The importance of agriculture and its potential for African development is widely acknowledged. African economies’ are mainly based on agriculture, which is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth generated by other sectors.
African countries can learn from China’s agricultural development process, recognizing that the local context is very different from China’s. However, there are some important universal lessons for African policymakers.
Many external support programs have not been well integrated with the African smallholder agricultural system; African countries have not developed the capacity to provide the necessary support services for smallholders.
Africa should identify and make adjustments to China’s experience in order to adapt to local and regional situations; just as China has done throughout its long history. African nations need to make their own agricultural plans and continue to develop the human and fiscal resources to implement them.
The importance of agriculture and its potential for development in Sub-Saharan Africa is widely acknowledged. Africa is comprised of a majority of ‘agriculture based countries’, dependent on agriculture as a major component of their development trajectories (29 per cent of GDP) and of the livelihoods of the bulk of its population (two thirds of the population in agriculture).
For ‘agriculture based countries’, GDP growth generated in agriculture is at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth generated by other sectors, according to the World Bank.
Confronted with the long-standing challenge of promoting economic growth and reducing poverty, many Sub-Saharan African countries have developed agriculture-centered strategies to boost farm productivity to drive growth and raise rural incomes.
Within this context, the experiences and lessons of agriculture-led growth and poverty reduction in China has naturally attracted the attention of Sub-Saharan Africa and the international community. African countries can take lessons from China’s agricultural development process, while making sure that this learning is based on local context.
One should be cautious in drawing on the experiences from China’s growth and poverty reduction strategies more broadly, given the two very different contexts. China has been a unified country despite its cultural diversity and vast territory, while Africa is a continent of 54 countries with diversified social, economic and environmental conditions.
Agriculture in China and Africa has been developed under different historical and political, social and economic conditions, and there are therefore some important universal lessons that could be useful in determining the future of some agricultural policies in African states.
In China, a consistent agriculture-centred development strategy and staple food crop-led agricultural development policy, honed through an incremental learning process, significantly shaped small holder agriculture. This is a lesson in itself as it speaks to the need for consistency of purpose and the trust required to invest in one’s own traditional systems.
Another lesson from China stems from the steady transformation towards a market system ensured by the provision of irrigation, improved seed, and fertilizer and market facilities provided by the state, which enabled small holders to access the services economically. In contrast, despite the consensus reached on the vital role of agricultural policy in Africa, most countries have not been able to develop their own consistent home-made strategy.
Building a food-based agriculture takes time and must be accompanied by comprehensive support systems to assist new appropriate technologies to emerge. This includes re-investing in agricultural education, research institutes and experiment stations as well as a modern extension service.
African perspectives on agricultural development have been largely interrupted by various external influences. As a result many well-intentioned support programs have not been well integrated with the African small holder agricultural system, and at the same time, African countries have not been able to develop their own governmental capacity to provide the necessary support services for smallholders.
The smallholders have become a victim of marketisation and privatisation. China’s experience suggests that for the countries with a majority of small holdings, the development of agriculture requires consistent context based strategies. With a dominant staple crop rural structure, agricultural development can be staple crop-led. Above all, market reform should be gradual so that smallholders will not be put into a ‘market trap’ under market reform.
China’s agricultural development experiences also suggests that the effect of agricultural strategy and policy development depends on the state’s capacity to implement them on the one hand, and on the other hand, whether the policy is suitable for small holders and their social, economic and environmental conditions.
China’s agricultural development policies have always focused on providing incentives to sustain the land-saving growth path, while in most of African countries, the constraints derived from land tenure and on service provision for developing either labour-saving or land-saving strategies have not been eliminated or reduced.
Land tenure and lack of mechanization constrain relative land rich countries from transforming small holdings to commercial farms. It also largely accounts for the low adoption of improved seeds.
In other words, policy issues cannot be considered simply as technical problems such that efficiency problems can be solved by technocratic solutions. Nor has it been effective in Africa to try and produce more favourable agricultural environments by encouraging external interventions led by big objectives and big business.
The most important consideration is how to put the real needs of small holders at the top of those big policies and plans. This is not to suggest that large scale farming for cash crops and export materials should be stopped or stunted, but it is clear that this single structural track in agriculture is insufficient to earn investment capital for wider state development. It is also clear that food security will not be solved this way and thus rural poverty will persist.
What might be learned from the China case is that both food-based systems and large scale agriculture can exist side by side and that many mutual benefits can be derived from their co-existence. A shift in emphasis towards sustaining and improving the food-based smallholder systems in Africa can be an inexpensive complement to the on-going cash crop economies. A symbiosis that fits the African reality needs to be configured and strongly maintained by State policy and programs.
The state has a clear role to play. As in China, food systems are a public as well as a private good. Nevertheless, Africa still should be very cautious about what to learn from China’s successful experience in agricultural development. For example, China’s long-standing food production-based agricultural policy has achieved national food security and increased food exports while farmers’ incomes have grown at a slower rate.
China’s agricultural production system has featured ‘high input – high output’ production patterns that have made an important contribution to food security, but many have had irreversible impacts on the environment and natural resources.
In a word, it is clear that Africa cannot copy China’s experience be it from the perspective of a national strategy or of small farm family operations. With diverse internal situations on the continent, in order to successfully learn from China’s experience in agricultural development, Africa should carefully identify and make adjustments to China’s experience in order to adapt to local and regional situations; just as China has done throughout its long history.
Above all, African nations need to make their own agricultural plans and continue to develop the human and fiscal resources to implement them.
This is an abridged version of a paper with the same title by Li Xiaoyun, Tang Lixia, Xu Xiuli, Qi Gubo and Wang Haimin (2012); China Agricultural University.