What happened to the secret 2018 Chinese rice growing project in Mpumalanga?

Global food price crisis of 2008 had a lasting impact on rice as a staple

The food price crisis in 2008 made the world more aware of constraints in the global food system. In 2998 grain commodities were in short supply and rice exports from rice producing countries were stopped. Food prices skyrocketed.  People went hungry.  Some saw growing improved rice varieties on a vast scale as a solution to global hunger, especially for a future human population of 9 billion.

In sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, rice production is constantly under the pressure and there is a need to produce varieties for challenging African rice growing situations. Plant breeding is key for adapting cropping systems to climate change and other extreme crop growing conditions.  There are also now very sophisticated molecular plant breeding methods that can lead to new cultivars in a very short time, and local African expertise does not always exist to use these methods. Molecular breeding expertise is what the Chinese Green Super Rice programme has been able to offer the world  to develop ‘super varieties’.

Chinese Green Super Rice (GSR) programme goes super-nova

Chinese scientists from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have developed a suite of 55 superior new rice cultivars, collectively referred to as Super Green Rice (SGR).  This technically advanced research led by Chinese scientists with a global network of collaborators networked through the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) led by CGIAR.  CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food security.  The genetic work to develop Green Super Rice varieties was originally published in the science journal, Nature, in 2018. 

Green Super Rice (GSR) can produce high and stable yield with fewer inputs like water, fertilizers, and pesticides. These varieties have the tolerance to different abiotic stresses such as drought, floods, salinity, and other stresses.

Chinese field scientist from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) assessing Green Super Rice varieties.  http://news.irri.org/2019/04/green-super-rice-varieties-are-boosting.html


To create new rice varieties, the genetic variation of thousands of Asian cultivated rice genomes from the 3000 Rice Genomes Project collection was analysed. These rice genetic accessions are in the public domain, so anyone can use them for research.  As of March 2018, 75 new GSR varieties had been developed from this genetic library, each for a slightly different set of characteristics and responses to growing conditions.  Around fifteen new Super Green Rice varieties became available in 2018 for testing by smallholder farmers in seven Africa countries, including South Africa and in eight Asian countries including China.   Although South Africa is mentioned, there does not seem to be any reliable information on the testing of any new GSR in South Africa.

A seemingly secret $19 million (ZAR300 million) Chinese project to grow rice in Mpumalanga was uncovered in 2018 by local people and political parties. There is almost no information about this project, only intrigue.

Is a $ 19 million Chinese project planning to grow Chinese Green Super Rice in South Africa?

Articles in 2018 by City Press, BusinessTech and fin24 mentined irregularities surrounding the Chinese rice project and its massive $19 million budget.  A key aspect of the reporting was a fight over two parcels of tribal land awarded illegally to Chinese companies by the Thaba Chweu local municipality to grow rice and build a power station in Mpumalanga, and that this row could derail the projects.  Apparently a 50 year lease was issued for the land by the Thaba Chweu local municipality in Mpumalanga.

Local people reacted with anger at the lack of transparency in the way the project was being conducted and the way that ‘their land’ was being ‘given’ to foreigners. The localities of the project were cited as both Bushbuckridge and the Thaba Chweu local municipality, both in Mpumalanga province in South Africa. 

List of municipalities in Mpumalanga province, South Africa. Wikipedia. Thaba Chweu  and Bushbuckridge Local Municipalities are part of the Ehlanzeni District Municipality according to South Africa’s municipal system.

Fin24 states that Africa Sino Project, apparently running the rice aspect of the Chinese investment, planned to bring its own rice experts to the country and transfer skills to local communities. That is, whether locals want these skills or not.  It seems like no consultation was undertaken in advance of project activities starting up.

One of the press reports mentions that the project will “deploy new rice cultivars able to grow with less water and can grow under normal irrigated conditions rather than in wetlands or rice paddies”. These cultivars must surely be the new Chinese Super Green Rice cultivars. 

Rice has never been produced commercially in South Africa, although early research indicated that some very small areas might be suitable. But with Green Super Rice, this could change.  And any new agricultural development with the new Chinese Super Rice varieties that helped South Africa’s small-scale farmers grow more crops would be a good thing.  So, why the secrecy?  Why is this investment not being hailed as a major breakthrough in Chinese-South African agricultural relations in Mpumalanga? 

Is it the $19 million (ZAR300 million) Chinese investment that clouds the details of the project? 

Mpumalanga province bedevilled by corruption

The Mpumalanga province is bedevilled by corruption and financial mismanagement, with the Thaba Chweu local municipality deeply involved in maladministration, as revealed by a 2018 forensic financial report. Thaba Chweu  is deeply in debt and struggling to pay off a R400 million loan to Eskom, South Africa’s power utility. Consequently the municipality is engulfed in service delivery failures and violent protests and also received a qualified Auditor-General report for the past eight years.

It sounds risky to be dangling $19 million (ZAR 300 million) investment in front ofa reputation of financial mismanagement.  

Growing Chinese rice in South Africa a ruse?

The Thaba Chweu Chinese rice growing project does not show up in official Mpumalanga agricultural planning documents. The Mpumalanga State Of Readiness For The Planting Season 2017/2018 Report to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and its Parliamentary Committee does not mention  any rice planting activities although their reporting period overlaps the time that the Chinese Mpumalanga rice project appears in the online media in South Africa.

Two formal Agricultural Research Council (ARC)  annual reports (2016/2017 and 2018/2019) also do not mention any form of rice planting, nor Green Super Rice nor any Chinese agricultural investment in new rice cultivation. The ARC is South Africa’s national agricultural research agency.  They would surely be trumpeting any breakthrough in a legitimate Chinese-South African agricultural partnership.

If this was a legitimate investment deal, surely this would form a long progression of leading article in the media. The fact that the deal is not more widely celebrated implies that protocols have been bypassed in some way.

Or that the project has collapsed. There is no more press reporting after May 2018.

Although the  Thaba Chweu local municipality is mentioned as the locality of the ‘investment’ and municipal land is being handed over to the investors, this is could have been private deal between Chinese business interests, the Thaba Chweu municipality and unknown business persons.  

The production of rice for local consumption and export faces a very real snag in that rice needs a number of processing steps depending on how it will be used, including the par-boiling process.  Bulk rice also has to be stored and the infrastructure to do this is not available in South Africa.  Hindering any new investment is that rice can still be imported into South Africa at a reasonable cost.  

One wonders what types of processing infrastructure would be set up by the Chinese investors for any rice had they produced rice on the Mpumalanga land.

But of course, this would not be a rice growing project to supply local markets. It would be a rice growing project to supply those Chinese workers with food, the workers who would be brought into build the power station unit and the luxury hotels.

There are still very clear issues about the phytosanitary arrangements of bringing foreign seeds into South Africa. Even if SA does not grow rice, bugs and diseases have a funny way of spreading to other crops, or even to rice growing projectgs in Mozambique.


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