China and India's food fight in Rwanda

China and India's food fight in Rwanda

The two most populous countries in Asia are battling for the favour of one of Africa’s smallest nations. Both superpowers are also using food to boost their influence in Rwanda.

Just the Basics

  • Food is a weapon in the battle for international influence, with India and China going toe-to-toe in Rwanda

  • Rwanda's efforts to forge a new society from the ground up is combining agricultural reform and communal reconcilation

  • By changing the palates of Rwandans, China and India are seeking to become long-term partners for Kigali, as the country's food landscape responds to increasing contact with Asia

Rwandans turning on their televisions earlier this year would have seen an impassioned message from the Chinese ambassador, Rao Hongwei. Rao was addressing viewers in the tiny African country on a topic of international importance, one which demonstrated China’s growing influence in Rwanda and across Africa. The special program courtesy of the Rwanda’s national TV station - RTV - and the Chinese embassy was widely viewed across the country. The show in question did not touch on international affairs or the minutiae of economic matters, but rather on food. RTV and the Chinese embassy had collaborated to produce an introduction to Chinese cuisine for a popular Rwandan cooking show.

Alongside Rao, the embassy’s chef, Tao Yukun was also featured preparing a host of Chinese dishes. Chinese restaurants are mushrooming across the capital Kigali, as well as in other parts of the country, with enough viewers writing into RTV to feature Chinese food that the station’s producers reached out to the Chinese embassy to create just such a program. On the surface this collaboration comes across as the kind of softball relationship-building event that ambassadors undertake on a regular basis, but food is another realm for countries to exercise soft power.

The fact that the Rwandan program caught the attention of Chinese state news outlets demonstrates the power that food can have. Similarly, a review in the Rwandan daily The New Times on the growing number of Indian restaurants in Kigali caught the attention of Indian media outlets, with the review being held up as evidence for India’s edge over China. For instance, OneINDIA ran an article on the issue with the headline - "China may lead in hard diplomacy but India wins Rwandan hearts with its food."

Food for thought

The old adage that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach also pertains to countries, as nations seek to popularize their cuisines and propagate positive associations between food items and the countries from which they stem. “Food can be symbolized in many ways,” writes Christian Reynolds, a Phd candidate at the University of South Australia:

“[as either] a sterile product, or an item of consumption that has historical and cultural symbolism. The latter [...] is the primary understanding of food when it is used as an issue to carry an actor’s soft power. It is this symbolism (and values) attached to the food - more than the food itself - that enables soft food power to be successful.”

Growing numbers of Chinese immigrants to Rwanda are not only changing the country’s demographics, but their stories chart China’s changing influence in the country. For instance, consider the story of Edward Yin, who arrived in Rwanda in 2007 to run the country’s first mobile phone assembly plant, only to later open the A-Link Chinese restaurant. Initially opened to cater to family and friends, the restaurant has found a wide following among Rwandans, and is now one of many such establishments rubbing shoulders with Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Turkish, Thai and Indian establishments.

That the popularity a nation’s cuisine enjoys internationally rubs off on its government is a hope that all regimes harbour. While a love of Peking duck is unlikely to also instil a fondness for Xi Jinping Thought, Beijing hopes that the growing numbers of Chinese food fans in Africa will help soften China’s image in a region where it is often negatively portrayed. Similarly, India is banking on exporting its own cultural products, notably food, as a means to close the influence-gap created by China’s deep pockets.


With this in mind, Rwanda has become of interest to both India and China, with both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping visiting the country for the first time in recent weeks. Almost twenty-five years after the 1994 genocide which killed between 800,000 and one million Rwandans, the country has become an economic star, registering the third highest GDP growth in Africa. Despite being landlocked, and its small size and scarce resources, Chinese and Indian investors are flocking to Rwanda, as both New Delhi and Beijing seek investment opportunities.

Writing in Rwanda Fast Forward, Kamakshi Nanda notes this growing interest in Rwanda among Asian nations. Nanda’s chapter entitled “New Friends of Rwanda - Chinese Noodles and Indian Curry” further underlines the analogy with food. “The Asian Giants are investors in a land that has comparatively little to offer [...] If Rwanda seizes the opportunities, [Chinese and Indian investment] might prove to offer a chance that global aid was never able to deliver. The Rwandans should relish the noodles and curry on their plates.”

India and China use food to boost development credentials

The role that food plays in relations between Rwanda, India and China goes beyond how many Asian restaurants are opening in Kigali, as food and food security are a key priority for the Rwandan government, with Beijing and New Delhi each promoting their own expertise and experience. China touts its rapid development as well as its efforts at stamping out famine (a persistent bugbear in Chinese history from the earliest dynasties to the Mao years) as evidence of a proven track record to African nations struggling with similar problems. Having lived through, and transitioned out of, cyclical famines China is able to capitalize on a certain gravitas and credibility regarding its development suggestions that Western nations lack.

The problem for Beijing is that India can also boast a similar legacy. For centuries famine and India were almost synonymous, yet following India’s Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, India went from a country blighted by famine to a net exporter of agricultural commodities. This trend held firm in the following decades, with India having now overtaken the EU as the largest exporter of agricultural commodities to the world’s least developed nations.

Nevertheless, India does have a chequered legacy to overcome. In the past, Rwanda has directly felt the impact of India’s efforts to boost food production, with the African country becoming a dumping ground for surplus Indian rice “at such low prices [that] you are left wondering if these are really global market prices,” according to Francois Kanimba, former Rwandan trade minister.


Rwanda was paying the price for India’s generous rice-buying program which guaranteed prices for Indian farmers, leading to a massive glut in rice stores, and consequently a proliferation of cheap rice exports. The problem for Rwanda is that the government is making a concerted effort to alter the nature of the country’s economy, as agriculture accounts for one third of national GDP and employs seventy percent of the population. Reducing the number of people working in agriculture is a common tactic for many developing countries; however, in Rwanda’s case the government has another reason to do so: the legacy of the genocide.

Alongside the ethnic and political factors which helped stoke the outbreak of violence, an important and overlooked factor is the role of food production and land scarcity. At the time of the genocide, Rwanda was the most densely populated, non-island nation in Africa, with 843 people per square kilometre. Moreover, ninety percent of the population relied on small scale farming, and a population growth rate of three percent meant that increasingly marginal land was being cultivated in a losing race against demographic pressures. Land scarcity was further exacerbated by unequal land distribution, with political elites and their rural relatives hoarding almost half of the country’s available land.

Rwandan growth rates (percent)

Source: World Bank

The use of marginal land, combined with over farming, degraded the soil and increased erosion, twin processes which were only accelerated by the 1988-89 drought. The drought, combined with a collapse in global coffee and tea prices caused a drastic reduction in government revenues, thus undermining societal stability. The aforementioned cash crops provided the main sources of funding for Rwanda’s efforts to combat rural poverty. Food and land pressures only added further fuel to the impending fire, and directly contributed to the outbreak of the genocide, with instigators of the violence promising that the land of murdered Tutsis would be distributed to landless Hutus.

Do have a cow, man

Consequently, due to the role that pressures on food and land played in triggering the Rwandan genocide, “the present government acknowledges the importance of [combining] justice and reconciliation programs with ambitious agricultural reform.” A leading example of this strategy is the Girinka program. Personally overseen by President Kagame, the Girinka program, (which translates to ‘have a cow’) aims to provide one cow to each poor family.

Some 350,000 families have benefited from the program which sees families receive donated cows on the condition that they donate the first born female calf of said cow to their neighbour as a gesture of communal support and friendship. The program aims to promote brotherhood and fellow feeling in communities still living with the legacy of the 1994 genocide. The gifting of cows has significant historical symbolism in Rwanda, as gifting a cow signifies that one loves the recipient and wishes them prosperity.

During his recent trip to Rwanda, PM Modi donated two hundred cows to the Girinka project, an act that has several layers of connotation. Firstly, Modi’s donation is both a vote of confidence in President Kagame’s pet project, and generates goodwill by associating India with the quality of life improvements recipients experience: a fact used by President Kagame to garner support by tying the program to directly to himself rather than the Rwandan government in general. Furthermore, “the gifting of cows is not just an economic contribution, but also an expression of India’s gratitude to Rwanda for treating [the] Indian community well.” In particular, the gift is acknowledges that no Indians were killed or injured during the genocide in 1994.

By showing support for the Girinka program, Modi is also drawing parallels between the symbolism of cows in Rwandan culture and the symbolism which cows enjoy in India. The associations between wealth, prosperity and cows in Rwandan culture is mirrored by similar associations in India, with the cow portrayed as the foundation upon which society is built in both countries. The protection of cows in India is an offshoot of calls to non-violence in Hinduism mirrors the role of cows as peacekeepers in the Girinka system.


President of Rwanda and head of the Girinka Project, Paul Kagame


Another element to consider is how Modi’s donation of dairy cows plays to a domestic audience in India, especially given the nature of support for Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Both Modi and the BJP boast strong support among Hindu nationalists, and the Prime Minister has been criticized for not doing enough to counter Hindu extremism vis-a-vis India’s minority populations, in particular Muslims. It is ironic that Modi’s bovine gift - intended to foster peace and communal harmony - comes as India deals with incidents of sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims, which are often triggered by the treatment of (and alleged slaughter) of cows.

While much work still remains, Rwanda’s efforts at agricultural reform have met with international praise, and the country has made important strides in reducing malnutrition. For instance, the percentage of stunted children under the age of five has declined from 51 percent a decade ago, to 38 percent in 2015; with the government aiming to further lower this number to 32 percent by 2020. At a time when India is seeking to advise Rwanda on development, the tiny African country also has lessons for the world’s second most populous country. Specifically, 25 percent of the world’s stunted children are in India. In the Indian state of Bihar almost 50 percent of children are stunted, levels which Rwanda has not seen in years. “[Rwanda’s] model is something that some Indian states can take a serious look at,” notes Fokko Wientjes, of Royal DSM - a Dutch nutrition science company.

The spread of Indian and Chinese restaurants in Kigali and throughout Rwanda are the most visible indicators of the the food fight between New Delhi and Beijing.

The spread of Indian and Chinese restaurants in Kigali and throughout Rwanda are the most visible indicators of the the food fight between New Delhi and Beijing.


Despite its problems at home, India continues to invest heavily in food processing and agricultural projects in Rwanda, including a $280 million food processing plant in 2010 as well as a $100 million agricultural loan during Modi’s recent visit. A development of note is the increasing interest in Rwanda expressed by Indian spice companies. According to Dr. C. K. George, former executive director of the Spices Board of India, “the coming years will definitely see more and more Indian spice companies eyeing Rwanda for expanding their operations.”

A 2016 trial of six hybrid Indian chilies in Rwanda ended in success, with Synthite Industries - one of the world’s largest spice extraction firms - investing $1.3 million to create a chilli processing plant by 2020, with plans to make Rwanda the hub for its African operations. Chili production in Rwanda is aimed at promoting the consumption of chilis locally as well as for export / buy-back agreements with India.

Together with the UK’s Supporting Indian Trade Preferences in Africa (SITA), New Delhi and Indian firms are increasing their influence in Rwanda via food. Growing demand for Indian food in Rwanda is also incentivizing Indian spice companies to set up shop, an example of how Rwandan food preferences are changing due to interaction with Asian nations. Alongside the economic opportunities, increased chili cultivation and consumption also gives India a means to showcase its expertise in this area. By providing training, best practices and scientific expertise, Indian actors are securing their influence along the entire production chain, becoming the go-to source for advice and support.

The very thing that the Chinese want out of Africa is not food. They want business opportunities.
— Yun Sun, Brookings Institute fellow

Not to be outdone, China is also promoting its own agricultural expertise in Rwanda, with the African nation home to one of Beijing’s 23 agricultural technology demonstration centres (ATDC). The ATDC in Rwanda is focused on showcasing Chinese expertise in rice cultivation, China’s staple crop. Whereas maize and sorghum are the primary crops in Rwanda, China is playing a significant role in increasing rice production and consumption in the country. As in the case with India, increased rice consumption in Rwanda opens the door for Chinese experts and technology, with the PRC seeking to style itself as the first choice for all Rwanda’s rice-related needs.

While diet diversification is important, questions remain about the efficacy of promoting rice consumption in Rwanda. The nutritional paucity of many rice strains in comparison to other staple crops, combined with the labour and water intensive nature of rice farming raise complex problems. Rice farming can make use of otherwise hilly, marginal land - something which mountainous Rwanda has plenty of - but remains labour intensive, which would seem to run counter to the government’s plans to reduce the share of the population employed in agriculture.


Rice cultivation requires substantial labour and water commitments, begging the question whether promoting rice over maize or sorghum will succeed.


The Chinese ATDC is also working with locals to increase mushroom consumption in Rwanda, by highlighting the product’s easy cultivation and nutritional value. China is the undisputed champion of mushrooms, boasting the title of the world’s largest producer and consumer, with the Middle Kingdom responsible for eighty percent of global fungi production. The chief problem for Chinese agricultural advisors is overcoming Rwandan preconceptions about mushrooms. Age-old proscriptions against eating poisonous mushrooms - farmers who eat a mushroom are said to lose a cow - are responsible for the strong headwinds facing Chinese mushroom popularization efforts.

To this end, ATDC workers are recruiting locals to learn how to prepare and cook mushrooms, with cooking classes teaching Rwandans Chinese mushroom-based dishes such as liangban mu-er, a salad of tree-ear mushroom paired with carrots and cucumber, or how to stew mushrooms in tea. Here we see a concrete example of how Rwandan culture is changing, as China proselytizes its love of mushrooms, and farmers in the heart of Africa are learning to cook Chinese dishes.

“The very thing that the Chinese want out of Africa is not food. They want business opportunities. They want to create more market space for Chinese agricultural companies, more recognition that the Chinese are the true friends of African countries,” explains Brookings Institute fellow, Yun Sun. In China’s defence, this is a strategy that many countries (either directly or indirectly) pursue, but it does complicate the relationship between China and Rwanda as well as highlighting the nuanced role which food plays.

The Bottom Line

Emerging from the wreckage of the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has spent the last quarter-century seeking restorative justice and working hard to become an enticing destination for foreign investment. Much still needs to be done, but the government's efforts at agricultural reform have resulted in laudable improvements in food security, agricultural efficiency and tackling nutritional shortcomings. As the regime of Paul Kagame works to bolster the country's business-friendly reputation, Asia's two largest nations are exerting increasing influence in the tiny African nation.


While the arena of great power competition encompasses many seemingly disparate fields, the role of food in soft power projection offers a telling window into Beijing and New Delhi's efforts in Rwanda. From promoting their respective cuisines to shaping the future of the Rwandan palate, China and India are engaged in a simmering food fight. The agricultural focus of Chinese and Indian aid and investment demonstrates a commitment to securing lasting influence in the African country. The fact that the Rwandan government is taking an agriculture-centric approach to rebuilding the country only highlights the potential clout which Beijing and New Delhi could attain as the new Rwanda takes shape.

Unsurprisingly, both China and India are offering their agricultural expertise and touting their development credentials. That the former is promoting its beloved mushrooms and the latter its famous spices as part and parcel of any development plan reminds us yet again of the nuanced influence which food plays. It turns out that the symbolism of food is every part as multifaceted as the most byzantine foreign policy machinations - or should that be mastication?

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, Radio Free Europe and the Washington Times, among others.