Investment May 2010

The Next Empire

All across Africa, new tracks are being laid, highways built,ports deepened, commercial contracts signed—all on an unprecedented scale, and led by China, whose appetite for commodities seems insatiable. Do China’s grand designs promise the transformation,at last, of a star-crossed continent? Or merely its exploitation? The author travels deep into the heart of Africa, searching for answers.

As we looked out at these rusting carcasses, my cabinmates began talking about the railroad, and what it said about their societies. “This is a good train,” said Isaac, with a trace of bitterness, “but like any piece of equipment, it needs maintenance.” Daniel Simwinga, a voluble, Bible-toting Zambian, responded, “Everyone knows you can’t keep getting milk from a cow without feeding it grass.” (Daniel was bringing a shipment of auto parts and other goods south. As a commercial trader, he rides the Tazara as often as twice a month, and is well versed in its shortcomings.)

“As soon as we have problems, we ask someone else to take care of them for us,” Isaac continued. “We ask the Europeans. We ask the Americans. We ask the Chinese. We will run this train into the ground, and then we will tell the Chinese we need another one. This is not development.” I thought of the wreckage by the tracks. In China, there is no such thing as metallic waste. Armies of migrant workers scour the countryside with hammers and chisels, collecting and selling every scrap to the insatiable smelters that feed the country’s industries. Here, by contrast, was a land without industry.

The World Bank and the United Nations did surveys for a Tazara-like line in the early 1960s, and both concluded that such a railway would be neither economically feasible nor sustainable. But China built the line, between 1970 and 1975, at the behest of two African leaders: Julius Kambarage Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, who wanted to open up the remote south of his country and bolster his pan-African credentials; and President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, whose landlocked country was seeking an alternative to the trade routes south through white-ruled Rhodesia.

Within a decade, the line was suffering from repeated breakdowns, landslides, and management failures. Planners had envisioned running 17 trains a day, but by 1978 there were only two. Tanzanians and Zambians tend to lay the railway’s chronic operational problems at the doorstep of official corruption. Isaac and Daniel joked about this throughout the trip. For them, revenue-skimming explained every woe, from an unscheduled stop on our first night to replace a part, to an electrical short that plunged our stifling cabin into darkness after Daniel tried to turn on the cabin’s antiquated fan.

As an example of top-down, state-driven development, the Tazara had also come up short. Planners had envisioned a new agricultural corridor nearly 10 miles wide on either side of the tracks, doubling regional food production. Yet much of the land—moist black soil and extraordinary verdure—was all but empty. The government had never invested in electrification, schools, or roads near the railway, nor had it provided access to credit so that farmers could buy fertilizer or good seed. During one 90-minute stretch in northeastern Zambia, beginning at Mkushi, I did not see a single farm or village.

The unrealized value of this fallow earth seemed to pain Daniel. And he was quite aware of the opportunity that it represented to foreigners, especially with crops in rising demand worldwide. “The Chinese have already begun coming,” he said. “They covet our land. It seems there’s no space for people there.”

Chinese farmers have been trickling into Africa for years, buying small plots and working them using Chinese techniques. But China began to prioritize large-scale agricultural investment in Africa around the time of the lavish 2006 China-Africa summit in Beijing, a milestone in China’s courtship of the continent. At the time, China promised to establish 10 agricultural demonstration centers promoting Chinese farming methods, and to send experts far and wide. Last June, the Economic Observer, an independent Chinese weekly newspaper, reported that China, “faced with increasing pressure on food security,” was “planning to rent and buy land abroad to expand domestic food supply.” Beijing had earmarked $5 billion for agricultural projects in Africa in 2008, with a focus on the production of rice and other cash crops.

Many Chinese agricultural initiatives are shrouded in mystery. In 2006, for instance, China offered a $2 billion soft loan to Mozambique for a project to dam the Zambezi River Valley, amid some of the continent’s most fertile soils. The following year, Chinese and Mozambican officials reportedly signed a memorandum of understanding allowing 3,000 Chinese settlers to begin farming in the area. But following a local uproar, Mozambique’s government denied all reports of the plan, and little has been heard of it since.

Officials in Chongqing province—home to roughly 12 million farmers whose land either has already been lost in the flooding that accompanied the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, or is under pressure from urban growth in the province—have publicly encouraged mass emigration to Africa. In September 2007, Li Ruogu, the head of China’s Export-Import Bank, told the South China Morning Post,

“Chongqing is well experienced in agricultural mass production, while in Africa there is plenty of land but food production is unsatisfactory … Chongqing’s labour exports have just started, but they will take off once we convince the farmers to become landlords abroad.”

Li pledged full financial support to those farmers at the time, but has since distanced himself from those remarks.

“China’s interest in agricultural investment—in land—is a hot-button issue,” wrote Deborah Bräutigam, a professor at American University and a leading expert on China’s economic relations with Africa, in a recent paper. “For many, land is at the heart of a nation’s identity, and it is especially easy to raise emotions about outsiders when land is involved.”

Presented by

Howard W. French is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa. He teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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