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Some parallel experience


Agricultural development in Africa cannot happen without a cross-sectoral modernization process

According to the Global Report on Food Crises, jointly produced by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Programme and the European Union, 193 million people in 53 countries or territories experienced acute food insecurity at crisis or worse levels by the end of 2021. Since March 2022, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has started to weigh on food insecurity. It has only got worse now because of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic pressures and extreme weather conditions.

Despite its abundant natural resources, Africa always bears the brunt of crises and is faced with a difficult transitioning of its agricultural sector.

Since the 1960s, Africa has entered an era of independent development, and the influencing strategy of Western countries has shifted from colonial development to overseas development. International aid has made African agriculture undergo numerous reforms and adjustments. But many obstacles continue to derail the continent's agricultural development and its socioeconomic transformation.

Africa, in the eyes of many, is still a continent plagued by hunger, malnutrition and food shortages. African agriculture has been subject to various disturbances in the process of globalization, and its contemporary agricultural system is not a continuation of its original food system. Global expansion of capitalism integrated Africa into the system of globalization, and the continent's agriculture became a marginalized sector which provides support mainly for the development of those countries at the center of globalization. The establishment of cash crop agricultural systems is a typical colonial legacy. Such legacies have profoundly shaped the development of African agriculture. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the agricultural sector in Africa has been given the multiple responsibilities of ensuring food security, creating jobs and mitigating climate change, thus making agricultural development even more complex.

However, the sluggish growth of agriculture in Africa over a long period and the exponential increase in its population mean that a large portion of agricultural growth will be offset by population growth. Also, Africa's extensive agricultural growth pattern, characterized by expansions in planting area, cannot lead to improvement in land and labor productivity even if total agricultural output increases. Over the past two decades, Africa has seen an uptick in extreme weather events and increasingly erratic rainfall patterns in rain-fed farming regions. However, African smallholders do not have access to strong institutional support to adapt to climate change.

Because of constant disturbances in their history of development, many African countries have never been able to build up systematic conditions for agricultural development underpinned by modern technological factors. The transformation of African agriculture should be grounded in its own social and economic conditions, and an overall development strategy that prioritizes the growth of the sector must be rolled out. The parallel experience of China and other developing countries can be used as a reference.

The most important lesson from China's agricultural development is that the sector's growth must be linked with the process of industrialization and urbanization, and together, they should synchronize with economic and social transformation, a broad modernization process. China's economic reform, which first started in rural areas, has greatly boosted agricultural productivity. In addition to bolstering farmers' incomes, it has also provided surplus labor for industries. The rural industrialization in the late 1980s and the subsequent industrialization and urbanization took rural migrant workers to urban areas, further lifting their incomes. The nation's rural revitalization strategy right now aims to continue improving agricultural productivity and developing rural areas with resources accumulated in the process of industrialization and urbanization. In some African countries, the development of labor-intensive manufacturing is starting to drive economic growth, which could help integrate agriculture into a wider modernization process.

The government's inputs in agriculture are another key factor in China's agricultural development, which is especially reflected in the nation's overall policy system for three interconnected areas-agriculture, rural areas and farmers. Africa's financial capacity has always been a key factor that constrained its agricultural development. In this context, African countries should come up with priorities for their agricultural development, focusing on the construction of agricultural infrastructure and the production of food crops, in a bid to reshape their structure of agricultural production.

Smallholder farmers have long been the dominant force of China's agricultural development. The agricultural sectors in many African countries are also underpinned by smallholder farmers scattered nationwide. Thus they can borrow China's practice of increasing the productivity of smallholder farmers by adapting the input of modernized technical and organizational factors to their needs. For example, the labor-intensive technology adopted in China's rice and corn production can significantly improve land use efficiency and labor productivity through simple technical solutions such as the application of improved seeds, dense planting, moderate fertilization, and increased frequency of weeding.

In addition, providing organized training and services on market access for smallholder farmers through cooperatives and demonstration parks can also enhance their bargaining chip and capacity to resist external risks.

The Belt and Road Initiative and the Global Development Initiative proposed by China have created new room for Sino-African agricultural cooperation. Africa can take advantage of its strengths in land, resources and labor force to ramp up cooperation to develop its agricultural economy and trade, as well as development cooperation with countries including China, beef up its agricultural investment and further spur the growth of the sector.

Xu Jin is an associate professor at China Agricultural University and Li Xiaoyun is a chair professor at China Agricultural University. The authors contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn