China-Africa Agricultural Cooperation: A safe net for food security and food sovereignty in Africa

Like Africa, China has previously suffered from severe food insecurity in the 1950s and 60s, but has found mechanisms to deal with food deficits.

Chinese President Xi Jinping

Published Jan 16, 2024


Prof Felix Dapare Dakora

China-Africa cooperation has existed for several decades, and continues to flourish in areas of trade, politics, peace and security.

However, recent initiatives between China and Africa have centred on the promotion of Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) for mutual development. Educationally, except for the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to prolonged national and global lockdowns, an increased number of African students had started to study in China as their preferred choice for undergraduate and postgraduate education when compared to the United Kingdom and the United States of America, which had previously dominated international education for a very long time.

A major focus of the Africa-China cooperation in education has been to train skills in agricultural science, technology and innovation, as a first step to feeding Africa’s growing population of 1.6 billion people, which is a major challenge to the African Union.

Like Africa, China has previously suffered from severe food insecurity in the 1950s and 60s, but has found mechanisms to deal with food deficits. With the use of modern technologies and high-yielding crop varieties, today China produces 20% of the world’s food from 9% of global arable land, while Africa produces only 10% of the food it consumes from 64% of the world’s agricultural land.

There are therefore lessons Africa can learn from China to enable it feed its 1.6 billion people, who are presently dependent on food importation. Verifiable data have shown that in 2021, 23.4 million Africans suffered from severe food insecurity and another 34.4 from moderate food insecurity (totalling 57.9 million people in the continent).

Unfortunately, food insecurity is linked to poverty. For example, from 2015 to 2019, the annual %GDP growth per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa was below zero, and with Covid-19 in 2020, this decrease must have worsened further.

The African Academy of Sciences (AAS) is the voice of science in Africa, and with its vision of transforming lives in Africa through science, the Academy has sought to tap into the rich scientific and technological advances of China to address the food security problem in Africa.

In doing so, the AAS has signed and implemented MOUs with various Academies in China, which include the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences (CATAS), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) and the Chinese Academy of Forestry (CAF).

The AAS has also signed and implemented MOUs with University institutions in China, which include Jinghua University, Hebei University, the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Hebei Agricultural University, and China Agricultural University. As a result, projects of the China-Africa cooperation on agricultural technology and innovation have increased over the years with the sole aim of achieving food self-sufficiency, food sovereignty, and zero hunger in Africa.

Although, all the above-mentioned learned Academies and University partners in China have made significant contributions towards Sino-Africa STI cooperation, the achievements and future prospects indicated in this commentary are biased in favour of Academies and University institutions that have mandates for agricultural science, technology and innovation.

To say the least, a lot has been achieved under the auspices of the China-Africa agricultural cooperation which promises to be a safe net for food security, food self-sufficiency, and food sovereignty in Africa.

The importance of the China-Africa cooperation on agriculture was underscored when in 2023 the CAAS and MARA organized the 2nd Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Sanya city, which attracted some 39 Ministers and Deputy Ministers of Agriculture from across Africa and High-Level Officials from the African Union.

Organized back-to-back with the 2nd FOCAC by CAAS, GLAST 2023 also brought together Global Leaders in Agricultural Science and Technology (e.g. the FAO, IAEA, CGIAR, BMGF, etc.) to discuss global food security, with greater emphasis on food insecurity in Africa. The outcome of GLAST 2023 was the creation of a new partnership championed by CAAS and AAS, which included the FAO, CGIAR, IAEA and the BMGF, with the sole mandate of transforming African agriculture through research collaboration between China and Africa and joint training of young African scientists by CAAS and the AAS.

Under the auspices of the "Belt and Road" initiative and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), research collaboration between CAAS and African scientists has started to solve major issues on food security, poverty reduction, and sustainable agricultural development.

Through joint research, demonstration and transfer of agricultural technology, as well as training and capacity building, considerable progress has been made in areas such as crop breeding and modern cultivation techniques, monitoring and control of plant diseases and pests, R&D in animal vaccines, and application of biogas technology, which have actively contributed to the development of agricultural technology in Africa.

Some achievements of the China-Africa agricultural cooperation include the sharing of high-yielding crop germplasm materials with Africa. Working with African scientists, CAAS has shared over 1000 Green Super Rice varieties with many African countries where the Chinese rice varieties have shown over 20% yield increases when compared to local varieties cultivated by farmers in Africa.

Sesame breeding by CAAS scientists and their collaboration partners in Africa has led to over 50% increase in yields when compared to local African varieties cultivated in places like Togo and Mozambique.

Working with their collaborators in Africa, CATAS scientists (led by Prof LIU Guodao) have also made a major contribution to bridging China-Africa agricultural cooperation. For example, CATAS has introduced many high-yielding Chinese crop varieties, excellent technologies and equipment to Africa.

Currently, over 30 new crop varieties (including South China No. 5 cassava and Reyan No. 5 Stylosanthes), more than 50 new technologies (including cassava cultivation technology and banana tissue culture technology), and more than 20 kinds of equipment (including machines for planting cassava and crushing cassava stems) are being used in Africa.

It is worth mentioning that the average yield of South China No. 5 cassava in Africa can reach 37.5 tons per hectare, which is 4 times higher than that of local varieties. Recognizing that the use of new high-yielding varieties and technologies are key to ensuring Africa’s food security, CATAS has been very instrumental in technology transfer from China to Africa.

Noting further that capacity building through training is the key to sustainable agricultural productivity, China has established joint laboratories in Africa for advanced research. These include the establishment of i) Sino-Egyptian Joint Laboratory for Agricultural Green Development between IARRP, CAAS and NARSS for joint research in remote sensing-based monitoring, efficient utilization of water resources, etc., ii) Sino-African Joint Laboratory in Nairobi-Kenya by CAS for Biodiversity studies, iii) Biogas facilities by CAAS and training of over 1530 local technicians in African countries (e.g. Rwanda, Tanzania, Mauritania, and Angola) for socio-economic development, iv) Capacity building in agricultural R&D for Africa by CAAS, which trained 276 PhD students from 38 African countries as at July 2023, and hosted 21 visiting scholars from Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Rwanda under the Talented Young Scientists Program, and v) Training courses for African agricultural technicians every year by CAAS and CATAS to bridge the technology gap in crop breeding and cultivation, plant disease and pest control, animal disease monitoring and control, biomass energy, agricultural machinery, etc.

Furthermore, noting Africa’s vast arable land, and that African agriculture is the key to ensuring global food security, China has moved strongly to support Africa to achieve food self-sufficiency and food surplus for export. This view is underscored in President Xi Jinping's proposal at the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue - the Plan for China Supporting Africa’s Agricultural Modernization.

As described in the Plan for China Supporting Africa’s Agricultural Modernization, agricultural development in Africa is still facing constraints such as lack of funding, infrastructure and agricultural equipment, incomplete industrial and supply chains, as well as outdated production methods.

China’s decision and strong support under this Plan to explore new pathways of agricultural cooperation with Africa is indeed very exemplary and highly admired. In the past, Africa’s relations with its colonial masters has been polluted with food aid rather than technical assistance for food self-sufficiency and food sovereignty. The new dawn for Africa to produce its own food with surplus for export is now in sight, but has previously eluded the continent for a very long time.

In implementing President Xi Jinping's proposal at the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue - the Plan for China Supporting Africa’s Agricultural Modernization, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the African Academy of Sciences have jointly led the establishment of the China-Africa Agricultural Science Technology and Innovation Alliance (CAASTIA), a platform for stronger China-Africa agricultural cooperation in the promotion of STI for sectoral development through collaborative research, germplasm exchange, joint capacity building, and exchange of scientists and students.

Using data from satellite remote sensing centres, geoscience laboratories, meteorological stations, etc., in Africa, CAASTIA will anchor and strengthen China-Africa scientific and technological cooperation for sustainable green agriculture, water-saving irrigation, food loss reduction, climate response in agriculture, and biocontrol of insect pests and diseases to maintain soil health and ecological sustainability for increased yields.

China-Africa agricultural cooperation therefore promises to be a safe net and an insurance for food security and food sovereignty in Africa.

Prof Felix Dapare Dakora, Immediate Past President of African Academy of Sciences/Foreign Academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering