Last month I was at a conference about Chinese agro investments in Africa at SAIS/ Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
Deborah Brautigam differentiated five types of such investments: 1) media myths and false reports; 2) former aid projects that have now been privatized; 3) construction contracts; 4) government projects that were launched more than a decade ago; and 5) real, current projects.
There are only a few current projects in the category 5) and they target food production for the domestic African market, not for export to China, which would not make commercial sense for logistical reasons.
Like in the case of the Gulf countries there is a certain disconnect with media reports and their inflated numbers about land grabs.
That having said China has recently shown strong interest in food related investments, but they have focused on the trading and food processing sectors with a view of improving food safety and catering to the increasingly diverse diets of the Chinese population.
Among such investments have been Tnuva, the Israeli cheese and consumer foods supplier, US pork producer Smithfield Foods, the UK breakfast brand Weetabix and Australian winemaker Hollick. Chinese grain trader COFCO has recently spent $1.5bn on a stake in a sugar, soyabean and wheat joint venture with Hing Kong based Noble Group.
It seems that China prepares to compete with the Cargills and Nestlés of this world rather than directly gobbling up farmland in the upstream sector. There are some large food processing companies in the Gulf that operate internationally like Kuwait based Americana. Gulf countries have also shown a similar, if more subdued interest in trading companies as I describe in Oil for Food, but compared with China they have arguably less capacities to realize such strategies.