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Why Agricultural Cooperation Needs To Be High on the Agenda at Next Year’s China-Africa Summit

File image of a woman harvesting peppers from a field of a Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)-supported farm at Jere community, 11 km from Maiduguri, in Borno state, northeast Nigeria. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP

In less than a year, the 8th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit will take place in Senegal. Ever since the first FOCAC Ministerial Conference held in Beijing in 2000, this triennial Summit has been gradually institutionalized as a platform for bilateral and multilateral dialogues to shape priorities and co-develop cooperation projects. From as early as one year before the actual event (which means now), the FOCAC organizing committee already starts to plan the themes of the sub-forums and secure “arrangements and deliverables” of the summit. Deliverables mean agreements on aid and investment announcement, development cooperation projects, trade deals, or investment deals. Therefore, FOCAC is the best platform for the African Union and African countries to negotiate deals, shape future priorities, and make the most of the China-Africa cooperation.

Needless to say, the 8th FOCAC summit will take place against the backdrop of COVID-19. African sustainable development agenda is under threat from the humanitarian and economic damage inflicted by COVID-19. China-Africa cooperation has deepened in the area of public health, evidenced by the  China-funded US$80 million Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines assistance to Africa. Meanwhile, as African countries’ growth is threatened by COVID related global economic downturn, a debt crisis is looming large for China.  Consequently, the 8th FOCAC summit will likely to be focused on cooperation on public health, debt restructuring, infrastructure development, economic growth and employment.

But Don’t Forget About Agricultural Cooperation

Important as these aforementioned key topics are, another area needs to be given top priority within Africa’s post-COVID rebuilding and reconstruction plan. That is agricultural cooperation.

Today, agriculture employs more than 60% of Africa’s economically active population and over one-third of total value-added comes from agriculture. When thinking about economic growth engines and the biggest employment sector in Africa, the answer is not labor-intensive manufacturing, but agriculture. Yet across the continent, agriculture is still largely subsistence-based on smallholder structure. Agriculture production is full of drudgery and seldom viewed as a “decent” employment opportunity. Moreover, few young people see a future for themselves in agriculture or rural areas, despite the fact that the population aged under 35 represents three-quarters of Africa’s population.

Therefore, agriculture cooperation must make top agenda for African countries to discuss with China on the 8th FOCAC next year. In fact, agriculture has long been a prioritized and fruitful area for cooperation between Africa and China. The “Eight Major Initiatives” announced on the FOCAC 2018 clearly put “agricultural modernization” and “agricultural technology transfer” as top priorities. In December 2019, the First Forum on China-Africa Agricultural Cooperation was convened in Sanya, Hainan in China. The Forum re-emphasized the following areas as primary cooperation opportunities in the coming years:

  • Continental strategy: Codevelop “China-Africa Agricultural Modernization Cooperation Plan”  
  • Bilateral Cooperation: Strengthen bilateral agricultural cooperation with Ethiopia, Botswana, Senegal, Namibia, Nigeria, Ghana and other African
  • Technology and research exchange: Send agricultural experts and train agricultural talents; think tank and research institution exchange and cooperation
  • Agricultural trade: Develop agricultural product processing and import and export standards to further promote the facilitation of agricultural product trade
  • Agro-processing investment: Upgrade the agricultural demonstration parks and support the establishment of agricultural industrial parks in Africa

It’s Time for Africa To Take Ownership, Strategize and Come up With Concrete Proposals

Given the importance of FOCAC 2021 as a golden opportunity to follow up and double down on these previous commitments in agriculture cooperation, African countries and the AU commission has a lot more to do to fully prepare for 2021.

The de-facto power imbalance between individual African countries and China is the “elephant in the room”. The imbalance not only refers to the scale of economy and population but also the disparity in coordination and strategizing capacity.  While there is a wealth of Chinese think tanks and researchers generating data, reports, and analysis, the capacity to generate independent knowledge products in African countries is limited.

In particular, African countries’ representatives need to do the homework and prepare concrete proposals, instead of repeating high-level but vague suggestions. Normally the plenary sessions at the forums are usually less flexible and more staged, but there will be plenty of side-meetings and informal consultations, where African leaders need to come up with solid proposals.

To use the First Forum on China-Africa Agricultural Cooperation last year as an example, I organized several small-group consultations composed of no more than 20 key stakeholders. One of the consultations was focused on agricultural mechanization. Three largest Chinese agricultural machinery manufacturers with an African footprint were represented. However, the consultation suffered from merely emphasizing the good-will and reiterating challenges at a broad level. For example, financing is listed as a key bottleneck from Chinese machinery companies and it was suggested by these companies that African countries establish financial leasing or vendor supply financing mechanisms. However, the African representatives failed to offer concrete policy initiatives or propose tangible investment deals. There was no effective follow-up with these Chinese businessmen after the forum either. Therefore, to make the most of the 2021 FOCAC, it is time for African countries and the AU commission to start strategizing and preparing concrete proposals for agriculture cooperation.

Two Concrete Ideas for 2021 FOCAC Agricultural Cooperation

  1. Materializing agricultural trade agreement by facilitating Chinese investments in processing and cold chain

Several agricultural trade agreements between African countries and China have been signed in the past several years, from Tanzania’s cassava, Botswana’ beef to Kenya’s avocado. However, signing an agreement is only the first step. An SPS protocol agreement opens the gate, but bigger challenges lie in standardizing the production and processing to fully phytosanitary regulations for exportation. For example, the outcome from the Kenya-China avocado deal has been far from satisfactory. This is due to the difficulties for smallholder avocado producers in Kenya to meet the scale of demand and ensure reliable supply, and to store and transport avocados in cold chain facilities to prevent fruit flies. This remains a challenge without significant investments in technology and facilities for processing and storage.

To maximize the impact of these trade agreements, relevant African governments should strategize their proposals to negotiate with Chinese public and private sector in preparation for FOCAC 2021.

Regarding Chinese public sector:

  • Suggest Chinese government to promote agricultural best practices and knowledge transfer (such as avocado planting, cassava processing), by organizing experts or companies visits and exchange
  • Urge Chinese development cooperation or development financing institutions to offer financial support for Chinese companies to invest in cold chain infrastructure, such as loans or guarantee from China Development Bank (CDB), equity investment from China-Africa Development Fund (CADF), or Official Development Assistance (ODA) from China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA)
  • Suggest Chinese Agriculture University (CAU) or Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) to support sustainable agricultural knowledge exchange, especially for water-intensive products like avocado

Regarding Chinese private sector:

  • African countries should first do their homework and investigate the leading Chinese business players in avocado production, processing, trading, and cold chain facilities
  • If possible, African countries can organize business exchange trips for the target Chinese companies to conduct in-field visits
  • African governments can provide tax breaks or other financial incentives to encourage investments
  • African countries should not only attract FDI, but also encourage Chinese companies to form Joint Ventures (JV) with local businesses, or put “technology transfer” and “local employment” as key clauses in the investment deal contract

2Youth technical and vocational training to secure employment and entrepreneurship opportunities

The Africa Agenda 2063 supports the youth to become the driving force of African rejuvenation, and aims to give 70% of the youth a skill and train thousands of young leaders for Africa by 2025. Youth capacity building is also identified as a key area under FOCAC Beijing Summit. China is committed to training young researchers in agri-science and entrepreneurs in agri-business through various channels, undertake technology localization demonstration programs, spread the experiences in agri-production technology and rural economy development.

There is huge potential to leverage Chinese experience and capability in agricultural training in both master students and vocational training. China has developed innovative models to cultivate new talent majoring in agriculture sciences. For example, the Science and Technology Backyard (STB) master degree student program for Africa is initiated by China Agricultural University based on the very successful practice of STB at China during last ten years.

However, the potential for China-Africa agricultural training programs has not been fully maximized. The main challenges are related to the suitability and practicality of the curriculum.  Since the Science and Technology Backyard (STB) is an official master’s degree, it equips African students with solid and comprehensive agronomic knowledge, which might be suitable for the development stage of Chinese agriculture, but not that of African. For example, African students may be trained to use advanced agricultural machinery that is not to be found in use in African countries. Some African think thanks have criticized the lack of practicality and small scale (around 20-30 students each year) of these academic exchanges. On the other hand, African agriculture transformation is in dire need of entrepreneurial young farmers equipped with not only hands-on agronomic expertise but also project management skills. In the McKinsey report “Winning in Africa’s agricultural market”, it is pointed out that strong operational management skills are essential in scaling up agricultural businesses.  In concrete terms, African governments can consider the following cooperation proposals to the Chinese government and universities in preparation for FOCAC 2021.

  • African universities think tanks or even companies need to be consulted and more engaged in China-Africa agriculture talent training curriculum design
  • Shift the focus from high education academic training to technical and vocational institutions training, as well as management and entrepreneur skills that help youth grow profitable businesses
  • Enhance connection between youth and private sectors companies and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SEMs) for employment and inclusive business arrangements

In short…

Agricultural transformation will play an instrumental role in mitigating humanitarian crises and providing employment opportunities for African post-COVID reconstruction and rebuilding. FOCAC is the most important platform for African countries to make the most of the China-Africa partnership. With the FOCAC 2021 set to take place some time this year (the summit’s orgnaizers have not confirmed a date), it is time for African countries and the AU commission to start strategizing and preparing concrete proposals in agricultural cooperation.

In particular, African leaders could consider two high priority areas that meet both the interests of China and African countries. The first suggestion focuses on materializing the potential of agricultural trade agreements. African leaders should prepare to negotiate with the Chinese government, development financing institutions, and the private sector to facilitate investments in processing and cold chain. The second area deals with youth technical and vocational training. African voice needs to be consulted in the curriculum design to ensure the practicality and suitability of the programs. In particular, emphasis should be placed not only on agronomic expertise but also operational management and entrepreneur skillsets.

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