Sunday, December 02, 2007


Africa plum ripe for the picking

Africa, with its wide open spaces, vast mineral and precious stone wealth, tracts of arable land and other resources, has long been a prize for any nation going through a rapid phase of industrialisation. In the 19th century the "Dark Continent" was the target of European powers which explored and colonised it and exploited its resources. So it is unsurprising that the emerging economic giant that is China should see Africa as a plum ripe for the picking by companies in search of raw materials, a nation seeking oil and entrepreneurs looking for new markets.
Centuries ago the migration of Europeans to Africa sparked a leap forward in the continent's technological development, but colonialism ended after a power struggle with the Africans, the effects of which are still being played out today.
Since those colonial powers began withdrawing, the story of the continent has been in many ways an unhappy one with endless wars, droughts, famines, dictators and mounting debts that have proved insurmountable obstacles to building a peaceful and stable continent.Now there is a new wave of settlers heading for Africa's shores - the Chinese.
Whether Africans should put out the welcome mat is an open question.
Unlike some western nations which have tied investment and aid in developing countries to human rights demands and good governance, China's pockets are deep and its cheque book is open. Beijing does not limit its investment calls. In this manner China has become an increasingly important partner in Africa's development.
Lawrence Schlemmer, of Witwatersrand University's business school in Johannesburg, argues that China's attentions are not welcome. "In effect, China is forcing Africa back into the role of raw material suppliers - undermining its textile industry and importing raw cotton instead," Professor Schlemmer told Britain's Sunday Telegraph.
However, there is another issue which some say is more sinister.
As China industrialises, the need for land has become an increasing headache, with developers and farmers coming into confrontation over resources.
Recently Li Ruogu, head of the China Export-Import Bank, identified the problem of millions of peasant farmers being left landless in Chongqing. His solution - organised migration to Africa.
"The bank will give full support to the farmers in terms of capital investment, project development and product-selling channels," he said. "Chongqing is well experienced in agricultural mass production, while in Africa there is plenty of land but food production is unsatisfactory. There is huge room for co-operation on both sides. We have already supported several agricultural projects in Africa, all of which are generating very sound profits."
Chongqing's labour exports have just started, but they will take off once we convince the farmers to become landlords abroad," the media quoted him as saying.
Since then Mr Li's assistants have sought to distance the bank from his remarks, saying he was not speaking in an official capacity and had not exactly used the word "landlord". Mr Li declined to comment.
The reaction to Mr Li's ideas was mixed, with rights activists slating the plan as an underhanded trick to advance China's hegemony, and African farm management experts welcoming the boost the Chinese migration would give to the continent's agriculture production.
Ghanaian economist George Ayittey, who is president of the Free Africa Foundation in Washington and the author of Africa Unchained, is in the sceptical camp. "As an economist, I fully support increasing trade between Africa and China. China's demand for Africa's resources should boost Africa's growth prospects," Dr Ayittey says.
"But China is aggressively pursuing trade deals and policies in Africa that will backfire or blow up in its face in five years or less.
"First, Chinese investments in Africa do not seem to have any moral scruples. China seems willing to sign any trade agreement with just about any rogue and unsavory regime in Africa. The risk here is that, in so doing, China is seen as siding with repressive regimes, not with the people. In the next five years, many such regimes will be kicked out of power and trade deals they have signed abrogated."
He warns that new governments will not honour debts they consider to be abhorrent, and China may stand to lose any money it loans to governments which have little regard for human rights.
"It has become evident to many African observers that, despite the euphonious verbiage about 'co-operation', 'equal terms' and 'altruism', the real intentions of China are threefold. The first is to gain access to Africa's resources; the second is to canvass for African votes at the United Nations in its quest for global hegemony; the third is to seek African land [on which] to dump its surplus population.
"Chinese communes are springing up in Namibia, Zambia, Nigeria and other African countries. The Chinese have succeeded in getting African states to accept large numbers of Chinese experts and workers as part of their investment packages: 28 'Baoding villages' have been set up, each housing up to 2,000 Chinese workers, in various parts of Africa. But the Chinese are going about this in a way that is likely to provoke a violent reaction."
One man who has first-hand dealings with the Chinese communes is Liu Jianjun, who has helped farmers move from the mainland to Africa. He has helped at least 15,800 people from the city of Baoding , in Hebei province , settle in Africa in various sectors. To minimise clashes with locals, Mr Liu chooses places that are away from city violence and tribal conflicts and the villages also employ locals.
"To attract and retain us, they gave extremely good terms, such as charging a symbolic annual fee of US$1 per acre for 99 years," Mr Liu told the Washington Times.
Things were not so good for Li Li, who moved to Zambia in 1994 to support her husband in his African dream. She was a nurse in Beijing and he was a university lecturer. She told People's Daily that they had had to clear the bushveld to set up Johnken Farms. "We had to start from scratch by ourselves," Ms Li says.
And when her husband, Wang Chi, died in 1995, she took over the reins of the operation. Her workforce has doubled to about 200 labourers, and a loan from a Zambian bank allowed the farm to diversify into wheat production. Now Ms Li hopes that Chinese agricultural conglomerates will head to Zambia to tap its vast potential.
Julian Hewitt, a Shanghai-based consultant at The Beijing Axis, doubts that Africa will witness the influx of millions of Chinese in the near future.
"China does have an agricultural policy in place with Africa and much emphasis is placed on transferring agricultural skills to African farmers," Mr Hewitt says. "However, millions of farmers migrating to Africa does seem to be an excessive figure."
He warns that the success of any move into African agriculture will depend on how it is managed. This will include social integration with local communities and the legality of land occupation.
Lawrence McCrystal of Agrifica, a Pretoria-based market intelligence company, sees problems ahead if Beijing aims to merely "export its unemployment problem".
"The effect of the limited Chinese migration to Africa so far has been largely beneficial because of the additional food produced," Dr McCrystal says. "But the scale of it is minute both in terms of Africa and China. What is now envisaged is a completely different scale. Unless it is done within a skills transfer model, it will lead to many problems.
"If the Chinese are successful, the small-scale farmers will be impoverished and will become employees on the Chinese farms. That is typically what happened in the much-maligned European colonial era. Doing it on the scale envisaged will create problems far worse than that ever did. On the other hand, if the Chinese, or a significant proportion of them, fail, all China will be doing is exporting its problem to Africa."
Dr McCrystal is a strong champion of an agricultural development model called the hub and spoke, whereby core commercial farming operations are established as technology and training hubs and small-scale farmers are involved as out-growers or contract producers. The out-growers have access to the central technology and skills from the hub, to improve their farming techniques and access larger markets. If Chinese farmers use this method, Dr McCrystal says, they will be able to take advantage of various existing and new farming businesses across Africa. Within this model, Chinese involvement will be seen as taking place on a mutually beneficial "partnership" basis, rather than as one-sided and exploitative in nature.
Firmly in the pro camp is Anton Scheepers, marketing manager for Agricultural & Industrial Marketing Company in South Africa, who relishes the idea of large numbers of Chinese farmers moving to Africa.
"Africa is not going to develop itself," he says, adding that he views the Chinese as "change agents".
"If they are bringing in their own financing and technology, they are most welcome."
Mr Scheepers, who has the markets for produce but finds it difficult to get orders filled, says the Chinese should not be equated with European farmers who had tried their hand in Africa and then left. And he has no time for the western powers' practice of tying aid and developmental funding to human rights conditions.
"The Chinese don't go through any of that nonsense," he says.
"The west has come and the west has left," he said, "There are empty shells, silos, farms that are left abandoned and just waiting for someone to work them."
He admires the Chinese work ethic and ingenuity, and says the fact that they will come with a ready-made home market will be an added bonus.
So is this your master plan? To make Africa like Hong Kong or Beijing?
Yeah Mashimaro, head to Africa. I'll buy you a beer there.
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