China’s Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centers: Do They Help Africa’s Food Security Needs?

 In analysis, infographic

As COVID-19 spreads across the African continent, an African Union report has suggested that the outbreak could lead to a serious food security crisis in Africa, with as estimated 2.6% to 7% decline in agricultural production predicted for 2020. The FAO Director-General QU Dongyu has also issued a warning noting “quick, strategic action is needed to lessen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security in Africa.”

 All this talk of food security has sparked debate in the Development Reimagined office- what is the best way to increase domestic agricultural production and food security across Africa? What about Chinese Agricultural Demonstration Centers (ATDCs) – do they have a role to play?

To date a number of academic studies have dived into country case studies and we’ve seen interesting articles on how individual ATDCs are operating (in Mozambique and in Malawi) but we wanted to know if this model was working continent wide and if in reality it can support food security?

So, what exactly are ATDCs?

ATDCs are agricultural centers set up by Chinese companies and institutions to transfer Chinese technology and new methods of production through demonstrations and trainings, ultimately aiming to increase agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa and thus in theory reduce food insecurity and poverty.

Why has China built these centers? Well currently, China feeds 20% of the world’s population with only 9% of the world’s arable land and a whopping 98% is made up of smallholder farms less than 2 hectares in size. The Chinese government achieved this by – alongside investing in manufacturing and both urban and rural infrastructure for economic growth – also prioritising research into agro-technology and invested significant amounts in support measures for smallholder farmers, such as packages of modern inputs including irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides and improved seeds. China wanted to support agriculture in other developing countries, and therefore at the 2006 FOCAC conference, the Chinese government pledged increased investment in Africa’s agricultural infrastructure, food security, and agricultural manufacturing sectors.

 Fast forward to 2020, and at least 32 Chinese organisations (compromising 23 companies and nine educational institutions) have been operating in 24 African countries, who also typically depend on smallholder farming, just like China However, all but 7 of these countries are classified by the UN as Least Developed Nations. The interactive map below shows the distribution of these ATDCs across the continent, with particular presence in Central and Eastern Africa. Clicking on each highlighted country will provide more information.

Our analysis also shows the type of agriculture varies greatly across the continent. The majority focus on grains, vegetables, and/or livestock. Some ATDCs cover a wide variety of agriculture, such as in Mozambique, the first Chinese ATDC in Africa, while others are more focused – e.g. the ATDC in South Africa is focused on aquaculture alone.

ATDCs are typically operated by the Chinese government and Chinese private sector together – in a private public partnership or a commercial-aid model – to ensure that the project is sustainable. In practical terms, this means the Chinese government gets approval from a host country to create the project (which usually means that the host country provides land for the project but keeps the land and any buildings built on it for the project as “state assets”). Then, the Chinese government puts out a tender for Chinese-Agro companies to bid for the project, with an understanding that it will fund the contractor to manage the project for the first 4-5 years, with on average, 40 million RMB or $660,000, and then hand-over responsibility to the company completely. During the 4-5 years, this means the Chinese agro-company in charge of the ATDC, must develop ways to become financially self-sustainable. This can – but does not always – require finding a local partner to work with once the project is complete.

Like some other areas of China’s international cooperation, organisations from one particular province tend to be associated with one specific African country or ATDC. As the maps below show, organisations from 20 provinces – that’s over 60% of China’s provinces, operate in ATDCs in Africa. So far, we have not found any cases of an ATDC in one country operated by organisations from several Chinese provinces.

 All this sounds fairly sensible, and similar to many other donors who are now increasingly preferring to use their private sector contractors to deliver aid projects, rather than local partners or even non-governmental organisations (NGOs). China may be ahead of the donor curve in this respect (though this is not necessarily a practice evidence recommends – see further below).

 But with around 14 years since ATDCs were first announced, how successful have they actually been? This was the burning question we wanted to understand.

 To get to the bottom of this question was challenging. So far, we have not found a comprehensive database of the outputs and results from ATDCs. Unlike traditional ‘aid’ projects, little data exists on the outputs of ATDCs, and there are not, to our knowledge, published consistent or standard monitoring and evaluation (M&E) criteria or methods in place. However, we do know that there are internal cross-country evaluations that have been conducted by China’s Ministry of Agriculture. But it is unclear whether they have consistent, impartial and quantitative M&E assessments (that we always aim to provide as a development consultancy), or are more qualitative and subjective.

However, case studies have suggested that, generally speaking, many ATDCs were able to train and transfer knowledge of more productive agricultural methods to a large number of smallholder farmers. Some training centres also held higher-level training sessions on, for example, rice breeding techniques and field management skills for technicians and managerial methods for agricultural officials, as well as internship or study opportunities for college students.

One reliable – albeit blunt – means to assess the success of ATDCs is to analyse what stage they have reached in the process of development. ATDCs that have developed beyond negotiation, feasibility, and construction, should in principle have been “transferred” to the host country.

Once this happens, they can be categorised as in one of two stages: 1, “Technical Cooperation”, a period of time in which the four aspects of agro-technology research, demonstration and extension, training, and display begin, and the centre is primarily funded by the Chinese government, and 2, “Business/Commercial Operation”, by which point an ATDC is expected to be able to establish a market-oriented, integrated agribusiness value chain, and fund itself through commercial operations.

As shown below, based on DR research*, around 22% of ATDCs have not yet been transferred to host countries, and of those that have been transferred, another 14% are not yet commercially operating. That’s an overall success rate of approximately 67%. Indeed, some ATDCs have failed. For instance, in Mali, the ATDC stopped operating completely, and the ATDC in the Central African Republic (CAR) was also temporarily suspended from operations. Our assumption (although evidence is unclear) is that both were shut due to rising in-country conflict. However, when projects are successful, they seem to be maintaining well. At least 11 of those in commercial operation have been so for five or more years, suggesting some degree of success in terms of ATDCs’ sustainability, though we do need more impartial data to conclude more.

What have been the drivers of success or failure of ATDCs?

 We’ve seen from the above that the success of the ATDCs varies enormously but why?

First, recent case-study based research has suggested that the commercial element of the model often constrains ATDCs because decisions and activities become profit-driven rather than need-driven. For example, ATDCs often promote agricultural tools made by the agro-company that the smallholder African farmers cannot afford or crop varieties that do not appeal to local people’s taste. Commercial drivers also mean that Chinese ATDC staff have less time to focus on the aid element of the project, as they are highly accountable to their agro-company in China but are less accountable to the host country’s needs.

Second, there are many local factors that prevent the benefits of the ATDC project from becoming scalable and are often not considered by Chinese ATDC staff. For example, although farmers were generally able to produce bigger yields after trainings, the farmers still found it difficult to access the market in order to increase the profits they need to purchase Chinese-made agro-technology. The host country’s limited ability to support smallholder farmers with subsidies and favorable policies, such as easing the process it takes to license new seed varieties, also prevented farmers from adopting new methods and technology in the long-run. The lack of clarity surrounding the roles of stakeholders also meant that the participation of locals is limited, which makes it difficult for the Chinese agro-company to truly handover the ATDC to the host country.

So, what do the team at Development Reimagined think about ATDCs, and can they support food security?

The jury is still out. Although our infographics show the potential ATDCs have in regards to supporting growth in the agriculture sector, challenges with implementation are hindering the effectiveness of ATDCs.

What do we suggest?

Based on our experience as development experts from all around the world, we have two major initial suggestions for improvement of this model (although we would need a great deal more time and data to be able to explore this as fully as we would like to!).

First, there appears to be a problem with what development experts call the “Theory of Change” (TOC) of the project – as in how the initial project designers of ATDCs envision the result. To date, most agriculture-related programmes across Africa – whether funded by China or others – support farmers directly, like the ATDCs do. The TOC is that with better inputs (e.g. of seed, machinery, etc), farmers will increase yields and incomes. However, a challenge to this TOC is that these sorts of direct programmes do not necessarily change the return to agriculture that farmers expect. In reality, farmers do not always feel the direct and sustained benefits of the increased yields, and so their ambition falls away. This has been demonstrated by the weak outputs from many of the ATDCs, and indeed, weak outcomes of the great majority of agriculture-based projects in Africa and beyond.

At Development Reimagined we have a different TOC. Our TOC is that designing an agriculture project to increase the “value added” of agriculture (e.g. to build chocolate factories and brands rather than cocoa farms) will not only create jobs, but also create sustainable incentives for farmers to increase their productivity further down the supply chain. Such investment at the “top” of the supply chain will raise both the incomes and the ambition of African farmers, and will therefore deliver more sustained results than direct projects.  We hope Chinese aid institutions (and others) can start to think about these alternative models in Africa, and experiment with them in places where ATDCs have failed.

Second, there seem to be problems of local ownership. Again, this is not unique to Chinese agriculture projects – many other donors create similar problems with the aid they design. There is no development-related reason why, for instance, a local African and Chinese agro-company could not, right from the very start, co-bid to run the project, rather than the Chinese agro-company doing so on its own. This would also incentivise the Chinese agro companies to do more research prior to bidding for these projects to ensure they really can deliver the results. It would also strengthen the input from the African-side, so that any challenges can be addressed much earlier in projects rather than at “handover” stage.

As COVID-19 brings concerns about food security back into the limelight we hope China and other key players in agriculture, will think innovatively about their agricultural aid and commercial projects around the continent to drive sustainability and growth.


*All infographics in this document were produced by the Development Reimagined Team using secondary data available online.

This article was produced by the Development Reimagined Team in Beijing. Special thanks go to Leah Lynch, Peter Grinsted, Rosie Wigmore and Wang Yu.

Published on The China Africa Project Website on May 8 2020 


References and Resources:

Goedde, L., Ooko-Ombaka, A. and Pais, G. (2019). Winning in Africa’s Agricultrual Market. New York: McKinsey & Company, pp.1-13. Available at:

Jiang, L. (2016), Beyond ODA: Chinese Way of Development Cooperation with Africa – The Case of Agriculture. Thesis published by the London School of Economics and Political Science. Available at:

Jiang, L. and Alden, C. (2019). Chinese Agricultural Demonstration Centres in Southern Africa: The New Business of Development. Research Gate, [online], pp.1-32. doi:

Kuo, L., November 17, 2016. China is on a mission to modernize African farming – and find new markets for its own companies. [online] Quartz Africa. Available at:

Mgendi, G., Shiping, Mao and Xiang, C. (2019). A Review of Agricultural Technology Transfer in Africa: Lessons from Japan and China Case Projects in Tanzania and Kenya. Sustainability. [online] Volume 11(23), pp.1-19. Doi:

Nalwimba, N., Qi, G. and Mudimu, G. T. (2019). Towards an Understanding of Chinese Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centre(s) in Africa. European Journal of Social Sciences Studies, [online] Volume 4(2), pp.148-158. doi: 10.5281/zenodo.2858007

Rapsomanikis, G. (2015). The Economic  Lives of Smallholder Farmers. Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, pp.1-48. Available at:

Xu, X., et al (2016). Science, Technology and the Politics of Knowledge: The Case of China’s Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centers in Africa. World Development. [online] Volume 81, pp.82-91. doi:

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Research Analyst

Edmond is a research analyst who is passionate about sustainable development, innovation, and the environment. Passionate about climate financing, he firmly believe there is a more reliable system to promote equality, growth, and welfare in societies without affecting the ecosystem. Through his skills, knowledge and experienced gained over 7 years, he wants to make an impact in the world of development. Edmond holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Korea Development Institute and a BA Degree (Honors) in Business from University of Derby.


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Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.


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Leah Lynch is Deputy Director of Development Reimagined (DR), and head of the China office. Leah has over 10 years of experience in development and has lived in China for over 8 years. Leah has also travelled extensively around Asia and Africa for research. Leah supports the strategic direction of the team across China, with a mission to deliver high quality research on sustainable development and poverty reduction. Leah is also Chair of the Sustainability Forum at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, providing direction on sustainability initiatives for British and Chinese business. Leah has also consulted on various evaluations on UK aid (ICAI) and is a specialist on development cooperation from the UK and China. Leah has also consulted on various UN projects, including providing support to the UN China team during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prior to DR, Leah was at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, supporting the UN’s portfolio on communication strategies, China’s South- South Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Before UNDP, Leah lived and worked in Kenya developing sustainable water policies for the Kenyan government.


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Yike Fu is a Policy Analyst and has been responsible for leading numerous areas of work, including on debt analysis in Africa and beyond, and China-Africa trade and investment logistics and analysis. She is the co-author of “African Debt Guide”, in which she challenged the narrative that Africa is in the midst of a new debt crisis by analysing data back to the 1970s and adopting new metrics to present the real story behind the data. She also developed a benchmark to compare the financial distribution of development partners such as the UK, US, Japan, France and China in Africa. Prior to her role at DR she worked at the International Finance Corporation and African Union Representational Mission to the US. She holds a Masters in International Affairs from George Washington University.


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Judith is a Research and Policy Analyst, where she specialises in Africa-China relations, international development, and diplomacy. During her time at Development Reimagined, Judith has co-authored several articles published in The Diplomat on debt and China-Barbados relations and was quoted by China Daily in a piece on Women Rights in China. Previously, Judith worked as a research analyst for an Advocate and Commissioner and Oats office in Kenya.


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Ovigwe specialises in geopolitics with particular reference to Africa in a changing Global Order. He is adept at critically analysing the politics of contemporary development processes and providing insight into the geopolitical interests that influence them. His work includes research, publications, tailored briefings and advising on global and regional trends, and issues at the nexus of geopolitics and development. Ovigwe appears frequently in media around the world such as Al Jazeera, TRT World, SABC, CGTN, BBC Radio, and other platforms.


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Jing leads China-African health and agriculture cooperation research at Development Reimagined, having managed our FOCAC Policy Analysis and Advocacy project. She is also the co-author of “China-Africa Health Cooperation under FOCAC Umbrella”, in which she analysed China’s commitments around health cooperation since the first FOCAC summit and deepdived into four African countries’ health overview, challenges and cooperation with China as cases studies. Before DR, Jing worked at GIZ Cambodia on M&E of a disability advocacy project. She also worked as a translator with Chinese medical team in Benin.


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Patrick is an International Trade Policy and Trade Law Expert with over 5 years of experience. His expertise includes trade law, trade policy analysis and regional integration. He is currently engaged with Development Reimagined as a Senior Trade Analyst and was the lead author of Development Reimagined's recent Report on Africa-China Relations titled "From China-Africa to Africa- China: A Blue Print for a Green and Inclusive Continent-Wide Strategy Towards China." and “Reimaging FOCAC Going Forward.” Patrick has previously consulted for the East African Community, UNECA and for the Kenya Ministry of Trade.


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Jade is a Project Manager for Development Reimagined’s flagship project Africa Unconstrained, which focuses on financing needs and debt vulnerabilities of African countries. Her research focuses on China-Africa development finance alongside debt vulnerabilities, infrastructure needs and South-South cooperation. She has worked with a breadth of stakeholders from China, Africa and the wider international community, including governments, private sector, NGOs and civil society. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Africa Report, The China-Africa Project, The Diplomat and more. Jade holds a Master’s in China and Globalisation studies from King’s College London.


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Rosie is also alumni of the School of International Studies at Peking University in Beijing where she is also an editor at the Peking Africa Think Tank. PATT is led by a diverse group of scholars who specialise in African Studies within the context of Sino-Africa relations.



Lauren has lived in six countries from the Americas to Europe and Asia and speaks both French and Spanish proficiently. At Development Reimagined, Lauren’s research focuses on climate action both in the Asia-Pacific and in Africa, and how countries are using tools such as SDGs and Covid-19 action to build a more climate-resilient future. She holds a Masters in International Relations from Leiden University.



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Founder and CEO

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.