Friday, November 30, 2012

Whatever Happened to These Chinese Agricultural Investments?

I'm at the 2012 African Studies Association Annual Meetings in Philadelphia, where I'm going to present a work-in-progress on Chinese "land grabs" (or not) in Africa, on Saturday. Leaving aside the importance of the issue for African smallholders and subsistence farmers, it's a fascinating project for a researcher. It's also very hard to get good, up-to-date information. This summer I hope to do additional fieldwork on this issue. But summer is a long time away. I thought it might be helpful to see if any readers are already "in the field" or recently returned, and if the blog could post updates from the field. Feel free to email me with information. Here are a few of the projects and puzzles that are still unsolved.

(1) Malibya investment in Mali. This project hit the headlines in 2008 or so, when it was revealed that the government of Mali had offered 100,000 ha in the Office du Niger to a subsidiary of the Libyan sovereign wealth fund, Libyan African Investment Portfolio. Here's a link to the "Convention" signed between Mali and Libya. Subsequently, the project, Malibya, contracted with a Chinese construction company, China, China Geo-engineering Construction Company Group (CGCOC).  CGCOC mainly does construction, but it does some construction under a BOO or BOT model (CGCOC calls this "investment and operation"; others would say "Build, Own, Operate" or "Build, Operate, Transfer").

There is no hint I could see that CGCOC is an investor in the Malibya project. But another Chinese company, the agribusiness firm Yuan Longping High Tech (HLHT), was also involved in the project. Most reports said that YLHT was supplying expertise and seeds. Yet a Chinese language report, on another of China Geo-engineering's websites, said that YLHT had set up a joint venture with 30% ownership:


So far, I haven't found anything else. The project is clearly underway. But who are the investors, Libyans? Chinese and Libyans? If Chinese, which firm(s)? Does Mali have any equity, given their huge contribution of land? If you have information on this project, please share it.

[updates to come]

Sunday, November 25, 2012

China and Mauritania: Whatever Happened to the Railway?

In 2007 and 2008, many of us read in the Western and Chinese media that a Chinese-Sudanese joint venture was going to build a railway to Mauritania's phosphate deposits in the border town of Kaedi, and that China Eximbank had agreed to finance 70 percent of the $686 million project.

This project was listed in the World Bank's 2008 study of Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa, Building Bridges, and has been assumed by many to be ongoing.

I was more skeptical about this project, as there was no further word about it after 2008. I didn't include it in my 2010 book, The Dragon's Gift. But I always wondered what had happened.

Now we know, and the answer is: nothing.

In an April 2012 article, "Phosphate of Bofal: Dream or Reality?", a Mauritanian journalist, Ahmed Yahya Kowri, solves the puzzle. He writes that he'd been hearing about the potential of this "famous" project since he was a schoolboy in the 1970s. The idea that the Chinese would finance a railway was a more recent part of the dream.

Now, Kowri writes, an Indian company is actually mining the phosphate. While Kowri applauds the realization of the long-promised mining venture, he also writes that there are problems: the Indians are bringing in a lot of Indian workers and managers, they are not respecting the environment or the communities, or "law in general," and they are putting a lot of pressure on the government to get exemptions and special facilities. People are made to work 12 to 14 hours a day, and the labor inspector is nowhere to be seen.

What's interesting about this, to China-Africa watchers? A few things.

(1) First, it shows how important it is to be skeptical that an agreement is actually a project. Always follow up on any signed agreement. They come with many different levels of concreteness, varying from a simple MOU (which merely means, "let's continue talking about it"), to "Protocols" to "Contracts" and "Conventions". I am always skeptical until I see work actually beginning (and even then it can still all fall apart, as we have seen many, many times).

(2) Second, we often hear that the Chinese are the "worst" investors in Africa, with regard to the environment, social relations, labor practices. Perhaps a more useful way to see it is that emerging market investors are not going to have the corporate social responsibility ethos or knowledge of those from wealthier industrialized countries. As the complaints concerning the Indian investor suggests, this probably has nothing to do with being a democracy or not, and all to do with being a developing country, with developing country standards. 

Photo: A Mauritanian herds camels near the ancient desert town of Chinguetti, 500km (300 miles) north-east of the capital Nouakchott. Photograph: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Chinese Farm in Africa

One of the most popular guest posts I've hosted here on the blog was Lila Buckley's "Eating Bitter to Taste Sweetness". Now Lila has written a short update of her continued research on Chinese agricultural engagement, on the website of her employer, the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED). As can be expected, it's good.

In A Chinese Farm in Africa, Lila reports on her follow up meetings in China, with "Chen", one of the Chinese posted to Senegal in her original research visit, in 2010. Chen
 ... 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 programme 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.
Fluent in Chinese and French, interested in participant observation anthropological methodologies, Lila was an ideal researcher to shed light on the lived experience of Chinese aid workers in Africa. This new posting continues in the careful, well-researched and well-written mode established by Lila's guest post and master's thesis. Back in China, 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.” ...
 I especially like one of Lila's final comments, which is confirmed by my own experience.
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.
Photo: Chen showing Lila Buckley his innovative method for growing potatoes in straw nests. Credit: Simon Lim

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

China, the UK, and Africa: Tripartite Cooperation?

Every few months, I have another meeting with a donor agency or an NGO that is interested in developing joint activities with China, in Africa.

It's not easy, I tell them. The World Bank has had an MOU with China Eximbank since 2007 and has still to develop a single joint project. The UK has been trying since perhaps 2006 to do something with a Chinese partner in Africa.

Now, it seems the British may have finally gotten close to the promised land of tripartite cooperation. Jin Zhu at China Daily reported from the second Africa-Britain-China Conference on Agriculture and Fisheries in Beijing on Monday, November 12, that the UK is going to put up the money ($15.9 million) while the Chinese will contribute experts. "[t]he program will facilitate the transfer of agricultural technology to low-income countries in Africa and Asia. Pilot projects will be first established in Malawi and Uganda."

I'll be following this to track what transpires. Several key people in DFID have worked hard and patiently, for years, to make this happen. We'll see whether it results in anything very useful.

hat tip to China Africa News
photo: Ploughing a field in Shangdong province, eastern China. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA

Monday, November 12, 2012

Guest Post: A Blind Date in Namibia

Most of this blog is about the political and economic side of China in Africa. But in many ways, it's the cultural side that fascinates people. Below, a guest blog post from Irene Sun on her "blind date" experience in Namibia:

In 2008, I was a teacher in a public secondary school in rural Namibia. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Namibia is twice the size of California, but it only has two million people (by contrast, New York City alone has 8 million people). Namibia is sparsely populated, and it took some effort to secure the essentials of life when the nearest grocery store and bank was an hour away by car.

Given these circumstances, I cultivated sources for any foods that weren’t maize or mahangu (the local grain staple). I brought food back when I had reason to go to Windhoek, the capital, and I befriended a couple with a garden in my town. But there was one peculiar network I took particular pleasure in discovering: the Chinese food network. All over Namibia, Chinese entrepreneurs had opened shops selling cheap goods imported from China. I had gone into one of these so-called ‘China shops’ in my area out of curiosity, and after some initial surprise at meeting a Chinese woman from America, the manager of the shop offered to have his workers who regularly deliver goods from Windhoek bring along some Chinese groceries for me as well. I was Chinese food-starved, so this was an amazing lifeline: fresh Chinese vegetables trucked from the capital, 12 hours away by car!

Over the next few months, I picked up my share of groceries every other week. During one visit, the China shop owner told me that he was going to have a celebration in honor of a friend visiting from Windhoek and asked if I wanted to join. Having little else to do on the weekends, I agreed.

On the day of the celebration, I showed up at the appointed China shop to find my shop owner there with his friend. The three of us drank local beer and expensive, rare tea that the friend had brought back from China. Afterwards, we headed to another China shop, where lower-level Chinese workers were busy preparing a feast. They had cleared out one room of the shop and installed two large round folding tables. In the back, young Chinese men labored over chopping boards and woks and sent out a steady stream of dishes that eventually covered the table. It was hands-down the best meal I had in my year in Namibia, and certainly the most impressive. There was every type of meat: beef, goat, chicken, fish, pork, and duck, the latter two of which Namibians don’t commonly eat. There were fresh Chinese vegetables trucked in from Windhoek 12 hours away and baijiu liquor from China. And to this day, I still have no idea how they procured the fresh prawns, as we were in a landlocked part of the country that was a 16-hour drive from the ocean.

Over the course of this feast, it dawned on me that this was essentially a blind date. The night had been prepared for the shop owner to set me up with his friend. He had been careful to seat us next to each other at the round table, and most of the baijiu toasts were crafted to show off his friend’s accomplishments. To be fair, his story was impressive. He had arrived in Namibia at age 17 after having dropped out of high school in China. At that point, he was only barely literate in Chinese and knew no English, Oshiwambo, or Afrikaans at all. His only friend who came with him to Namibia lasted 2 days and then headed back to China. From these humble beginnings, he worked his way up the China shop chain and after a few years, owned several dozen China shops himself. He then sold them and started a security firm providing armed guards to various businesses all over Namibia. This had grown to a firm employing 500 people, and now, wealthy and in his late 20s, he was ready to find a wife. But there were few Chinese women in Namibia, and hence his China shopkeeper friend had thought of me.

I was not interested in a husband, so I attempted to resist their offers for me to stay in town that night. After dinner, I insisted on going back to my small town an hour away, and they insisted that they escort me back. Chinese people are difficult to refuse when they truly insist on something, and these Chinese in Namibia were no exception. So I found myself in the passenger seat of the Chinese wife-seeker’s car, a black BMW. I learned during the ride that this was in fact his fourth black BMW. He had purchased the first one before he knew how to drive. Unsurprisingly, he promptly wrecked it. (In the fight between the BMW and the cow, both lost.) The next two BMWs had followed a similar fate before he mastered the art of driving – a fact that I wished I knew before I had stepped into BMW #4.

They dropped me off at my house, and after that, despite some searching inquiries, I didn’t go on a second date. The whole experience did leave a lingering impression on me though, of the toughness, the grit, and the sheer ingenuity of Chinese entrepreneurs in Africa. In a strange land, they were living large.

So ladies, if you’re Chinese and looking for a husband and an adventure, Namibia just might be a good place to look!