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[LONDON] A special issue of World Development, out this month (May), examines the real roles that China and Brazil are playing in African agriculture, moving beyond what the authors consider as  “simplistic narratives of South-South collaboration or neo-imperial expansion”.

Eight papers culled from an input of 20 research collaborators detail how Brazil and China are impacting the African economy. The work, organised via the Future Agricultures Consortium, was supported with roughly US$ 934,000 in UK Economic and Social Research Council funding.

The project set out to explore what is actually going on in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, where Brazil and China have made investments, says Ian Scoones, fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, the UK, and editor of the issue.

“There has been much debate about the role of the rising powers in African economies, and agriculture has been highlighted as an important area of investment,” says Scoones. He notes that claims made about the Brazilian and Chinese presence range from “accusations of land grabbing to the importation of huge numbers of workers.”

Some of the papers in the issue specifically delve into the rhetoric of South-South cooperation, and how narratives influence “what technologies are chosen, which investments are funded, and who gets trained,” Scoones and his co-authors write in the opening paper. One paper authored by investigators from China, Ethiopia and the UK explores the role that Chinese migrants are playing in the Ethiopian and Ghanaian agri-food sectors. Another discusses an agricultural development programme to introduce the Brazilian cerrado model of savannah development  to Mozambique. There is also a study on China’s technology demonstration centres, 23 of which have been established till date.

Scoones describes the outcome of the project as one where no single story emerged, but rather a “complex set of engagements”.

“Both Brazil and China have substantial experience in agricultural development, with top-quality expertise in agricultural technologies and agronomic techniques suited to tropical areas,” says Scoones. “Both countries also have initiated high-profile aid and investment programmes in Africa, linked to an argument for South-South solidarity and mutual exchange.”

Yet, not everything generated in Brazil and China has landed easily in Africa, notes Scoones. “There have been rejections, resistances, and also revisions and recastings,” he says, and technology transfer, when it does occur, is “context-specific, political, and negotiated.”

“We will definitely not see massive expansion of Brazilian and Chinese agricultural concerns, aiming to feed the world, or China in particular, as some have predicted,” Scoones says. “We can expect incremental, slow change, with successes most likely geared to sharing experience around smallholder agriculture, rather than transferring large-scale agricultural models.”

Deborah Bräutigam, professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, DC, says the new studies are “far more nuanced and field-work based” than narratives of large amounts of land being acquired and, in the case of China, plans to export food home.

Bräutigam noted that the studies centred on Chinese technology transfer are particularly useful for researchers working on food security issues and tech transfer, as well as on emerging economies.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South Asia desk.