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Dambisa Moyo
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Dambisa Moyo

Commodity control

2013 Books Issue | Two books highlight two different approaches to Africa’s resources

Issue: "Terrific and timely," June 29, 2013

When Xi Jinping became president of China earlier this year, his first trip abroad was to visit three African countries. China, with the fastest growing economy in the world and the world’s largest population at 1.3 billion, is not surprisingly the lead buyer of the world’s resources. Also not surprisingly, writes Dambisa Moyo in Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the World (Basic), “the Chinese are on a global shopping spree.”

But why is poverty-stricken Africa its first stop? Africa is rich in minerals, metals, oil, and land. Trade between China and the African continent has grown—from $10 billion in 2000 to $90 billion in 2009—as the Chinese lay hold of Africa’s resources to better their own growing population. 

When China goes shopping, it’s not all good. What at first looks like capitalistic fervor is at the end of the day a state-run monopoly, points out Moyo. China’s three leading investors in Africa are state-owned oil companies. They’ve been accused of land grabs and backdoor deals in Africa and elsewhere, deals that benefit corrupt leaders rather than kick-start development. China’s sweetheart deals are creating an “axis of the unloved”—developing countries rich in commodities destined to remain poor in political and economic capital. 

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What’s jarring about Winner Take All is that, even as Moyo sounds a warning for the West to wake up to China’s global commodities grab, she seems to think it could be a good thing. She’s hard on Africa’s former colonial powers but doesn’t condemn China’s neocolonialist spree. 

Still, the Zambian-born economist, who also wrote the best-selling Dead Aid (2010), writes a fast-paced book with a scholar’s flair minus the pedantry. It’s a good read for experts and college students alike, for heads of NGOs and heads of church mission teams who want to understand how China is changing the African landscape.

Drilling down to where many Africans really live is the work of former Wall Street Journal reporter Roger Thurow’s The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change (Public Affairs). Thurow sees Africa as “the final food frontier,” a continent of untapped resources, but his perspective is vastly different from the resource-shopping Chinese.

Thurow takes us through a year in the life of several smallholder farmers in western Kenya. Leonida Wanyama is up at 4 a.m. most mornings to tend her family and her meager crops. She’s caught like others in a cycle of misery, eking out too little grain from poor ground, praying for rain to survive the hunger season (called “Wanjala”) before harvest, then apportioning her small harvest for her family until the next planting—from three meals a day to two then one, or only tea. So pervasive is the hunger season (stretching anywhere from one to nine months) that Thurow meets children named Wanjala because they were born during that time. 

Leonida joins with other smallholder farmers in a microfinance co-op supervised by the One Acre Fund, a nonprofit launched by Yale graduate Andrew Youn in 2006. They get better seed, learn about soil nutrients and improving yields, and develop business skills that help them utilize the bigger harvests each begins to take in. 

The year brings challenges and crises, but along the way these families learn to beat what Thurow calls one of Africa’s cruelest ironies: “Hungry farmers,” he writes, ought to be an oxymoron. By Christmas, Leonida is setting out two tables of food under a shade tree in celebration for her growing bounty and new skills.

Besides these compelling real-life stories, Thurow hits on the larger lesson. It costs five to six times more to deliver a ton of maize (corn) to Africa than to provide the continent’s smallholder farmers with seeds and fertilizer to grow an extra ton themselves: “Emergency aid won’t prevent the next famine; only agricultural development will.”

The Chinese may focus on Africa’s vast natural resources, and the United States may bank on its ability to fix famine, but Thurow captures the crucial ingredient to moving Africa from exploitation to stewardship: its human resources.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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