On June 20, 2012, ten agricultural scientists from the Desert Control Research Institute of Gansu in Northwest China visited Nigeria and Niger to embark on a water conservation programme. Co-sponsored by the United Nations and Chinese government, this programme is an attempt to share best practices in agriculture, following the success of a similar anti-desertification project carried out by agricultural scientists in Gansu.
The group will spend their time in the guinea- and sudan-savannah regions of Kano – an area plagued by erosion, loss of vegetation cover, droughts and desertification following hydro-agricultural activity. Here, they will be tackling the problem of water scarcity in animal husbandry and farming. These issues are less daunting for the scientists who revealed that successful farming techniques in Gansu helped local Chinese farmers overcome their own desertification challenges. Some of the techniques include the stabilisation of sand dunes by using nylon nets and the storage of rainwater in underground tunnels – for the ‘sandy days’ – to prevent the onset of droughts.
To this end, the team of scientists has begun to train farmers in improved farming and water conservation techniques. For example, the scientists have taught farmers how to build pillars, set up nylon nets, and then attach both to serve as a bulwark against sliding sand, thus preventing the rise of sand dunes.
In addition, a 10ha-experimental zone for desertification experiments and a climate observation station have been set up in the country. The Chinese scientists, who described the techniques as tried and tested, have assured their Nigerian counterparts that these moves will lead to increased agricultural yields. Furthermore, they have advised the Nigerian government and agricultural practitioners to invest heavily in water conservation techniques in order to minimise losses, improve yields, and expand outputs of agricultural products to make Nigerian agriculture more profitable.
The debate about China’s role in Africa has been raging for several years. As Chinese investment and involvement in the mining, construction, petroleum exploration, and service sectors of the economy intensify, many have wondered whether their presence is really a boon for Africa. Others have expressed their discontent and continue to complain about labour exploitation, poor working arrangements and the crowding out of local competitors.
Weeks ago, renowned Zambian- born economist Dambisa Moyo penned an article in the New York Times expressing her optimism about the presence of Chinese workers and businesspeople on the African continent. Giving the Chinese her vote of confidence, she said: “China’s motives for investing in Africa are actually quite pure.” In a rejoinder piece, Jolyon Ford of Oxford Analytica took issue with the article’s simplistic analysis and advised that more attention be paid to the effects of Chinese investment. Furthermore, Ford suggested that questions such as “has the quality of African growth… been improved by such investment, or has only the quantity of growth improved, on otherwise largely unchanged axes?” be raised.
Earlier this year, the minister of Agriculture, Akin Adesina, visited China to secure funding from the Chinese government and other agencies for rice production projects in Nigeria. Noting that China presents a success story and model for Nigeria through its hybrid rice technology – which was able to lift 400 million people out of poverty within ten years – Adesina said that China is key to Nigeria’s agro- transformation agenda.
While it is not clear that the water conservation project is of a highly commercial nature, these questions would be worth considering as Chinese scientists and businessmen enter the Nigerian agricultural sector. As this debate continues, what is certain is that China is here to stay. Furthermore, as China continues to emerge as a world power and one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Nigeria would do well to take a leaf out of Chinese’s book. Devoid of China’s involvement on the continent, Nigerians should be looking to China and elsewhere to see how these successful countries overcame challenges we are still tackling. Therefore, in this regard –closing knowledge gaps, adopting tried and tested practices, and emulating climate-smart techniques – China’s presence is definitely advantageous to Nigeria.
To heed Ford’s advice, the true marker of the success and legitimacy of any Chinese-led project will be its outcome, namely the impact it has on farmers, farm yields and the environment in general. Another important thing to consider is at what cost this impact is made. In a country where over 70 percent of the farmers are smallholder farmers, one must also observe how transformation projects improve or take away farmer’s ownership of land and resources and ability to progress in their profession.
All in all, water conservation, improved irrigation and farming techniques; learning arcs, capacity building and knowledge transfer; and massive investments in agriculture are welcome developments in the sector, and partnerships to drive these forward are what Nigerian agriculture needs to reach its take-off point to self-sustaining economic growth.