Food security in Africa: China's new rice bowl

China Brief (Jamestown Foundation) | May 27, 2009

By Loro Horta

The People's Republic of China (PRC) is home to 22 percent of the world’s population, but has only 7 percent of its total arable land. Following the Chinese people's recovery from the humanitarian disaster of the "Great Famine," which according to one authoritative account contributed to the death of 36 million Chinese between 1958 and 1961 (South China Morning Post, July 6, 2008), the Beijing government has made it a priority to ensure self-sufficiency in the supply of basic products for the Chinese diet (e.g. rice and grain). In the past three decade, the country's breakneck economic growth has led to the rise of a new wealthy class in Chinese society made up of hundreds of thousands of Chinese people whose dietary demands have changed and who consumes more food. Starting in the 1990s, in order to accommodate this growing demand, China began encouraging its citizens to establish agricultural-businesses overseas. Initially, most of this investment went to nearby countries such as Laos, Burma and Cambodia. Yet, scarcity of land and sprawling overpopulation in these countries have led to political backlashes that prompted the central government to turn its attention to Africa at the beginning of this decade to fill its people's rice bowl.

To put this growing demand into perspective, the Chinese were consuming 25 kilograms (kg) of meat a year in 1985. Two decades later, its consumption reached 52 kg, and it is expected to climb as high as 70 kg by 2020. The consumption of more agriculturally intensive products such as soybeans, potatoes and cereals has increased between 16 and 30 percent in the past decade [1]. Rice consumption is declining as a more wealthy urban population develops a taste for a Western-style diet. The consumption of seafood has increased significantly in the past decade, with shortages of certain products now common. The increase in China's food consumption also comes at a time when arable land in the country is sharply shrinking as a result of over planting and land loss due to environmental damage caused by rapid industrialization. According to Yang Xiong at the ministry of agriculture, China lost 8.9 million hectares of farmland between 1995 and 2007 [2].

The Scramble for African Land

African nations, with their vast and sparsely populated fertile lands, offer China a solution to its rising food demand. Most Chinese investment in African agriculture is concentrated in southern Africa: Mozambique, Tanzania, Malawi and, increasingly, Angola. The first major Chinese investment in Africa's agricultural sector was in 1995 when Zhongkan Farm, a private company, invested $220,000 in a farm project in Zambia (Xinhua News Agency, March 21, 2006). By 2007 China had some 63 agricultural investment projects in southern Africa ranging from small-scale farms to large cattle-raising grounds [3].

In the past two years the central government has taken the lead and encouraged Chinese state-owned enterprises to invest in Africa's farms. In August 2008, the Governor of China Development Bank Chen Yuan told a gathering of African finance ministers in Mauritania: “China Development Bank is anxious to work in the area of agriculture. Given the current scenario of a great shortage of food and food price hikes I believe African countries should put agricultural development as their top priority” (Reuters, August 1, 2008).

Mozambique, Tanzania and Angola

In early 2008 the Chinese government pledged to invest $800 million to modernize Mozambique's agricultural sector. The plan includes increasing the rice production of the former Portuguese colony from its current 100,000 tons to 500,000 tons per year in the next five years. With this objective in mind, Beijing is bankrolling the establishment of an Advance Crop Research Institute and several other small agricultural schools throughout the country. Over 100 Chinese agricultural specialists are currently stationed in Mozambique, including teams from the Hunan Hybrid Rice Institute, China’s top institution in the field of hybrid rice research [4].

Other major Chinese projects include the construction of numerous irrigation and canal networks, including a massive canal connecting land-locked Malawi by way of Lake Malawi—the second largest in the continent—to rivers and dams in Mozambique. In the past two years, the search for new land has led Beijing to aggressively seek large land leases in Mozambique, especially in its most fertile areas, such as the Zambezi valley in the north and the Limpopo valley in the south. The Zambezi valley is the richest agricultural region of Mozambique with an area of 230,000 kilometers spread between Tete and Zambezia provinces [5].

Chinese investment in the Zambezi valley started in mid-2006 when China’s state-owned bank Eximbank (Import Export Bank) granted $2.3 billion in soft loans to the Mozambican government to build the Mpanda Nkua mega dam on the Zambezi stretch of Tete province. Since then China has been requesting large land leases to establish Chinese-run mega farms and pasture areas for cattle raising. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was reportedly signed in June 2007, under which an initial 3,000 Chinese settlers were to move to Zambezia and Tete provinces to run farms along the valley [6].

The Chinese Ambassador to Tanzania, Liu Xinsheng, announced in April 2008 that China may invest upward of $400 million to modernize the local agricultural sector while in Beijing the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture has pledged to assist Africa in creating a "green revolution," a process of rapid increase in agricultural production that results from the introduction of advanced biotechnology, modern irrigation and better managerial skills. According to a ministry of commerce official, China currently has 1,134 agricultural experts serving in Africa and has given $600 million in assistance to the sector since 2002. This assistance ranges from major irrigation projects to donations of agricultural equipment to extending generous credit lines. Another former Portuguese colony, Angola, is fast becoming a major destination for Chinese agri-business [7].

Angola is already China’s biggest trading partner in Africa and its single largest oil supplier accounting for 15 percent of the PRC’s total oil imports. The country, with its vast land—1,246,700 square kilometers—and a population of just 16 million, offers China great opportunities, particularly in beef production, but also in some luxury items now in ever greater demand in China such as coffee, spices, tropical fruits, sugar and cotton. China’s agricultural investments, which were primarily concentrated on Southern Africa, are now slowly spreading to other parts of the continent such as Guinea Bissau in West Africa where China recently established several hybrid rice experimentation farms. In early 2007 Chinese businessmen pledged to invest $60 million in the country’s cashew nut industry, which is one of the biggest such industries on the continent.

While China may be primarily motivated by its need to meet its rising food demand, the modernization of the African agricultural sector is also likely to benefit the people of that continent. In 2007 the Ugandan government thanked China for its support in developing the country’s agricultural industry. After serious food shortages last year that degenerated into violent riots, the Senegalese government was eager to attract Chinese investment. According to Professor Li Anshan, one of China's top African specialists at Beijing University: “Africans desperately need to modernize their agriculture both to insure their food security and to earn hard currency by exporting it. China needs to deal with its growing food demand and Africa seems to offer the solution” [8].


If China is indeed able to help launch a "green revolution" in Africa, millions of Africans will have a chance at a better future. At the same time, however, if China's ambitious plans are not carried out with proper considerations for the environment and its impact on Africa's agricultural land, the continent may one day find itself in a similar predicament to the one confronting China today.

For instance, various NGOs in Mozambique and foreign experts have began to express concern over the environmental impact of the Mpanda Nkua mega dam on the ecosystem of the Zambezi valley. Daniel Ribeiro, a biologist and the head of Justica Ambiental, a local NGO, argued that, "No serious environmental impact study was conducted, the people whose land will be flood were not consulted or properly compensated. No doubts that we need electricity and to modernize our agriculture [sic]. But at what cost?" [9].

While considerable attention has been paid to Chinese interest in African oil and other mineral resources, it is perhaps in the agricultural and food processing sector where China may have a more significant impact on the continent's future. Yet, whether Beijing’s grand plans for Africa will really materialize and help the continent alleviate its chronic food shortages, or will it become another of the many empty promises made to Africa remains to be seen.


1. Hongbo Liu and Claus Diblitz, “Determinants of meat consumption in China” Working Paper 40, December 2007, Asian Agribusiness Research Centre, Stuart University.

2. Interview with Yang Xiong, Ministry of Agriculture of the People's Republic of China, Beijing, September 12, 2008.

3. This figure was given during a seminar attended by the author on Trade and Investment Between China and the Portuguese Speaking Countries, hosted by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce Central School in Changing, Beijing between September 7-10, 2008.

4. Statement by Tomas Mandiate Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries of Mozambique on March 30, 2006 at

5. Loro Horta, “China's relations with Mozambique: A Mixed Blessing,” April 1, 2008 Online Africa Policy Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Washington D. C. at and “The Zambezi Valley: China s first Agricultural colony?” June 9th 2008, Online Africa Policy Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Washington D. C at

6. Noticias Lusofunas “Empresas chinesas anunciam investimentos no Vale do Zambeze” June 3, 2006 (Lusophone News, Chinese companies announce investment in the Zambezi Valley).

7. Jornal de Angola “Banco Chines proponen credito para agricultura” Marco 13 2009 (Chinese bank proposes agriculture credit line).

8. Interview with Professor Li Anshan, Department of History University of Beijing, September 14, 2008, Beijing. 9. Interview with Daniel Ribeiro, Beijing May 15, 2008.
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