November 23, 2011, Johannesburg, South Africa
Africa will in the next decade increasingly play an important role in China’s long-term food security agenda as demand for food in the world’s most populous nation threatens to outstrip its supply, according to Standard Bank research analysts Simon Freemantle and Jeremy Stevens.
In their latest paper “China’s Food security challenge: What role for Africa?” published this week, Mr Freemantle and Mr Stevens write that China is facing serious strains on both the demand and supply side of its agricultural sector and will in the next few years have to look externally to supplement its sources of food supply.
“Rising incomes and urbanisation are leading to dramatic increases in food consumption in China. China now consumes the second most amount of food in the world, behind the USA. It is expected that by 2015, China’s total food expenditure will double to over US$1-trillion. Meanwhile, China is facing increasing strains on agricultural supply. Urbanisation and industrialisation are swallowing up farmland, and diminishing water tables. Between 1996 and 2006, China lost 9-million hectares of farmland,” they write.
While for now China can and will look to its own sources to provide for the bulk of new demand, it is increasingly evident that China will be unable to ensure low-cost food for its large population without ramping up external sources of nutrition. Consequently, the authors note, Beijing is expected to increasingly align its aid and outward investment in agriculture to access new opportunities.
They comment: “In Africa, two core areas create an allure for China. First, given the manner in which the continent’s agricultural sector has persistently underperformed, the provision of develop-mental and technical assistance allows Beijing an important avenue in fostering and building deeper bilateral ties. And, second, Sub-Saharan Africa’s (SSA) immense and largely untapped agricultural potential is being increasingly viewed by China as a cog in an unfolding and inclusive food security strategy. For now, China’s strategy is overtly developmental, and, though commercialism inspires many of the cooperative farming projects, profits are generated almost entirely in local and regional markets.”
They note it is already clear that Beijing is seeking to build deeper relationships in agriculture with land-rich and politically stable countries that are friendly to China, such as Mozambique where China has made expansive agricultural investments.
They add that investments, backed by state-directed assistance, in these countries will increasingly look to produce the types of crops—such as soybeans and cotton—for which demand in China is elevated. Collaboration will also be pronounced in coffee, tea, rubber, wine, sisal; and tobacco production—emphasising select strengths already evident in Africa in the production of some of these commodities.
“Most of these initiatives will look to bolster China’s agricultural trade ties with Africa, though some, as has been evident in nascent moves in Latin America, will position Chinese firms to control the external source of production,” they write.
Mr Freemantle and Mr Stevens conclude that for Africa, managing Chinese interest in the agricultural sector will be critical. They note that Africa desperately requires capital and skills to elevate food security.
“The continent suffers from an acute lack of skills and capital in unlocking its inherent potential. Yet, as has been evident in many of the land leasing deals signed in SSA over the course of the past decade, too often investments are poorly structured, undervaluing the agricultural assets at stake. Managed well, partnerships with China can be meaningful. However, domestic food security must be placed first. Then, and leveraging Chinese aid, crops suited for China’s demand dynamics can and should be emphasised. Increasingly, green technology will provide cogent opportunities.”
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