African agriculture exports to China have recorded a remarkable jump since 2018, when China began lifting barriers on imports of selected African commodities, including sesame, chilli, avocados, cashew nuts and apples.
In just the first two months of this year (2023), Shanghai's Waigaoqiao Port witnessed a sharp uptick in African sesame imports – totalling 1,845 tonnes, a 4.3-fold increase compared to the same period in the previous year. Currently, China represents the foremost market for African sesame, offering tariff-free incentives for seeds imported from a majority of African countries. With Africa being one of the world's largest sesame producers, imports during this period primarily came from Mali, Togo, Mozambique, Niger, and Tanzania. African sesame imports mainly cater to the extraction of edible oil, meeting the rising demand for sesame oil products in China.
African cashew imports to China have similarly surged in recent years. Before the pandemic, in 2019, China imported US$1.4m worth of shelled cashew nuts from Africa – a figure that soared to $10.7m by 2022. In-shell cashew imports also grew from US$5.5m to US$10.8m in the same timeframe. Leading cashew producers in Africa include Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Guinea Bissau, Benin, and Tanzania. A recent International Trade Centre (ITC) report underscores the potential for increased cashew exports from Mozambique to China, despite the country's geographic disadvantage compared to some Asian exporters. Renowned for their high quality, Mozambican cashews present an unrealised Chinese export potential of US$2.6m annually for both shelled and unshelled nuts. The ITC report also highlights possible opportunities for exporting value-added cashew products to China.
Last year, Kenya began exporting fresh avocados to China, following a 2019 decision permitting the import of frozen ones. In 2022, the country sent more than US$50m worth of both fresh and frozen avocados to the Chinese market. As the fruit gains popularity among China's health-conscious middle class, the Avocado Society of Kenya expects exports to double in 2023. In November 2022, Tanzania joined Kenya as the second African nation approved to export fresh avocados to China. Meanwhile, South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are reportedly also seeking access to this growing market.
China began importing dried chilli peppers from Africa in 2021, with Rwanda becoming the first authorised exporter. In 2022, China's imports of chillies and other peppers from Africa reached US$308,000, a modest sum accounting for under 1% of the nation's total imports in this category. To facilitate trade, Rwanda and China signed a protocol in 2021, detailing inspection and quarantine procedures for dried chili pepper shipments.
African fresh apple exports have also climbed in recent years, from US$4.1m in 2018 to US$21.8m in 2022. Last year, South Africa exported a record amount of apples to China. The Chinese market also holds potential for apple exports out of Africa. South African producers who have traditionally exported apples to Europe have taken stock and are shifting their attention to China and South East Asia, including Singapore, where it is South African oranges, apples and pears vie for space on the supermarket shelves alongside those from New Zealand and Australia.
China is the second-largest global destination for Africa's agricultural exports but strict quarantine rules, testing and cold-chain requirements have skewed that trade in favour of the former. In 2022, Africa had a US$600m trade deficit in agricultural products with China. Exports of agricultural products to China have nonetheless grown very fast, from US$59m in 2001 to US$3.1bn in 2020. What Africa sells to China is significantly different from what it sells to the rest of the world. In 2020, food, beverages and tobacco accounted for 39% of African agricultural exports to the world, but for only 13% of exports to China. Vegetable products accounted for 43% of Africa’s exports to the world, but for 65% of exports to China. This is mainly due to differences in demand between the Chinese market and the global market. In 2005, China implemented a zero-tariff policy on selected African products. This has resulted in the steady increase of exports of those commodities. Changes in Chinese consumer behaviour has also created new market for African agriculture producers. For example, 20 years ago, they did not consumer much coffee or nuts. But as tastes change households in China have started to consume these commodities too expanding the market for African producers.
Strict quarantine rules, testing and cold-chain requirements are other non-tariff barriers imposed by Beijing on agriculture imports from Africa, however, means that the continent still does not have a large share of the Chinese market. At the eighth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2021 Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to remove some of those hurdles. It is starting with the establishment "green lanes" for African agricultural exports, accelerate inspection and quarantine procedures, and expand the range of products receiving zero-tariff treatment. Last year, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that since the 2018 FOCAC summit in Beijing, China has given market access to 25 kinds of food and agricultural products from 14 African countries. The steady opening of the large Chinese market for African commodities is not only a welcome development for African agriculture producers but also the tightly knit community of Asian commodity traders (many based in Singapore) who facilitate this trade.
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