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Sustainable Agricultural Development as A Driver of Economic Growth: The Chinese Battle-Tested Model



By Victor Opatola

This summer, I was part of a team of International and Chinese students that went from Beijing to Gansu province in north-western China; this is part of the positive response to President Xi Jinping’s call toward a high-level China-Africa community with a shared prosperous future.

I will be sharing stories from my experience in this article.

Like other developing countries, agriculture in China was undeveloped in the early to mid-nineties, like other areas of the nation’s economy.

However, the basis of development started with the land reforms that the Communist Party of China established.

China’s land reforms

The fact that all land now belongs to the government made it possible for the people-oriented government to quickly carry out policies that would benefit all citizens rather than getting bogged down by disputes with private landowners.

This formed the basis of all other development that has taken place in China till today. 

The people’s government feels more work needs to be done in northwestern China. During my trip to Gansu province, I learned that President Xi visited the region on August 26, 2019, and charged the officials that China’s 2nd and 3rd largest deserts must not be allowed to join.

He also charged the party officials and residents that the county must be protected and not allowed to become a desert. On July 21, 2023, I visited Minqin County, between China’s two largest deserts.

The Party Secretary of Minqin stated that without the reservoir, another great desert would have been formed; the Mingin reservoir is also the most extensive man-made reservoir in front of a desert.

In addition, we were also informed that the Chinese government carried out extensive dredging and expansion of the reservoir between 2016 and 2020.

In Minqin, I saw the various water-saving technologies implemented by the locals. Some of these water-saving technologies included drip irrigation.

In drip irrigation, there is a network of pipes from the central Hongyashan reservoir, where water is directly applied to each plant. This totally eliminates the massive water wastage that is experienced during regular irrigation.

The drip irrigation system ensures that the cultivated plants get the needed water. In addition, fertilizers are sometimes added to the irrigation water, so irrigation serves a dual purpose of water and nutrient provision for the plants. The Hongyashan Reservoir is now a primary water-saving method in the region. 

I learned that the Hongyashan Reservoir was constructed to serve as a valuable water source for the region, especially Minqin since the reservoir is between China’s two largest deserts.

Also, since the region usually experiences little rainfall compared to other coastal areas in China, according to already arranged protocols between the party officials and farmers, during periods of drought, water from the reservoir is channeled to the villagers for irrigation, animal husbandry, and other uses.

A significant contributing factor to the fall of the water table in various countries is private citizens’ indiscriminate use of wells and boreholes.

Thus, the availability of the Hongyashan Reservoir has eliminated the need for indiscriminate construction of wells or other water sources for private use; we were made to know that the local government in the region strictly enforces the construction or use of any private well as approvals have to be gotten before the use of such private water sources.

This helps to keep the water table from falling even further and also helps to prevent the complete desertification of Minqin County. 

Another environmentally friendly policy I noticed in Minqin is the closed-farming system.

However, from what I later learned during the trip, this system is implemented in the whole of Gansu province. In this closed-farming system, the feed used in animal husbandry is obtained from the same crops the farmers grew.

The maize husk, wheat chaff, and others from the crops are kept and used to feed the animals. So, even the region grows its own animals for meat and is self-sufficient in meat production. 

“The bottom-up approach”

We also visited the Laohukou Desertification Prevention and Control Demonstration Area during the trip to Gansu province.

While in this area, I learned how the government demonstrated to the local population and made them understand the importance of protecting their immediate community from desert encroachment.

Professor Weizhe Feng – the field trip advisor – called it “the bottom-up approach.”

This is a crucial step as it ensures the project’s sustainability and provides ample job opportunities to the residents. Also, one of the local residents told us that it provides a sense of fulfillment because they feel they are protecting their community from the harsh desert.

The system used in the Laohukou Desertification Area involves preventing sand storms and the desert from encroaching into residential areas.

The creation of sand squares achieves this. The sand squares are created from biodegradable materials such as maize or wheat straws.

Meanwhile, inside the sand squares, various types of grass are grown for animal forage. In addition, since the Laohukou area has abundant sunshine due to its arid nature, the sand squares are also incredibly beneficial for installing solar panels for electricity generation.

In fact, Professor Weizhe Feng made us understand that the whole Gansu province is being designated to be a large base for solar energy generation, and this has, in return, made China the largest producer of solar devices/solar power globally, producing up to 70% of the solar systems worldwide. 

At Laohukou Desertification Prevention and Control Area, sand squares are seen in the background.

Shiyanghe experimental station

Another vital aspect of the trip to northwest China is visiting the Shiyanghe experimental station of China Agricultural University (CAU).

CAU’s Vice President (Professor Du), the field trip’s advisor (Professor Weizhe Feng), and other teachers took time to explain how the experimental station started around 20 years ago with little funding but has grown through the efforts of the teachers and students to bring reality to what is being taught in the classroom.

The teachers and students were passionate about protecting the environment. To further demonstrate how the experimental station has grown, the station just got electricity supply during winter 5 years ago.

The station overcame these challenges to become the big reference point that it is today, such that it is now recognized as a National Field Scientific Observation and Research Station on efficient water use of oasis agriculture. 

A significant point of note in the Shiyanghe experimental station is using greenhouses and drip irrigation systems (also replicated throughout Gansu Province).

Plants are living things that require nutrients, water, sunlight, and other necessary conditions to grow.

The role of the greenhouse, as seen at the experimental station, is to ensure that the temperature, air velocity, nutrients (such as Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus), and environmental conditions are controlled to suit the specific crop. This is crucial because the whole of Gansu region is arid.

Thus, the greenhouse system ensures that crops like tomatoes, dragon plants, alfalfa, watermelon, and other crops, including seedlings, are grown even in an arid region like Gansu province.

This provides a valuable source of livelihood to the local residents. To demonstrate how lucrative and successful the greenhouse system is, in Liangzhou District, Fafang town, a farmer told me that in each greenhouse, he makes revenue of about 100,000 yuan annually.

Also, in terms of research, in the Shiyanghe experimental station, the teachers and students can use the greenhouses to experiment with the productivity of crops under various nutrient levels and environmental conditions.

The best results are then demonstrated and explained to the farmers, who can utilize these improved methods on a large scale.

Thus, the experimental station works closely with the farmers. Due to this close collaboration, I saw that the local community trust and love the work done at the experimental station because they are also part of the whole process. 

A teacher at the Shiyanghe experimental station is explaining the workings of a greenhouse…the sprinkler on the roof is used to mimic rainfall conditions.
At the open field demonstration site in CAU’s Shiyang Experimental Station. The Drip irrigation system is a major enabler of this farming system in the desert.

Use of greenhouses and drip irrigation systems

Then, the use of greenhouses and drip irrigation systems demonstrated at the Shiyanghe experimental station of China Agricultural University (CAU) and throughout the Gansu Province is another vital point noted during the trip. The role of the greenhouse is to ensure that the temperature, air velocity, and environmental conditions are controlled to suit the specific crop.

Thus, this greenhouse system ensures that crops like tomatoes, dragon plants, alfalfa, watermelon, and other crops, including seedlings, are grown even in an arid region like Gansu province.

This provides a valuable source of livelihood to the local residents. In Liangzhou District, Fafang town, a farmer told me that in each greenhouse, he makes revenue of about 100,000 yuan annually.

Other examples of closed production and value addition systems

I would also like to point out three (3) other examples of the closed production and value addition systems I experienced during the trip to Gansu Province. On the 22nd of July 2023, we visited Fafang town in Liangzhou district.

While there, we visited some of the greenhouses and the seedling factory of a Chinese entrepreneur, and he talked of his experience running his seedling company for 20 years and how he grew his company from just two (2) staff to now operating with 100 staff and using a closed production system where he controls everything from supply chain to actual production, marketing and also after sales; this he said will increase profitability and sustain high quality at all sections of the business.

The Chinese entrepreneur explained that even though it is compulsory to target a ‘closed-production’ system, initially, it might be impossible to do that because finance and capacity would need to be built up. So, from his experience, he recommended starting small and having a consistent 5-year plan for growth. 

Still in Fafang town, we visited a tomato plant where tomatoes are grown in greenhouses and packaged for supply to other regions in China.

We understand this is a form of value addition because the greenhouses where the tomatoes are grown and the processing unit are interconnected.

These factories help to also provide means of income to the local population because they are the ones working in these factories implementing closed production systems.

We even understood that the very rural people living in extremely harsh conditions in the mountains are willingly relocated to these other places in Fafang and Minqin and I saw sense of fulfillment in their eyes and comportment when I related with them. 

At a tomato green-house in Fafang where closed-production is implemented.
A vivid picture of a greenhouse in Fafang showing vertical tomato farming and the brightness of the sweet tomato species grown in China’s desert region and the layout of the greenhouse.

The other example I would like to state is the visit to Liangzhou District on the 23rd of July, 2023.

The party secretary for the village told us how the local farmers of about 12 families decided to produce maize for seedlings this year instead of maize for food.

It costs 3,700 yuan per Mu for seedlings, unlike the 2,000 yuan for maize for food. So even though market demands were one of the driving factors necessitating the switch from ‘maize for food’ to ‘maize for seedlings’, it also led to the villagers specializing in value addition because it takes extra expertise to grow maize for seedlings than for food.

In addition, this switch also led to more prosperity for the villagers because the party secretary of the district explained that since the village household’s per capita income is

10,000 yuan per annum, the villagers have been able to overcome abject poverty several years ago. 

With the party’s secretary in Liangzhou District.
At a farm in Liangzhou District where mixed farming and ranching are practiced. The robustness of the livestock came as a surprise to me because this is an arid region, just like northern Nigeria. If this can be replicated in Nigeria, it can help to solve the perennial issue of farmers-herders clashes.


The trip to Gansu province taught me that for good development to occur in a disadvantaged area, there must be a dual ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ approach.

The ‘top-down approach involves government intervention, initiatives, and policies to create a good enabling environment for the local people to key into.

The ‘bottom-up approach’ involves the need for the local people to key into the government program and sustain it; the local population would ensure the program’s sustainability and continuity.

Finally, since China developed these developmental models through extensive research for several decades and counting, other developmental countries can adopt these methods for rapid developmental strides.

Victor Olusola Opatola is a Nigerian Master’s Degree student at China Agricultural University.


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