Where China and Africa can go next

Many African policymakers and analysts . . . would recommend modernizing African agriculture and food production to be the second priority to help Africa avert what could be a calamity for the continent.         

In the Fall, Chinese and Africans will meet for the 2024 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation to chart a path for the partnership over the next three years.  

The partnership is complex; priorities evolve.  But looking back over the last thirty years, in country after country, the signature projects of the partnership have been in infrastructure, a major win for Africa.  For its part, China has gained access to commodities, minerals and markets in Africa’s growing middle class, thereby helping to propel China to become a modern industrial giant and a global economic power – a major “win” for China.

The partnership is strong.  Despite years of criticism depicting its projects as “debt traps”, “thinly-veiled colonization” and, of course, “African gullibility and Chinese deviousness”, it has steadfastly focused almost single-mindedly on infrastructure.

But because Africa still has glaring deficits in infrastructure, the upcoming FOCAC will probably recommend staying the course.  Build more roads, ports, power stations and railroads.  FOCAC will retain infrastructure as the number one priority for at least another generation. 

What should be the second, third or fourth priority for FOCAC in the next generation? 

The leading contender for second priority for the partnership is food insecurity. 

Perennial food aid undermines all aspects of any country. Inability to produce or buy enough food is the Achilles’ Heel of many African countries. It hobbles modernization and opens African countries to interference and manipulation. Yet some African countries have swathes of land that can produce enough food to meet local demand with excess for export. In some African countries, food aid now distorts prices and discourages local food production, thereby making more food aid necessary.

In our time, climate change is aggravating food insecurity as time-tested hardy crops of the African Savanna are becoming a distant memory. Unless major and perhaps radical steps are taken, climate change will deepen and widen food insecurity, leading to unprecedented social crises.

Just three generations ago, analysts had painted a similar grim picture about China, warning of an impending nightmare caused by food insecurity. Yet, China has successfully lifted millions out of extreme poverty, by, among other things, producing enough food for the population. 

Many African policymakers and analysts desperately want to replicate China’s success.  They would recommend modernizing African agriculture and food production to be the second priority to help Africa avert what could be a calamity for the continent. 

The third priority is employment, especially for Africa’s youth. 

Africa’s youth can be seen as an ally in the drive for modernization, a huge actual or potential market for consumer goods, a wellspring of creativity or a receptive window through which to redesign or

manipulate African values. But in country after country, a high proportion of college and technical training school graduates are finding no opportunities to better their lives.  These dashed hopes pose a threat that is probably as grave as food insecurity in some African countries. 

The extraction of commodities and minerals out of Africa creates employment opportunities and a skilled workforce in Africa.  But more value addition – production of finished goods in Africa to create thousands of meaningful opportunities is urgently needed. 

This is precisely what has happened thanks to the partnerships between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations members. Chinese companies have created more than 660,000 jobs (2022) in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam and other ASEAN countries.  A similar pool of jobs is urgently needed in Africa. 

With suitable arrangements such as those in ASEAN countries, some of the 10,000 Chinese companies that have gained experience in Africa could be encouraged to undertake local manufacturing to create employment and build a skilled and technical workforce. Like ASEAN countries, Africa wants to become a small manufacturing hub for the world. 

The fourth priority area is the transition from fossil fuels.  

They do not have a monopoly but African countries hold significant quantities of commodities and minerals such as rare earth metals, which are playing a central part in the transition away from fossil fuels as a source of energy. With the exception of South Africa, these minerals are sent outside Africa for processing to produce goods, some of which are sold back to Africa. 

It would be a catastrophe if within two or three generations Africa sold and exhausted its minerals and commodities, leaving a legacy of roads, railroads and ports. Africa will have missed its opportunity to modernize.  To avoid this outcome, the natural resources that are facilitating the transition away from fossil fuels must be increasingly processed and used in the manufacture of finished products in Africa. This leapfrogging to make and use products for a post-fossil fuel era must become the new measure of development and modernization for Africa.

For example, the experience that Chinese companies have gained in South Africa can be used to manufacture electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines and storage, or create wind farms in eastern Africa given the availability of minerals, rare earth metals and oil in the sub-region. The assembly of electric vehicles in Kenya by Associated Vehicle Assemblers in a joint venture with Chinese car manufacturer BYD can be replicated elsewhere. 

China has shown a willingness to listen to and support African aspirations and agency.     In return, Africa has hosted China’s priorities. In this spirit, in 2024, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation can assess the suitability of focusing on the transition from fossil fuels, manufacturing to create meaningful opportunities especially for Africa’s young population, and banishing food insecurity as priorities for the next generation without downgrading infrastructure. If any of the three areas are deemed to be suitable additions to infrastructure, then clear targets should also be established to guide the China-Africa partnership for a generation and beyond.  


You May Also Like

Africa’s Place in the Global Financial Order

Celebrating the African Continental Free Trade Area

Sending Kenyan Security Forces to Haiti

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *