We've been reading about how China is investing in African agriculture for a few years now, but this week is the first time we've really seen what that means on the ground. As we traveled from Addis to Aksum, it's impossible not to notice who is building the roads here. Hint: it's not the Ethiopian government. The Chinese, even though they can't legally own land in Ethiopia, have brought in bulldozers and trucks to improve already-existing roads and build new ones. Along with building roads, they've also built good will with Ethiopian policymakers and farmers because better roads allow farmers to get their goods from farm to market more easily.
In Aksum alone, the Chinese have built more than 150 kilometers of roads and provided cell phones for farmers -- allowing them, for the first time ever, to check prices before they go to market and to call ahead for supplies and materials. The Chinese are also leasing huge amounts of land for isolated compounds stacked with pre-fabricated homes, complete with satellite TVs and Chinese cooks, for the road engineers.
But this investment isn't entirely altruistic. China, a nation of more than 1. 3 billion people and counting that is concerned about its ability to feed its own population today and into the future, is buying up Ethiopian-grown cabbage, carrots, onions, and other crops to ship back home. One of our guides/interpreters said that sometimes the Chinese show up at markets near Aksum before they open, buying up all the goods before Ethiopian customers even arrive. It's an ironic situation, to say the least, as news reports warn of impending famine in the southeastern region of the country, where more than 6 million people are on the verge of starvation.