Can the BRICS help Africa feed itself?

One example of so-called South-South development co-operation is Brazil’s efforts to support agricultural development and food security in Africa. Brazil, a world-leading trader of a range of agricultural commodities (including beef, poultry, ethanol and soybean), has become known as a model of agricultural development. This model is characterized by strong state support, high levels of mechanisation and strong vertical integration of industry and exports.

But the country home to the ‘miracle of the Cerrado’, a region previously thought to be unproductive, is also home to a complex and often turbulent agricultural history. Beyond the better-known image of the Cerrado’s expansive and highly-mechanised soya and maize fields, there are other stories: family farms that produce the bulk of Brazil’s basic foodstuffs (including 87 percent of cassava and 70 percent of beans); landless farmers and minority communities struggling for land rights; agro-ecological alternatives to transgenic crops; the advancement of the agricultural frontier into Amazonia; and interactions and confrontations between government and society, which at times have opened up space for reform.

Those acquainted with the diversity of Brazil’s agricultural development within its territory may feel excited by the prospect of a Brazil-Africa dialogue for agricultural development and food security. But much of what has developed so far through the diplomacy-mediated channel of South-South co-operation does little justice to the country’s wealth of (positive and less positive) agricultural experiments, as the new CBAA project studies suggest.

How is Brazil interacting with African agriculture? So far, primarily through the transfer of research and technology, weighted towards a particular model of development focused on high-value export crops – such as cotton in Sudan and soya in Mozambique – and linked to global value chains. Meanwhile, Brazilian large farmers and agro-industrial corporations have been flirting with the prospect of accessing cheap land in the African savannahs for agribusiness development. A private fund has already been established to attract capital from Brazil and Japan for large-scale investments in soya and other cash crops in the Nacala corridor in northern Mozambique, a region with similar geographical features to the Brazilian Cerrado.

Yes, Brazil also has a strong narrative of family farming and food security, which, at the international level, is being discussed at the UN organizations in Rome, where Brazil presents itself as a Southern alternative.  At the level of co-operation with developing countries, however, this narrative is taking longer to filter through.

What is holding back the Brazilian Ministry of Agrarian Development’s (MDA) promised support to Zimbabwean and Ghanaian smallholder farmers? And what version of Brazil’s nuanced family sector will be carried forward by the MDA? As the Brazilian academic Arilson Favareto remarked at the Political Economy of Agricultural Policy in Africa conference on politics and African agricultural development, Brazil’s family farming sector includes not only modernised and state-supported small farmers, but also poorer farmers who remain at the margins of Brazil’s current public policy framework. Which of these categories would be the most relevant benchmark for Africa’s average smallholder and severely resource constrained farmer?

Besides the MDA, there are other actors too. Brazil’s rural social movements have already started exchanging traditional seed management practices with peasant farmers in Mozambique and South Africa. Yet, to date, the use of such alternative perspectives in development cooperation remains an isolated case.

Is the hype, then, justified? There is no doubt that the BRICS could offer alternative development solutions to help Africa feed itself. With the support they offer, the BRICS are also expanding African governments’ room for manoeuvre in negotiating the terms of cooperation partnerships.

The question remains, however, whether those in power will opt for the recipes most suited to the needs of the many. So far, it seems that, for the many, the BRICS remain little more than an image of a promised revolution.

Lídia Cabral is a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies. She is the Brazil joint co-ordinator of the ESRC-funded China and Brazil in African Agriculture project.