Equal partnership in agriculture
By Obai Khalifa  ·  2023-10-23  ·   Source: NO.43 OCTOBER 26, 2023
A Chinese expert and Nigerian farmers test new rice varieties introduced under a China-Africa cooperative project (COURTESY OF CGCOC GROUP)

It was wonderful to be back in China in June for the Third China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo (CAETE) in the city of Changsha, Hunan Province. Since its inauguration in 2019, the CAETE has become an important platform for expanding the China-Africa relationship, of which agricultural cooperation is an increasingly significant element. The scale of the activities in Changsha was testament to the scope and ambition of all those involved in China-Africa exchanges.

On the same trip, I was also able to visit several leading agricultural research institutes in Beijing that our foundation (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) has been working with to form partnerships with their African counterparts. Even as someone familiar with this field, I was struck by the seriousness of the commitment I saw among Chinese scientists to improving agricultural productivity in Africa through collaborations that seek to adapt and transfer Chinese innovations to the African context.

Just as important as innovation and technical expertise, though, is the spirit in which such collaboration is undertaken. That is why I was so encouraged to find a deep commitment to building China-Africa partnerships on a foundation of equality among the scientists and business people I met with. China viewing Africa as an equal partner is of utmost importance not simply on principle, but for the quality of outcomes from these partnerships.

So, what are the elements of this kind of equal partnership, and what does it look like in practice? I want to answer this by examining the centrality of smallholder farmers in both China and Africa, the role of private sector partnerships, and the importance of listening to the voices and expertise of the farmers themselves. All these elements are on display in a China-Africa partnership we are currently funding to boost rice production in Nigeria and Mali. It is an ambitious program that perfectly illustrates the combination of technical excellence, locally informed business engagement and mutual respect that are the essential ingredients of successful collaboration. 

Smallholder farming

Agriculture is a core component of African economies, contributing over 17 percent of GDP for more than half of the continent's countries, compared to a global average of just over 4 percent. Agriculture accounts for an estimated 60 percent of the African workforce, and 80 percent of these farmers are smallholders. These farmers face considerable challenges in accessing resources, with limited financial options blocking their access to transformational technologies that would allow them to benefit from breakthroughs in agricultural science. This results in crop and livestock yields often far lower than their counterparts in other developing countries. These entrenched issues are further exacerbated for many by climate change, economic downturn, conflict and political instability.

For all their obvious differences in climate and geography, China and Africa's agricultural sectors share a key characteristic in the centrality of smallholding. China's 2019 agricultural census, the latest census so far, revealed that smallholder farmers account for 90 percent of the agricultural workforce and cultivate over 70 percent of arable land in the country. The agricultural transformation that this smallholder-driven sector has wrought over the last 40 years has been central to China's wider economic growth, feeding 20 percent of the world's population with just 8 percent of its arable land and laying the foundation for more than 700 million people having been lifted out of absolute poverty.

It is hardly surprising, then, that Africa is keen to learn from China's experience over these recent decades. The abovementioned rice growing collaboration in Nigeria and Mali is the latest project under this long-term partnership between our foundation and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), which began in 2008. Under the project, we are supporting CAAS's collaboration with the Nigerian Cereal Research Center with the goal of developing and bringing to market new breeds of rice suitable for the challenges faced by smallholder farmers in these two countries.

These strains need to be resistant to blast disease—the most serious disease affecting rice crops globally—and able to stand stresses made increasingly common by climate change, including drought, flooding and high salinity levels. The project started with an evaluation of China's "Green Super Rice" variety in Nigeria, and using the lessons drawn from trials of this and other varieties, applied advanced molecular-level breeding techniques to enhance the resistance of Nigeria's two most common rice varieties. These two varieties were then grown at four demonstration sites during the 2022 dry season, where they recorded yields averaging 30 percent and 50 percent higher than the popular local varieties.

The CAAS also collaborates with the International Rice Research Institute and research organization Africa Rice, and as of 2019 these partnerships had generated 78 climate-resilient and disease-resistant, high-yield rice varieties benefitting over 1.6 million households across 18 African and Asian countries. This research has also given rise to the development of water-saving and drought-resistant rice varieties which have been successfully demonstrated in many provinces of China, illustrating how the benefits of international collaboration flow in both directions. 

Private sector partnerships

Achieving a scientific breakthrough like this is only half of the struggle to address a real-world problem. The next stage comes in integrating this innovation into a functioning seed system that can ensure the new rice breeds reach the farmers they are intended for—and that requires the market to do its work.

Attracting the necessary investment to agriculture in Africa has often been an uphill struggle. Heavy upfront inputs, high climate-induced risks, and the long payback cycles of agricultural investments have long hampered efforts to direct much-needed resources to the sector. This is why our foundation takes a holistic approach, working with the private sector alongside government and scientific partners.

In Nigeria, we have been working with locally engaged Chinese companies that have entered cooperation agreements with six regional seed distributors, covering pesticides, agricultural machinery and solar-powered pumps, in addition to the seeds themselves. The breadth of this approach, along with additional training and forums organized by the companies, ensures that farmers acquire the knowledge and equipment to exploit these scientific advances to their full potential, as well as having access to the seeds. Meanwhile, the companies work to promote the product, particularly to Sino-Nigerian food and hospitality businesses, with over 225 tons sold and processed to date. Market engagement like this, in which companies are naturally the experts, is vital in ensuring ongoing demand for the produce of the smallholder farmers who will switch to growing these new varieties.

Farmers' voices count

The worst thing a program like ours can do is start considering ourselves the "experts" and forget to listen to the farmers who have the lived experience of facing and overcoming challenges, often through great creativity, adaptability and resilience. This mindset is embedded from the top down in our organization.

To win the trust of farmers for new agricultural innovations, whether tools, seeds or farming techniques, there is no substitute for face-to-face contact and "getting your hands dirty" on the ground. One example I learned from our Chinese partners is their unsuccessful attempt to persuade local farmers to replace the widely adopted seed broadcasting method with the Chinese rice seedling technique in some of their demonstration sites in Nigeria.

After consulting local farmers, they realized that despite its effectiveness in increasing yields, the Chinese rice seedling technique was too complex for short-term adoption. They worked with locals to co-develop a direct seeding method that reduces labor, conserves resources, shortens growth periods, and enhances weed resistance compared to broadcasting.

While yields are still lower than rice seedling preparation, they show a significant improvement over broadcasting. The ease of this approach has encouraged more farmers to cultivate rice and adopt new seed varieties, expanding local production and boosting community income.

Looking to the future

The worsening impact of climate change and ongoing regional conflicts are exacerbating global food insecurity, particularly in African nations. Only by working together can we address this challenge.

Looking ahead, the Second Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Agriculture, scheduled for November this year in China's Hainan Province, and the 2024 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Summit will bring more momentum for China-Africa agricultural cooperation through bilateral and multilateral channels.

It is our foundation's privilege to play its part in enabling this through transformative projects like the one in Nigeria and Mali. The spirit of equal partnership that we have witnessed in this cooperation will continue to ensure that scientists, innovators and business leaders from both sides work together to benefit smallholder farmers across Africa in the years to come.

The author is deputy director for agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This is an edited version of an article originally published on

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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