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Center's challenge of going it alone

Updated: 2014-02-14 09:57
By Yao Jing ( China Daily Africa)

Center's challenge of going it alone

Chinese and Mozambique employees harvest rice in Mozambique. Provided to China Daily

Mozambique's growth figures point to economic prowess, but the rice fields tell another story, and China is pitching in to help solve some basic problems

Tending pigs, a garden and a rice paddy, you would think Liu Housheng has enough to worry about. But on top of all that, he is preoccupied with a grand project: creating an agricultural demonstration center near Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, that can pay its own way.

Liu's concerns are all the more acute because the center, a Chinese government foreign aid project, is about to enter a crucial phase.

"From April, a seven-year commercial partnership will start," says Liu, director of the China-Mozambique Agricultural Demonstration Center. "It will need to become self-sustaining because Chinese government financial support may be about to end."

Liu, whose tan is a dead giveaway that he is a man of the land, works for Hubei Farm, a provincial agricultural affairs administrative department.

The demonstration center, covering 50 hectares 23 kilometers southwest of Maputo, was set up at a cost of 40 million yuan ($6.5 million), and was delivered to the Mozambique government in July 2011.

The 5 million yuan a year that the Chinese government spends on it is aimed at improving Mozambique's agricultural research and development and training.

The challenges that Liu and Mozambique face are epitomized by its problems with rice: it cannot produce enough of it. But that seems to be changing. Agriculture Minister Jose Pacheco says the country consumes an average of about 600,000 metric tons of rice a year, and in a drive to increase output over the past two years, production rose by 100,000 tons.

"We have reduced the rice deficit from 300,000 tons to 200,000 tons," Mozambican media quoted Pacheco as saying, and he now predicts the country may be able to meet the entire domestic demand in four or five years.

The push to increase production is not limited to rice. With eliminating hunger as a top priority, the country's President, Armando Guebuza, last year urged all those in agriculture to help the country achieve its annual goal of increasing production by 9.1 percent for the year.

Among those who have put their shoulder to the wheel in that campaign is Prime Minister Alberto Vaquina, who sees China playing a role, too.

"The key point for Mozambique's cooperation with China is that we hope to attract more investment," Vaquina says.

Mozambique, with its ample land, is ready for a boom in agriculture and animal husbandry, Vaquina says, "but we are proceeding a bit slowly in those two areas".

He sees China as having a broad role to play, not only in agriculture, but in increased government and business relationships between the two countries.

Two-way trade between China and Mozambique totaled $1.19 billion in the first nine months of last year, up 21.9 percent from the same period in 2012.

China's outward direct investment in non-financial sectors in the country amounted to $340 million by the end of 2012. Private companies played a significant role, with investment in mineral resource exploitation and agriculture, China's Ministry of Commerce says.

At first blush Mozambique's economic credentials, including GDP growing more than 7 percent a year in recent years, seem stellar, but are a little less so when you consider its problems with agriculture and that more than half of the government budget relies on foreign aid.

The China-Mozambique Agricultural Demonstration Center is part of Beijing's efforts to help Mozambique and other African countries with what it calls public-spirited foreign aid. There are now 10 such centers in various African countries. But as warmly welcomed as the centers may be by their recipients, it is still unclear how they can be used to operate effectively and profitably in the market place.

One of the jobs for the agricultural expert, Liu, is to select and transport rice, corn and cotton seeds from China to Mozambique and cultivate them in experimental plots.

"The soil is very rich here," he says. "We don't need any pesticides or many cultivation techniques, and we produce 1.9 tons of rice a hectare."

With corn, local producers usually produce about 400 kilograms a hectare, and Liu says he has succeeded in producing more than 600 kg on equivalent land.

"We hope we can solve the country's deficit in rice and corn through industrial development of grain, and at the same time help them improve food safety."

In addition to expanding research and development, the center is promoting a training program to expand the range of aid around the country.

In a training room in one building, 16 agricultural technicians are attending classes, and are about to be joined by 14 others for training that lasts a month, Liu says. Because of poor transport, getting from the country's north to Maputo in the south can be long and arduous.

"We organize more than 10 training sessions a year, and those who attend are agricultural officials, technicians and farmers," Liu says.

However, none of that can be done cheaply, and Liu is trying to figure out how to put the center on a sustainable financial footing.

It has introduced several Chinese companies to the country, and they are using it as a platform to create new businesses.

"These companies use the center's seeds, techniques and technology, which are based on our research in Mozambique," Liu says.

One such company is Xiangyang Wanbao Grains & Oils Co, which says it plans to invest $95 million (70 million euros) in Mozambique to build a food production and processing base covering 670 hectares. The company says it has invested 90 million yuan ($14.8 million; 10.9 million euros) and grown 66 hectares of rice in Saisai city, Gazza province.

In terms of commercial crops, the center is working with Wellhope Agri-Tech Co Ltd of Liaoning province and plans to focus on cotton growing and sugar cane plants.

"We hope to further drive the development of grain, vegetable growing, livestock and agricultural products processing as well as training," Liu says.

"We cannot depend on the Chinese government's help forever and must promote agricultural marketing."

Beijing's foreign aid projects are often portrayed negatively in the Western media, being seen as a "land grab" by China.

"The Mozambique government is asking for our agricultural aid," says Wang Lipei, commercial counselor of the Chinese embassy in Mozambique. "They are offering us the land, but do not provide any funding support.

"We are confident about improving the agricultural situation significantly. We have not come across any instance of local people suspecting any hostility from us."

Whatever anyone thinks, China is putting the grain problem, which is the basic and most urgent need for Mozambique, in the spotlight, Wang says.


( China Daily Africa Weekly 02/14/2014 page21)

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