The Chinese presence in African agriculture – “invasion” or cooperation?

The goal of this study is to assess the Chinese presence in African agriculture in the light of increased discussions about an alleged Chinese “invasion” through the purchase of arable land. Previous scientific studies and little data Existing and reliable indicators indicate that there is no clear evidence of an “invasion” Chinese in Africa, even though the Chinese interest in soil agriculture Africa has indeed increased in this century. On the other hand, aid and technical cooperation mechanisms have increased substantially since the beginning of the XXI century. There seems to be space, because, for partnerships that collaborate with reducing malnutrition in Africa through the use of technology and chinese know-how. Until the present moment, little evidence exists also about the land occupation on the African continent to ensure food security in China.


The Chinese presence in Africa dates back to the early 1950. It is from this decade that China establishes the first diplomatic relations through bilateral agreements with some African countries. Inclusive, during the good independence period African countries - end of the decade 1950 up until 1980, mostly -, China supported independence groups like the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNIT) in Angola and the Liberation Front from Mozambique (FRELIMO) in Mozambique, besides quickly recognizing the independence of some countries, as was the case in Algeria in 1958 (Lagerkvist, 2014; Lafargue, 2005).

As regards Chinese aid countries on the African continent as early as 1960 the Asian country had established technical and financial support programs, including sending Chinese professionals to the African continent to oversee the projects, however, at the time there were few investments in the purchase of agricultural land (Brautigam, 2015). Interesting to note, in this sense, that Chinese agriculture it was extremely rudimentary until the middle of the second half of the 20th century and even so China already had some projects related to agricultural activity in the outside, namely technical and financial cooperation projects, even if on a substantially lower scale than it currently has.

In general, chinese acting in African agriculture little curiosity - academic or journalistic - awoke until the beginning of the 21st century. It is from 2006 interest starts the press and the political and academic circles due to the Chinese presence in African continent through the acquisition of agricultural land, When countless articles on the subject have been published in newspapers and magazines worldwide western, practically forming a kind of consensus on a supposed “invasion” Chinese in Africa, although most of the materials produced did not have scientific evidence (Brautigam, 2015; Ado e Su, 2014).

It is a fact that after two decades - 1980 e 1990 - with few relevant projects and investments on the part of Chinese, the early years 2000 saw the flowering - or at least the perspective generated - from Chinese investments in African agriculture, as well as the substantial increase in technical cooperation and assistance to countries and organizations african.

However, seems relevant address the study by Brautigam (2015), in which the author seeks deconstruct many of the supposed myths reverberated on the topic, between them:

  1. that China bought areas immense farms in Africa - although there is a growing interest in investments in African soil by part of Chinese agribusiness companies this does not mean in acquisitions effective and significant amounts of land to date. Many announced investments end up not taking place due to problems and the harsh reality of doing business in Africa. However, O number of state-owned companies, private and Chinese individuals who see business possibilities in Africa is growing, which means that land acquisitions will most likely grow in the near future.
  2. that there is a great plan of the Chinese state behind land purchases – these investments generally are part of an active and specific role for the Chinese government, with increasing participation of provincial governments in this theme - governments Chinese provincial authorities have autonomy to make economic relations international. The author's thesis is that this role of the government must be seen within the general perspective of “going global”, with the government acting as a developmental state, following what if spent with Japan and South Korea and not specifically as a big consultation for the taking of African territory.
  3. that there is a voracious appetite of Chinese for African grains in order to export them to China – great part of Chinese investments in agriculture are focused on the domestic market of the countries African or are exported as commodities international that are. Chinese food security cannot be left out of side, in this context, but it is clearly not the first incentive for these investments.
  4. that China is sending large contingent of citizens in order to solve their internal problem of land deprivation – there is no evidence of an organized plan to “export” Chinese to the Africa. Before, generally, are private - without Chinese state participation - and without previous experience in agriculture.

About the size and relevance of Chinese investments in African agriculture, Defeat (2016) please clarify, with based on report by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, what, all around the world, at Chinese companies - whether private or state-owned - had 2014 approximately 300 projects related to agriculture in 46 countries, Many of them on the african continent. Still according to Kuteleva (2016), the total hectares cultivated by Chinese companies outside the national territory is slightly more than 200 thousand hectares, substantially below estimates made by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Land Matrix and Via Campesina.

Brautigam (2015), in its turn, states that just 2% of the total land that was supposed to be in the hands of Chinese in Africa are in fact. Illustratively, is the same as saying that Chinese companies would have the amount of land on African soil equivalent to size of two New York cities.

Lisk (2013) presents another estimate that suggests that between 3 e 5% (3 million hectares over a total that varies between 80 e 130 millions) of land transferred to foreigners in the Africa went to companies from East Asian countries. In number of projects, The China is more than half of the enterprises in Asian countries, however in In terms of the amount of land acquired, the country is behind Korea southern, Singapore and Malaysia, countries with little press attention, politicians and academia on this topic.

That is, differently than it is usually exposed, especially by the western press, China still seems to be one player relatively small in terms amount of land acquired in Africa. This does not mean, However, that the country has not been gaining importance in recent years and that much possibly play a relevant role in the total land assigned to foreigners in Africa in the coming decades.

In this line, Chan (2014) indicates that as a result of the global crisis of 2008 and substantial increase in the price of foods, China has encouraged Chinese companies to buy land in the abroad or obtain land concessions, within the perspective of going global. This author cites competition for land with other countries like Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, all of them with limited natural resources.

However, much of the supposed Chinese interest ends up not being realized because it comes up against factors like difficulty in cultural understanding on both sides, access difficulties, presence of guerrilla groups, technological divergence, problems of Communication, political and institutional barriers, lack of transparency, in between so many other problems that end up hampering the effective realization of projects (Buckley et al, 2017; Brautigam, 2015; Lisk 2013; Lafargue, 2005). Fur Africans side, the main criticisms are problems in complying with the rules by the Chinese and low wages (Mai and Wilhelm, 2012).

Regarding the argument about purchase of land in Africa to ensure Chinese food security via Direct exports of crops on African soil are little evidence of occurrence of this phenomenon. Trade statistics show that Africa is not feeding China (Brautigam, 2015). A latent example of this statement is the fact that the top three products exported by Africa in the colonial period continue to be the most relevant in the export basket African, namely: unprocessed coffee, cotton and cocoa, products that Chinese, in addition to not having great knowledge and participation in the world market, does not have the habit nor the need for consumption, differently, for example, of rice and corn, fundamental in the Chinese diet.

Although China is already one of the main trading partners of some African countries, trade is proportionally small - less than 10% overall African exports -, although growing, with China exporting more to Africa than the contrary.

What seems to be clear, this yes, is that, regardless of the destination given to crops on African soil, the Chinese direct investments in Africa appear to be based mostly in the search for natural resources, see the various investments related to the energy sector - oil and gas - and some others in agriculture (Akhtaruzzaman et al, 2017; Lafargue, 2005).


Regarding aid and technical cooperation with African countries and regional organizations, here yes you can say that there has been a substantial increase in the allocation of resources in the latter years old. In general lines, aid started in the 1950 and intensified in decades of 1970 e 1980, a lot due to the diplomatic competition between the Chinese communist system and the capitalist system implemented in Taiwan (Xu et at the, 2016).

As mentioned above, already in the decade 1960 China started to regularly send specialists in agriculture, that basically reproduced existing modes of action in China (Xu et al, 2016).

Fact is that from the years 2000 China began to devote much more attention to the topic of aid and cooperation technique, founding the first Agricultural Training and Development Center (ATDC) no year of 2006, starting from assumption and discourse that the paradox for the great availability of land in Africa coexisting with food insecurity was primarily caused by the lack of technology. Since then, the 23 ATDCs are the main flag of cooperation between China and Africa (Xu et al, 2016; Brautigam, 2015).

ATDCs function as real technology transfer mechanism while helping to broadcast numerous Chinese technology companies, what both the government Chinese as local governments in Africa generally regard as a relationship of mutual benefit (win-win) (Xu et al, 2016; Brautigam, 2015).

Also relevant as aid mechanism are the recurring cancellations by China of debts that some African countries have with the Asian country. If to China these debts are insignificant in relation to their fiscal capacity, for some African governments are often resources that allow “to survive some more time ” (Brautigam, 2015; Lagerkvist, 2014).

On the perception generated about the Chinese presence in Africa, Chan (2014) concludes that both investments and Chinese aid must be viewed from two different perspectives, that is, it's not even 100% altruistic either 100% predatory.

This is because no matter how much China pursue this strategy of going global and as much as, at first, investments and aid made in Africa do not primarily aim at ensuring Chinese food security, there will always be potentially hidden economic and political interests at stake.

still, it is important to highlight, The China also seeks to legitimize itself in the international system, from the construction of the image of a global power that also has its attention focused on for other developing countries. Therefore, go through a kind of test of sincerity towards your ambitions - for example, export crops on African soil for China or not - may be important for the strategy consolidating Chinese reputation in the international system (Duggan e Naarajarvi, 2015; Chan, 2014).

In this line, Chan (2014) mentions the example of Chinese investments in oil in Sudan where much of the oil is sold on the international market, thus refuting the idea that China's real motivation in Africa is to ensure its own energy security - and, by inference, in the case of this study, your own food security.

However, even with all cooperation actions, numerous detractors of the Chinese presence remain in the Africa. IT'S, for example, or case cited by Kuteleva (2016) of the governor of Nigerian Central Bank that suggests that China is no longer a country companion of an underdeveloped economy and started to adopt forms of exploitation similar to those employed by western countries, what would lead to deindustrialization and perpetuation of underdevelopment in Africa. How is, there are countless other statements cursing the Chinese presence in Africa.

Brautigam (2015) indicates that for many Africans and Africanists commercial and large-scale investment in agriculture is controversial, especially in the context of the continent. The debate goes far beyond the displacement of local populations supposedly caused by the purchase of land by the Chinese. It has more to do with the effect of these investments in the economy, that for many does not generate the promised benefits, even for local food security and poverty reduction.

Some experts suggest that the empowerment of small African producers is perhaps the only way out possible, which is highly debatable, since the current conformation of the World agriculture requires the constant evolution of productivity through technological innovations that would hardly be available to these small farmers without any external support.

Another theme recurrently associated with “land grabbing" and the land tenure issue. Chan (2014) cites the example of a project in the Zimbabwe in which a new land law was defined in the country in order to generate supposed benefits to the Chinese, which can lead to discussions about the degree of sovereignty of countries and the need for investment (Lisk, 2013).

On the other hand, as also argues Brautigam (2015), there are many experts who see countless advantages in the presence of Chinese companies with economic power, since in generally adopt the model of economies of scale and vertical integration, Besides often use the contract farming, thus encouraging small local producers and integrating the value chain.

In this line, the experience itself of success experienced in China from the years 1980 with the Thai company chicken processor CP Foods appears to be the model of choice for some Chinese companies that are developing agricultural projects in Africa (Brautigam, 2015).

Regarding the mechanisms Institutions created to facilitate cooperation and dialogue between Africans and Chinese stands out the Forum on China and Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) created in 2006 and that has as main aim to help create economies of scale in order-related issues of aid, fairs, among other topics. The idea is to transform the focus of cooperation “more business and less help”. FOCAC sponsored the China Investment Roadmap in 2006 and ATDCs are the result of policies proposed within the framework of this forum (Brautigam, 2015).

It was also created in 2007 The China-Africa Development Fund (CAD Fund), which aims to support Chinese projects on the African continent (Never and Wilhelm, 2012). According to Chan (2014), Only in 2008 more of 5 billions of dollars were earmarked for food production projects for a period in 50 years in Africa.

This is also the case with the agreement signed between the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and the Development Bank Chinese (CDB) to potentiate agriculture, being liable to loans projects related to technological modernization, logistics and development of “water and land” abroad (Brautigam, 2015).

No end of 2008, the same Ministry of Agriculture and Eximbank signed an agreement that foresaw 8 billion dollars to finance agriculture globally (chinese companies).

CDB and Eximbank are offering also greater volumes of loans currently to African governments so that themselves can invest in their respective agriculture. (Brautigam, 2015).

The Chinese government further established in 2011 the call White Paper on Economic and Trade Cooperation between China and Africa what, as the name itself already suggests, outlines guidelines for economic and trade cooperation between China and Africa. The document is explicit in mentioning that the government's official view Chinese is helping Africa to solve its food security problem, being the main goal of China-Africa agricultural cooperation (Chan, 2014).

Interesting that, unlike Most Western countries that place demands on the system as conditions for some types of aid and loans, one of the factors that have strengthened the Chinese presence in this field is the fact that China has no ideological or political restrictions. The only Chinese constraint is that the country receiving the aid or loan must cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan (De Bruyn, 2016; Chan, 2014; Mai and Wilhelm, 2012; Lafargue, 2005).

Anyway, in fact this beginning of century saw diverse organisms flourish, institutions and mechanisms to support development of China's relations with Africa, as well as the development of agriculture on African soil.


From the point of view of the correlation of China's presence in Africa with the distinct theories of Relations International, it seems to be important to present two views that can be used concurrently, even if they start with reasonable assumptions distinct.

The first one is the (neo) realism and who has among its leading academic exponents John Mearsheimer, author that became known for its offensive realism approach that suggests that the basic structure of the international system forces states concerned with its competing with other states for power, the ultimate goal being is precisely to maximize the portion of world power held and eventually dominate the system (Mearsheimer, 2014).

It may seem absurd to consider that the Chinese presence in Africa is motivated by this type of maximizing action of power, but it should not be forgotten that China has been increasingly increase their participation in agendas that previously did not even pay attention. Furthermore, Western ignorance about the Chinese way of thinking can at the same time lead to misinterpretations about their real motivations as well as underestimating Chinese strategic interest.

Obviously this goes a little bit by speculation, but it never hurts to remember that Africa has always been a field of battle for world powers and the fact that China is increasingly present on the continent could be a sign that China actually wants to “Be part of the game”, even if, as we saw previously, there doesn't seem to be a fixed and centralized ideal by the Chinese government to “occupy Africa”.

Mearsheimer (2014) argues that the China is perhaps the only major force capable of altering the power architecture global and that, in the same way that the US did with the western hemisphere, The China will seek to do in its area of ​​influence and perhaps the Chinese will consider the Africa as a region naturally under its influence.

In turn, The (neo)liberalism can also be used in this context. Another John (1987) are two of main authors of this school of thought that basically understands that there is a complex and multidimensional interdependence between economics, society and ecology and that the use of force has become increasingly costly and that, for this reason, cooperation can be an interesting path for society International.

In this sense, some of the actions Chinese on the African continent seem to find echo in the theoretical precepts of (neo)liberalism, as is the case with financial aid, the construction of the ATDCs, you several technical cooperation projects, among others, that help to create a important narrative for the Chinese presence in Africa.

The fact that China is participating in peacekeeping operations on the African continent is a another example of Chinese diplomatic behavior towards achieving certain legitimacy.

Anyway, it seems little likely that only one school of thought can explain this phenomenon, even more when it comes to China and its gigantic complexity.


Esteem-me that 600 millions of hectares are not currently cultivated in Africa, what it means 2/3 from the earth arable available in the world (Lisk, 2013). It is also known that the capacity China's productive capacity is limited due to the small availability of land and Water.

In turn, by your own very possibly means that African agriculture will not be able to reach the productivity levels necessary to ensure food security, be from where. Proof of this is - despite isolated initiatives or even a few coordinates - the fact that Africa produces the same levels per capita from there 30 years ago, with little structural evolution of its agricultural productivity.

There was not - on a significant scale - substantial improvements in infrastructure and in the countries' legal framework Africans, which makes it difficult to carry out indigenous agricultural projects and foreigners too.

On the other hand, the China developed in the agricultural sector in an impressive way in this same period - however much still needs to be done in this regard - and it has sources important financing and even aid.

This scenario suggests that partnerships in the agricultural sector can indeed be beneficial for both parties. Everything depends on the way these partnerships are organized and on the power relationships between the actors involved. For example, partnerships that can develop local producers, add technology, establish new methods production and generate affordable products to be sold on the market African household - contributing to the continent's food security - and even exported - generating important foreign exchange for countries - seem to be determinants for the development of African agriculture and, consequently, of local economies.

The evidence presented in this suggest that there is no Chinese “invasion” in search of land arable in Africa, just as there is no way to prove the hypothesis that the China is buying land in Africa to ensure its own security to feed, as we could see from the trade data between the two “regions”.

Food security will continue to be a relevant theme in these two geographies and a development model together can be part of the solution in reducing malnutrition that affects more than 200 millions of Africans.

China is one of the few countries, to the side of Brazil, for example, that can help in creating a more balanced food governance.

It can also be concluded that the substantial increase in cooperation mechanisms and institutions, help and financing will very possibly help in the establishment of new Chinese projects in Africa, despite all the difficulties inherent in these types of projects.

From a political point of view, or country Asian, unlike western countries in general, doesn't make big requirements for establishing partnerships and aid, being the great differential between China and most of the global powers, what also suggests a trend towards increased cooperation and common projects between Africans and Chinese.

Perhaps only time will tell if the Chinese presence in Africa is closer to old colonialism or to a new form of South-South cooperation. Or even if the negative effects will be greater or less than the positive effects.

For now it is reckless to pass judgment. And for this reason, some future research paths may focus on more scientific measurements of the impact of agricultural projects in Africa led by the Chinese and the impact in China of the internationalization of their agricultural companies for their own food security.

What is certain is that the theme possibly will remain relevant in the coming years and get to know you better and stripped of prejudice seems to be a good start to advance scientifically in the search for mutual benefits that help to combat the food insecurity that persists in disrupting the economic and human development of millions of people people in these two “regions”.


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[1] This work does not intend to address the most theoretical aspects of the different currents of thought in International Relations, but use some few concepts to frame the Chinese presence in Africa.

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PhD student of the Global Studies Program at Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Master in International Economics, Faculty of Economics, University of Porto (FEP/UP), Post-Graduate in Agribusiness from the Luiz de Queiróz School of Agriculture (ESALQ / USP) and Graduated in International Relations by FACAMP and also in Economics by FACAMP.
Held functions as Corporate Relations Manager at BRF S.A. for Latin America (based in Argentina), having also been Vice-President of the Department of International Trade of the Brazil-Argentina Chamber of Commerce (CAMBRAS) and Director of Grupo Brasil.
Among its topics of interest, international trade stands out, the development of agribusiness, issues related to food security and sustainability, the coordination of global value chains and the geopolitics of food.