creates an alternative framework based on non-interference, respect for national sovereignty and interests, and joint public and private sector investments to promote technical cooperation.  In contrast with Western development models, South-South cooperation claims to create linkages between infrastructural development, markets, investment and technical cooperation, and an enabling environment for capital accumulation and economic expansion. Instead of making investment conditional on infrastructure development and institutional reform as under Western economic restructuring, South-South cooperation advocates the development of investment to promote change and enhanced economic and institutional management. It enables emerging nations to place their experiences of successfully negotiating the transition to development at the disposal of African states. Detractors from South-South cooperation argue that it merely sets out to justify attempts by the new powers to gain access to and control over African natural resources, to initiate a new scramble for Africa.

China and South-South cooperation in African agriculture

Chinese diplomatic relations and economic cooperation within Africa has a long history dating back to the Bandung Declaration of 1955, which laid the foundations for the emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement, based on the principles of non-interference, mutual respect for national sovereignty and peaceful co-existence.  During the 1960s several radical African political regimes played an important role in lobbying for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to be recognised by the United Nations.  This was opposed by the USA, which recognised the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the representative of the Chinese state, until 1971.  As a result of this China developed close ties with many African governments during the 1960s and 1970s and forms of development cooperation.  China actively sought to promote a “One-China policy” in which it fostered economic ties and development assistance to countries that recognised the PRC.

During the 1960s and 1970s investments in agricultural projects, particularly involving irrigated rice and vegetables became a field of competition through which China (the PRC) and Taiwan under Operation Vanguard sought to win influence in Africa.  In the early 1980s significant investments of China continued in irrigation projects and demonstration farms.  However, these have not been subsequently built upon and by the 1990s Japanese aid began to displace Chinese aid in irrigated rice projects in Africa, often rehabilitating projects that were started by China.  These Chinese projects were usually quite modest, pre-dating the expansion of Chinese agricultural technology developments, input industries and production of hybrids seeds. These developments did not result in any lasting development of knowledge in African agricultural conditions or joint institutionalised technical research, unlike in the CGIAR centres that were supported by US foundations and USAID.  As a consequence there is little institutional repository of this knowledge, and Chinese technical knowledge and research into African agriculture remains in a fairly rudimentary state, not having progressed beyond the establishment of demonstration centres.

Although contribution to agricultural development is one of the professed aims of Chinese development cooperation, Chinese investments in agriculture are insignificant in comparison to those in other sectors such as petroleum, mining, construction, communications, and trade.  Although significant numbers of Chinese citizens and small and medium sized enterprises work or operate within Africa, they are more likely to be involved in mining, timber, fisheries, trading and manufacturing rather than in agriculture.  The main Chinese investments in agriculture tend to grow out of building and construction, with construction companies involved in the development of irrigation and dams. Current Chinese agricultural cooperation in irrigation does not significantly extend to farm management and provisioning of seeds and inputs.

A second important area is in the provision of agricultural training in which provisions are made for technical personnel within ministries of agriculture to undertake training courses in China, through which they become introduced to Chinese technology. A third area is in the supply of farm machinery, inputs, and agrochemicals – Chinese companies are now the largest producers of glysophates in the world, and have largely captured the African market.  Chinese commercial seeds have made little inroads into Africa, unlike the seeds of major US multinationals that are gaining control over existing African seed companies, although with the emergence of private commercial seed companies in China producing hybrids, this is likely to grow, following on from the significant expansion of Chinese agro-chemicals in Africa.  Currently, the Beijing Genome Institution is partnering with the Gates Foundation in developing new rice hybrid varieties to be introduced in Africa. However investments in large-scale farming and agri-industrial processing complexes are not highly developed, reflecting the risk of investment, lack of technical knowledge of African conditions, and the complexity of negotiating institutional settings.

Brazilian expansion into African agriculture

In contrast with China, Brazilian development cooperation in Africa is comparatively recent, although longer linkages exist with lusophone countries such as Mozambique and Angola. Brazilian interest in investment in the African continent first became articulated during the 2000s with President Lula’s visit to 26 African countries. This culminated in the opening up of an African office for Brazilian Agricultural Research Cooperation (Embrapa) in Accra in 2006, and the 2010 Brazil-Africa Dialogue, which set up technical cooperation programmes, credits and Brazilian Chambers of Commerce in Africa.

Brazilian investments and trade in Africa are much smaller than China, but agriculture features much more strongly in its development cooperation objectives. The Brazilian framework of South-South cooperation features a commitment to non-intervention in internal matters and respect for national sovereignty. It stresses the cultural affinities between Brazil and Africa, the large African diaspora in Brazil, and the relevance of Brazilian technology and development approaches to Africa.

Brazilian South-South cooperation has grown out of intense competition with US agribusiness and attempts to developing alternative policies to preserve Brazilian enterprises from takeover by US multinationals. Brazil has been instrumental in actively resisting attempts by the US to set up a Free Trade Area of the Americas without the removal of US agricultural subsidies, and setting up rival regional free trade zones within South America, and in resisting US policies on patents. These struggles inform Brazilian perspectives on South-South cooperation and its attempts to expand forms of economic cooperation developed in South America into the African continent.  However, the main focus of its development assistance to Africa lies in promoting Brazilian technology rather than in developing alternative Southern trading blocs or development strategies.

The main focus of Brazilian development cooperation is on promoting forms of social inclusion and eradication of poverty based on cash transfers that link family assistance with support for child schooling.  These are further linked into a programme of smallholder farm development that focuses on smallholder production for school feeding programmes and the provisions of technology to smallholders.  The More Food Programme has been extended into Ghana, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Kenya and Mozambique, the first tranche of which supports the provisions of Brazilian tractors to smallholder farmers.[3] Attempts to extend the programme into provisioning of other inputs and technical recommendations have not been taken up enthusiastically by African countries. Embrapa and JICA have also launched Pro-Savanna in Mozambique, transferring Brazilian agricultural experience and technology to African savanna areas.

Despite the avowed interest of Brazil in agricultural development in Africa, few investment opportunities have come to fruition.  Few resources have been expanded on development sufficient institutional support for agricultural investment within Africa. With a technical staff of one Brazilian in the Embrapa office in Accra and a dearth of offices in other African states, Embrapa initiatives on the ground do not match the rhetoric. Like China, the most significant investments of Brazilian capital in Africa are in petroleum, mining and construction.

Investments in the agricultural sector are complex and risky, with many unknown elements and information gaps, and involve many negotiations with ministries, civil society organisations and communities, and competitive tending.  Although agriculture is prominent in the Brazilian framing of economic cooperation in Africa and the relevant technical proficiency of Brazilian agribusiness, Brazilian agribusiness still prefers to continue investing within lucrative markets in Brazil and in neighbouring South American countries, rather than focusing new efforts in Africa.  Brazilian agricultural investments in Africa are frequently bound up in tripartite arrangements, reflecting the importance of international capital in building the agribusiness sector in Brazil, including a prominent role of Japanese and European capital.  Much of the expressed interest of Brazilian companies in developing technical cooperation in Africa develops in the context of international capital investments with Brazilian companies performing technical and contractual services rather than Brazilian capital investment.

Future agrarian investments

Investments of new emerging powers in the agricultural sector in Africa arise out of the opportunities created by liberal market reforms and the processes of agribusiness restructuring and accumulation this has facilitated in their home markets.  However, African nation states have also gone through similar processes of restructuring that have created institutional alignments with Washington. Thus, the new breed of policy makers in Africa do not necessarily subscribe to notions of South-South cooperation in contradistinction to facilitating open global markets, and new emergent powers have to compete and tender contracts competitively and within institutional contexts pre-defined by economic restructuring that are more friendly to Western investors. Moreover, agricultural investments are constrained by the factors of high risk, low developments of infrastructure, difficulties with land markets and property laws and information that have deterred other investors.

Thus, the desire of emerging powers to invest in the agricultural sector in Africa is not reflected in the development of new enterprises on the ground. As with Western agribusiness, a major focus is on creating new markets for agricultural technology and inputs. This is where the main competition in the coming years is likely to take place in agrarian investment in Africa.

This is a summarised version of Amanor, K.S “South-South Cooperation in Africa: Historical, geopolitical and political economy dimensions of international development” China and Brazil in African Agriculture, IDS Bulletin 44(4) 2013:20-30, which also has other relevant articles on this theme. Research was supported by the Rising Powers research programme of the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Brazil and China in Africa research programme of Future Agricultures Consortium.

Kojo Sebastian Amanor is Associate Professor and Deputy Director at the Institute of African Studies.

This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 3, Issue 4 (April 2014).


1. See Richards, P. Aiding development: food security

2. World Bank. 2009. Awakening Africa’s Sleeping Giant: Prospects for commercial agriculture in the Guinea savannah zone and beyond. Washington, DC: World Bank.

3. See Carbral, L. Shankland, Favaretto, Vaz, A.C. Brazil-Africa Agricultural Cooperation Encounters: Narratives and imaginaries of Africa and Development in IDS Bulletin 44(4): 2013: 53-68 and Pierri, F.M. How Brazil’s Agrarian Dynamics Shape Development Cooperation in Africa. Ibid: 69-79.

Economic recovery and transformationAgricultureAfricaBrazilChina

External authors

Kojo Sebastian Amanor