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A touch of class for farming

Updated: 2014-07-21 07:15
By Joseph Catanzaro and Li Fangchao ( China Daily)

Hunan firm plans agricultural education push in Cameroon

A Chinese program through which thousands of Africans have learned modern farming techniques will be expanded into Cameroon this year, the company behind the initiative says.

The education push, which is being financed by the Chinese government and run by the rice producing giant Long Ping High-Tech Agriculture, is the latest sign that the Hunan company is considering a research or commercial based venture in Cameroon.

The education program aims to bring Chinese expertise in seed growing and modern cultivation techniques to local people.

Similar programs in Zambia and Liberia have allowed Long Ping to develop and employ a skilled local workforce for commercial farming operations.

The company also provides training in Nigeria and Ethiopia, where it is testing crop suitability and market potential with smaller, research-based operations.

Feng Xiahui, president of the International Training Institute of Long Ping, says the Cameroon classes will be modeled on the successful programs in Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria and Zambia.

Since 2005, Long Ping has provided training to about 4,000 people in the four countries.

A further 1,000 Africans have traveled to China to receive training there.

Huang Dahui, chief trainer at the Longping International Training Institute, says that under the initiative in Cameroon an initial core group of 20 locals will receive instruction in modern farming, with the expectation that they will go on to teach others.

"Local agricultural authorities will find the students," he says. "They will receive training and then can teach more people later when the program is done.

"We tailor the training to suit the local natural conditions and the type of crops that are likely to grow best in those natural conditions." Cameroon is thought to be conducive to growing rice, he says.

Huang says Long Ping is in talks with the Cameroon government, which he says is keen to sound out the company's interest in investing.

Mutual interest in a possible deal was sparked three years ago when two officials from Cameroon traveled to Hunan province for training with Long Ping.

But Huang cautions that there are a number issues to work through before either side makes any decisions, and nothing is likely to go ahead without China and Cameroon being involved at a governmental level.

However, Long Ping is not playing the wait-and-see game.

The company is banking on the new training program to lay the groundwork to jump the first potential hurdle, a lack of skilled people in Cameroon, should the company invest.

"For agriculture we need a large group of trained and professional technicians," Huang says.

"We need to develop human resources at the beginning."

Feng says the educational push does not necessarily herald an immediate, commercial move into the country by Long Ping.

In Ethiopia and Nigeria, the company is still doing research on what potential may exist before it commits to any large-scale investment.

"These countries are more focused on research," Huang says. "We can then look at what works for production."

A potential move into Cameroon would probably be similarly measured in pace, he says.

Feng spells out the challenges and difficulties of agricultural investment in Africa that have Long Ping taking a cautious view on expansion.

She hints that a move into Cameroon would not come in the short term.

"Agriculture requires large investment and a long time to get profit. For us, an opportunity (to cultivate land) is more important than monetary support to develop in Africa, but it is not easy for a company to secure land. Often it requires government-to-government coordination. For the time being, we will focus our strength and resources in the four countries where we already operate."

In the past, Feng says, some African governments have reneged on deals for farming land, scuttling new ventures before they could get underway.

But despite the inherent risks and difficulties, some Chinese companies are forging ahead and betting big on agriculture in Africa.

"The company's vice-president, An Ning, says he is confident that a deal will be finalized before the end of this year which will ultimately benefit African job seekers and consumers.," Feng says.

"Our primary target will be the African market. At the moment, only one or two (African) countries can produce enough to meet their domestic demand for palm oil," he said, adding that there is no need to sell African produced palm oil back to China.

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