If we’re going to talk about China in African agriculture we need to define a couple things. What do we mean by China? By African agriculture? By “in”? As with most things, the answer is “it depends.”

Today’s blog post – Schoneveld’s 2014 piece in Food Policy,The geographic and sectoral patterns of large-scale farmland investments in sub-Saharan Africa.” – is one way to frame the discussion.

Summary: Schoneveld recorded 564 large-scale (contiguous, 2000-ha) agricultural land transfers across 37 countries from 2008 to 2013.  Projects focused most on oilseed cultivation (60.4%), followed by timber and pulpwood trees (15%), sugar crops (13.2%), and food crop cultivation (6.7%). The UK and the US were the largest investors (by land area), followed by India. Almost a fifth of the projects were by investors of domestic origin.

Schoneveld’s findings specific to China are:

  • China acquired around 600k ha of land, under 17 projects (15 of which were led by established entities and 2 led by start-ups)
  • Largest investments in terms of land area are for rubber

Reflections: Schoneveld’s contribution of hard data is crucial. He backed up with numbers the observation that Chinese firms are not as involved in agriculture investment as Western firms (despite media perceptions to the contrary, see p34). Another important piece of his work is outlining the many challenges in quantifying large-scale agriculture investments (e.g. good data is not made publicly available by most governments).

Schoneveld notes that by defining relevant land acquisitions how he did, he thus excludes those investments that adopt smallholder models like tenant farming or outgrower schemes as well as industrial logging concessions and livestock (p36). In other words, the search for specific numbers and hard data may often remove just as many interesting cases as it produces. Schoneveld’s article reveals an interesting story about international and domestic investors in one aspect sub-Saharan African agriculture; but, it also leaves out many other stories.

Reference: Schoneveld, George Christoffel. “The geographic and sectoral patterns of large-scale farmland investments in sub-Saharan Africa.” Food Policy 48 (2014): 34-50.

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