Default Eating Bitter to Taste Sweet: An Ethnographic Sketch of a Chinese Agriculture Project in Senegal Popular

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By Lila Buckley

This is a case study of Chinese agriculture interventions in Senegal. As Chinese land-based investments multiply across the African continent, I focus on a single government-run agriculture demonstration centre outside Dakar to provide insight into the daily realities of Chinese and African interactions on African land. Using an actor-oriented analysis approach, I apply ethnographic methodologies to examine practices and discourses on agrarian change and management among Chinese and Senegalese informants. I show how differences in conceptualisation of Senegal’s agriculture produce unanticipated project outcomes as individual social actors select management actions from distinct repertoires of skills, ideologies, technical understandings, social connections and philosophies. This discussion reveals that while these processes may often be understood to occur on a battlefield, managing agrarian change is as much an improvisational dance as it is a battle, and that actors’ improvisations can sometimes lead to meaningful cooperation off-stage. Though this is not an example of a transnational commercially-driven ‘land grab’, I argue that understanding Chinese and African interactions in this agriculture intervention provides crucial insights into the relationship between corporate Chinese strategies in Africa and impacts on the ground. These findings thus contribute to a new framework of analysis and research methodologies for future studies of land deals in Africa.