When two elephants fight...
That was my takeaway from a conference I attended on China - Africa relations not long ago. A summary of my observations are as follows:
First, a general comment: The "developed" nations continue to deal with Africa as though it is one monolithic block. The reality is very different. It is a continent with many very different mostly artificial nations who have different histories, languages and cultures. This matters as it affects how each country deals with certain issues in accordance to their current development, economic status, language and culture. Though Canada, The United States and Mexico are all on the continent of North America, they are very rarely referred to as a collective. Even though the US and Canada have many similarities. So the question is why does the vast majority of the western world consider Africa as one?
First: It appears the conference missed the point. It was titled:
One of the very few African presenters noted in his presentation: neither! You do not need to own or "grab" the land to have full control over the land. When you are granted a 25, 50 or 99 year lease on a piece of land, the fact is you practically OWE the land.
Most presenters had only visited Africa for short periods and most cases have been working in Africa for a few years, very few had been working in African nations for up to a decade, aside from the chairs of each session who did not actually present during the conference but acted as moderators. So I am unsure you can come to a true conclusion based on the traveling reports of a few rather young researchers who only spent days and weeks in the countries observing the issue up close. One would expect conclusions coming after a number of return visits and developing a real solid historical data base. Added to the fact that the benefits or not of such "adventures" cannot be correctly measured in short time frames, but over a much longer period in time to allow for a real evaluation of the program or relationship from varying angles and benchmarks.
Reinventing the wheel.
Two statements stood out to me during the conference, a presenter who spent time in Angola noted the resistance to the chinese farming methods and the Chinese wondered why the hesitation, and she noted an Angolan official had remarked: (paraphrasing)
"We do not want to learn and develop the Chinese ways of farming, we want to learn and develop the Angolan ways of farming" .
I found this to be a profound statement. Africans have been farming for years and years and years. Its problems with being unable to feed itself have largely been due to a terrible famine but more importantly BAD governance! As in governments not creating a system that adequately supports the farming industry in several African countries, NOT the in ability or lack of farming knowledge. Successive African governments have failed to learn how to secure their populations feeding requirements with adequate food storage reserves or a proper farming policy with proper implementation leading to the need for handouts from developed nations, it is not a farming problem but a government and leadership problem.
The second statement of note to me, was an answer to a question I asked one of the presenters. A Chinese company contracted to work on a farm in Kebbi State, Nigeria set up a lab to prepare seeds for use by local farmers. I asked the presenter if he was aware that Ahmadu Bello University not that far from Kebbi State had an extensive Institute of Agricultural Research! Response? A completely blank stare and a fumbled response. So tell me how can you count on "research" from an "expert" that was done in Nigeria that does not even consider the existing infrastructure and facilities and the condition of that infrastructure and how it is or is not meeting the needs of the nation?
I mean they had acres and acres of experimental lands at ABU's Samaru and Shika farms in Zaria, Shika, in fact was an entire multi acre campus dedicated ONLY to farming and animal husbandry research. (Considering I have not been to Shika in almost two decades, I am using past tense as I have no idea the current condition of that fantastic facility, and if the Chinese were needed to reinvent the wheel it is probably in a state of decay) rather than set up a new lab, why not simply support the University that already exists? Why re-invent the wheel?
IAR in ABU was once famed to be the largest Agricultural institute in Nigeria if not Africa. They had satellite farms and locations all over northern Nigeria, a phenomenal footprint across Northern Nigeria. There is no doubt they must have fallen into serious disrepair, and of course the entire North is now ravaged by Islamic extremists, but if the goal was to TRULY benefit the county and its citizens, would it not make sense to financial endow the existing institute, send experts to work with the professors and researchers who have been on the ground for decades? Actually would it not even be cheaper?
I cannot speak for other countries but Nigeria is a country with an abundance of past substantial investments in farming. There are well established institutions ALL over the country that deal with agriculture and also livestock et al. For example ABU has the National Animal Production Research Institute. Nigeria has THREE universities exclusively established to promote agriculture! And there is a school of thought that Nigeria requires "friendship farms". I beg to differ.
Nigeria has the Agricultures Universities in Abeokuta, Makurdi and Umudike, practically ALL Universities in Nigeria have a faculty of Agriculture and yet, I did not hear a word about collaboration between these Chinese farming initiatives and local Nigerian Universities but I did hear a lot about the Chinese bringing modern farming techniques to 'Africa". It is entirely possible that other African countries need such support, but the support Nigeria requires is entirely different. This harkens back to my earlier comments of the error of looking at Africa as one monolithic entity rather than its several individual parts.
Some of us are of the opinion, China's end game is NOT farming in Africa, but utilizing farming as means to engage with African governments and gain a foothold for access to other natural resources. One or two presenters noted this fact but it was not discussed in further detail.A continent that appears it cannot feed itself after all must figure out how to eat. This appears to be the case with China investing a lot in Counties like Nigeria and Angola, common denominator, even a blind man can see it, Crude Oil. So why would China engage in land grabbing when they actually have something else in mind? And why would they not promote a "friendship" farm if that friendship can provide access to oil blocs? If I were China, I would certainly go down that route. So my point, it is rather disingenuous to make the assertion on land grabbing when it is rather clear that, is not the end game.
So China's farming activities in Africa cannot be isolated in a vacuum. The truth is China is embarking on a economic colonization of the continent. When you consider that China is more heavily invested in so many other sectors of the African economy and lifestyle. Chinese companies are building like crazy all over Africa, roads, bridges and railways, ports, and dams and more. They have built an oil refinery in Niger. They are building an Export Free Trade Zone in Lekki, Nigeria. Those investments are far far more profitable to the Chinese state and private companies that are currently operating in Africa than farming investments. Chinese companies are heavily into the mining and export of natural resources all over the continent. Oil to name one. Is it a coincidence that China is undertaking several major projects in Nigeria, Sudan, and Angola? Remember the common denominator: Crude oil. So you cannot isolate the Chinese activities in farming and try to exalt or criticize those activities in a vacuum without considering the totality of Chinese investment and interests in Africa.
Another observation: It was quite unfortunate in my opinion on a conference of China's farming interests in Africa, a continent of 54 sovereign states, there were on THREE African presenters.
Having noted all the above, the biggest culprits I believe are the African governments. They have laid down on the ground to be trampled upon by the two elephants. For example, the current AND former Governors of Kebbi State are both graduates of Ahmadu Bello University, they have the responsibility to have directed their Chinese investors, go and work with the IAR in ABU or at the university of Sokoto. Basically transfer the technologies and knowledge. They should have prevented the re-invention of the wheel which allows the Chinese farmer to claim they are "teaching" Nigerians how to farm!
Finally, you will note I have refrained form using the words "experts" but rather used the words "presenters' this was due to the fact that most of the presenters were young smart, vibrant and bright professionals, mainly educational research candidates from various institutions but not academia with years of experience on the topic at hand, a such, I do not think it would be correct to refer to most presenters are experts.
In conclusion, I quite enjoyed the conference, I was particularly impressed with the enthusiasm many of the young presenters had on their adventures to the different African countries, one could tell it was an eye opener for many. It was impressive to note their strong interest in Africa, a land not their own, while at the same time, it very sadly highlighted how POOR a job our African leaders have done to allow such a n event to take place.
In my opinion, I think events like this should promote HEALTHY competition between the West and China. Africa does need a lot of help, but it needs people who are willing and ready to deal with them on an equal basis and acknowledging the mutual benefits to both parties. Also I will say the conference highlights that the United States continues to neglect Africa and lag behind in promoting development while other Countries like China and Turkey and even Iran and moving in at breakneck speed.
If I were to make suggestions to the organizers I would suggest the following:
Make the conference more balanced. It was obvious it was a lopsided conference only ONE party had the floor! And despite the question asked in the conference title, as we listened to one presenter after the other, it was obvious the question had only one answer as far as most presenters were concerned, it seemed more like a publicity stunt for China's activities in Africa rather than a balanced symposium to provide insight into the question at hand. Ironically two of the African presenters were the few that presented contrary viewpoints
The Western "media" got a lot of bashing for what they had written. fair enough. Well invite the "media" who have written to criticize the association and lets hear from them as well at the conference offering a contrary viewpoint! A university is supposed to allow for varying opinions and then allow the participants / audience to make their decisions based on a balanced presentation from both sides of the issue.
Of course for me one thing is obvious far more African participants are needed. Hopefully unbiased ones! It would be nice to have a Chinese farmer come and share his experience as well as an African worker / farmer working with a Chinese investor. I love academia, but I firmly believe there needs to be a solid connection with the realities of the field. The presentation from two of the African presenters painted a rather different picture form their Chinese counterparts.
I am hopeful there is another conference next year and I will do my best to attend. My biggest hope if that African leaders realize all the attention they are getting and utilize these partnerships for the benefits of their people, not to simply line their already swollen and overflowing pockets with more and more stolen wealth. Set your countries on the path to prosperity for a change!
Now if China was really interested in making a solid and lasting investment in Africa as regards farming, I would assume it make sense to take a page from organizations like the IITA. Which has been in Ibadan Nigeria now for decades. There are 16 locations of the IITA all over Africa similar to how the Chinese are getting involved in several countries on the continent. These are well established campuses devoted to agriculture in Africa. Several, in fact most are manged and run by local academia and professionals working side by side and hand in hand with their foreign academia, experts and professionals. Again when you consider that IITA has been in Ibadan since the 1960's over 50 years ago, you realize why it is upsetting to hear a Chinese presenter say they went to Nigeria to "teach" people how to farm!
This is just a overview of some thoughts despite the time that has passed since I attended the conference last year, recurring events make me thing about the conference and my decision to finally publish this blog! There is so much more to say about China's activities in Africa!