821 million people are hungry worldwide. 256.5 million are in Africa, and many are deemed to be experiencing severe levels of food insecurity. The continent has the biggest issue with food insecurity, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Graph showing the percentage of the population experiencing a degree of food insecurity from 2014-2018

This graph shows the scale of the problem; Africa is struggling much more with achieving food security than the global average. Worryingly, the trend appears to be moving upwards from 47.6% in 2014 to 52.5% in 2018. This is a major inhibitor to the development of the continent, as effects of malnutrition have serious impacts on the population. Undernourished children are more susceptible to disease, and their growth is often stunted. This results in poorer physical and mental development which leads to worse performance in school and later in life. It is estimated that inadequate nutrition can result in a loss of as much as 12% of a country’s GDP. Stunting is generally in decline worldwide, however in Africa the number has risen with approximately 60 million children under 5 years old living with stunted development. Undernutrition also causes around 45% of deaths in this age group; with the highest figures again coming from Africa. African development is clearly being impaired, and greater food security would greatly benefit the continent.

And yet, Africa is home to some of the most fertile land on the planet, and has almost 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land. This is an area almost twice the size of India and represents 60% of all suitable land for agriculture. However, most countries in Africa do not achieve even 25% of their potential crop yield, and Africa is actually a net importer of food. The report which claimed these statistics outlines some of the reasons for this. Firstly, many agricultural workers across the continent are subsistence farmers; meaning that they grow crops to supply for themselves and their families – not to be sold. Secondly, there is a lack of adequate infrastructure such as motorways, airports and harbours to export goods on an industrial scale. Thirdly, the price of modern technologies and materials (such as machinery and fertilizers) are inhibitive for most agricultural organisations. Despite this, there is widespread hope that Africa can not only become self-sufficient, but also grow into one of the world’s most important food producers and contribute hugely towards global food security. It is estimated that Africa as a whole could expand agricultural output from around $280 billion today to $880 billion by 2030. Some experts believe that Africa is poised to become the ‘breadbasket of the world’.

Speaking in September 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that “We (China) will support Africa in achieving food security in general by 2030, work with Africa to formulate and implement a program and action to promote China-Africa cooperation on agricultural modernization”. Figure 2 indicates that this cooperation has been growing steadily now over the course of the 21st century.

Figure 2: Graph showing the increasing value of trade between China and Africa

According to the China Africa Research Initiative, across all 53 African countries, a total $99.28 billion value of goods was sold to China in 2018; conversely, China exported a value of $104.75 billion. However, there are imbalances as to how this is divided on a national scale. Many of the imports from China are in the form of machinery, electronics and other consumer goods – although there are also investment loans which facilitate large infrastructure projects. The main return to China is in the form of natural resources – mainly crude petroleum and minerals such as iron, titanium and copper.

Developing stronger trade links with China is sensible. The strong Chinese economy allows businesses to offer much better investment opportunities than organisations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Chinese banks are overwhelmingly controlled by the government in Beijing and can therefore give more money with more attractive interest rates. This allows the construction of projects such as roads, ports and Agricultural Technology Development Centres. There are now 23 of these across Africa, which coordinate agricultural efforts on the continent to shift the focus from small to larger-scale farming. The long-term goal, therefore, is to transform Africa from a net food importer to a net exporter. This would fulfil the promise of mechanising African agriculture and the economy, but would put China in a commanding position.

It has been suggested that President Xi’s promise of food security is meticulously planned and long-sighted. China’s population continues to expand, and food demand is ever-increasing; the recent emergence of a middle class with more varied dietary demands only adds to the problem. Industrialisation causes acid rain and pollution which damages millions of crops every year, and even though technological advancements are continually increasing national yield, attention has turned abroad. If Africa can become a net food exporter by utilising Chinese-bought machinery, practices and shipping through Chinese-organised trade routes, then the obligation will be to direct much of this back towards China. China, sensibly, is assuring its own food security by enmeshing their food system with global markets.

Although this is a dangerous game for the rest of the world. Dependency theory is defined as when trade relations between a poor, underdeveloped country and a wealthier, developed state leads to a heavy reliance forming. There is an argument that mutually beneficial trade terms deteriorate over time and the deals involved become more advantageous to the richer country; the control of trade is always with the dominant partner. China, which has one of the strongest global economies, has more financial power than most of the rest of the world. There is evidence to suggest that some countries are being taken advantage of in return for guaranteeing the need to feed nearly 1.4 billion Chinese peoples. Investing is one thing; dealing with the small print when paying it back can be a slippery slope.

There have been many cases of Chinese exploitation of African resources. One such example is of illegal fishing off the coast of Ghana. Despite the fact that foreign companies were barred from trawling Ghanaian waters in 2002 to protect the natural ecosystem as well as local fishermen, a 2018 report revealed that 90% of licenced vessels were built in China and operated by Chinese crews. These ships are far superior to the small wooden boats used by most Ghanaian fishermen, meaning they are hopelessly out competed. The problem is drastic – 60% of Ghana’s fish is now imported at a price, unnecessarily costing the economy. The worst thing is, Ghanaians are paying for fish which, by international maritime law, are rightfully theirs.

Ghana’s coastal populations rely on dependable fishing stocks for their food security and income, and the report predicted that this serious overfishing could threaten the livelihood of over two million people. The lack of regulation by the government means there is no way of enforcing the laws against illegal foreign fishing operations. Another case of exploitative fishing surfaced in December 2018. The Chinese Export-Import Bank announced via Twitter that:

Figure 3: Screenshot recorded by Global Analytica

So, what does Somalia get out of the deal? It appears to be a win-win for China – a relatively small loan (for China, that is) in return for unrivalled access to a fairly intact reserve of fish. Much more importantly for China is the geographic position of Somalia. China currently has an ambitious plan to connect the world with trade network, with China at its centre. This $1 trillion project is called the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, also referred to as ‘the 21st century Silk Road’. Key to this is the maritime routes linking China to lucrative markets in South East Asia and Europe, and to invaluable oil and natural gas reserves in the Middle East, as depicted below.

Figure 4: Proposed reach of the New Maritime Silk Road, with Mogadishu indicated for reference

The area around the Arabic Sea is threatened by pirates. Gaining port control in Somalia enables the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy to deploy military ships to secure one of the world’s most valuable trade routes. Safer waters around its coast can only be a positive for Somalia – not to mention all other ships sailing through the Gulf – although allowing a foreign power unrivalled access to their waters could be a huge threat to Somalian sovereignty. Giving up fishing rights could also be a heavy price to pay. As previously outlined with the Ghanaian case, Chinese trawlers will certainly undermine the local fishing economy and threaten the natural ecosystem.

Other examples of questionable practices or ‘land grabs‘ by Chinese investors include invasive farm construction in Mozambique, the Magbass Sugar Complex in Sierra Leone, the ZTE Oil Palm Plantation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the infamous acquisition of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Deborah Brautigam, a leading expert on China in Africa, suggests that although many people are fearful of the consequences of working with Africa, Chinese investments do not appear to have colonial traits – at least, not yet.

Fulfilling the African potential of producing food for the global market would prove exceptionally lucrative for China. Not only would they themselves move closer to food security, but they would hold all the cards in controlling the distribution along the modern Silk Road. This could potentially be a step towards sustainability in what we eat, but if it is at the cost of surrendering more influence to China, is it truly security?