[Note: below is Chapter 3 from Great Wall of Numbers]
There is a famous proverb in Chinese called min yi shi wei tian (民以食为天) – eating is as important as the sky. Despite regional differences in dialects, in regulations and in climate, one universal rule on the mainland is that eating is one of the most important activities of the day. While this may sound like a fortune cookie truism (which by the way, do not exist in China – I have yet to see one), with recent memories of plagues and famines in their mind, many Chinese residents pay close attention to what their next meal will be. And how it will be cooked and increasingly, where it was grown.
And while they may have a reputation for spending some of the highest amounts of their annual income on food (28% in China versus 10% in the US, this is called Engel’s Law) and are simultaneously highly elastic (e.g., if food prices increase they will switch over to cheaper substitutes), their perpetual gastronomical vigilance is not unwarranted.
During the summer of 2008, China was faced with a series of nationwide milk powder scandals in which 300,000 babies and infants were poisoned and six died from a chemical called melamine which local producers had added “to save money.” As a consequence, there was a subsequent surge in the importation of milk powder from abroad including New Zealand and Australia. All told 80% of imported dairy products were from New Zealand in 2012. And in Australia, Victorian dairy farms recorded a record $144 million in exports to China in 2011. In fact, China is now the largest powder milk importer globally as many families – out of concern of repeat poisoning – currently place higher value on imported brands. As a consequence, Tmall, the largest e-commerce platform on the mainland, has begun importing baby formula from companies such as Nestle and Danone to be sold directly to Chinese customers. And milk is not the only dairy product that Chinese consumers are importing. For example, despite being a new commodity to the mainland $139 million worth of cheese was imported in 2011.
And to “secure” these supply lines according to Financial Review, China Investment Corporation (CIC), one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, is actively seeking agriculture investment opportunities in Australia and other countries. In fact, the Beidahung Group, the biggest Chinese agricultural conglomerate recently purchased and is leasing 100,000 hectares in Western Australia and plans to invest up to $4 billion in Australian agriculture.
In addition to the melamine fatalities above there have been scandals involving “gutter oil,” whereby cooking oil is collected and dredged from restaurant drains; clenbuterol and other chemicals are added to meat to “enhance” the taste yet is toxic; arsenic in frozen calamari and even tainted steamed buns crop up throughout the year. It is not unsurprising then that according to a 2012 survey conducted by Horizon Research Consultancy, a Beijing-based polling company found that 41% of those surveyed said food safety was a major problem, up from 12% in 2008. One residual ramification from this stark rise in concern comes from a 2012 report from Ipsos, a market research company, which found that due to food scandals “more than 60 percent of people would choose foreign brands more often.”
At the same time, in 2010 China exported $41 billion in agriculture such as garlic and onions, yet even among some of this purportedly screened produce, there have been food safety issues. For example, this past summer a batch of strawberries originally grown in Shandong ended up poisoning thousands of German schoolchildren. While the investigation is ongoing, the initial findings were that some of strawberries may have been contaminated with norovirus.
Not quite soylent green
In a bid to protect consumers, an independent, private consumer watch-dog group called Zhichuchuangwai was started in 2011 to chronicle all of the nationwide stories involving food and beverage containments. In addition, the world’s largest food retailers (hypermarkets) including WalMart, Tesco, Carrefour and Metro have spearheaded an independent non-profit quality assurance consortium called Global Food Safety Initiative to produce food safety guidelines, harmonize food safety standards and create a certification framework for suppliers and distributors.
As China develops and the middle class grows, the demand for higher quality goods – safe goods – has led to an increase in opportunities for foreign brands which are perceived as meeting the highest safety standards. For example, the USDA trade office in Shanghai reported that “the 82 foreign hypermarkets [in Shanghai] accounted for 78.6% of the total hypermarket sales volume in 2008.” These same hypermarkets also contain an increasing amount of food products (60% as of 2009). Collectively the mainland hypermarkets is a $81 billion industry and growing. Yet before you decide to jump in and create yet-another-hypermarket, this area is fraught with nebulous legislation. For example, in an effort to “protect” small and medium suppliers, on December 19, 2011 five ministries and committees issued a joint regulatory plan whereby they arbitrarily removed hypermarkets from being able to charge delivery fees, slotting fees, holiday fees and several other fees. This caused a lot of confusion and as a consequence retailers were essentially forced to resign their previous contracts with local suppliers. In addition, these foreign “big box” companies face zoning restrictions that prevent them from competing with domestic retailers like Suning or Gome.
For perspective in this segment, in 2010 the two largest retailers in China were Vanguard and Lianhua, both of whom are state owned enterprises (SOEs), and they both generated more than $10 billion in revenue. For comparison, privately run RT Mart (owned by Sun Art), Carrefour and Walmart generated 25-35% less, yet with a fraction of stores compared with their domestic competition. For instance, Carrefour generated almost $7 billion in revenue from 182 stores compared with Vanguard, who had 3,155 stores. In addition, not all private companies perform the same. In 2012 Tesco closed several outlets in August and scaled down its expansion plans and Carrefour’s same store sales declined 6.1% in Q3 2012 yet RT Mart has thrived and plans to open 105 hypermarkets in 2013.
In my own anecdotal observations, these large foreign-owned hypermarkets are continuously filled by Chinese and expats alike, even though some of the products cost significantly more than locally owned supermarkets are charging. For example, as I mention later in Chapter 6, I had a bad bout with food poisoning while in China during 2011 and as a consequence both my Chinese and American doctors recommended that it is better to be safe than sorry – better to spend more on safer food now than pay for it later as an in-patient. So several times a week I shop at a nearby CityShop. CityShop is an up-and-coming, locally owned and expat managed supermarket with 10 stores in the Shanghai and Beijing areas. More than 80% of their products are imported from the US, Germany, Australia and other developed countries. And like Walmart and Carrefour, CityShop is packed with shoppers – both Chinese and expats – throughout the day.
In March 2013 I spoke with Lawrence D’souza, customer service director for CityShop. He is originally from Goa, India and has spent his career managing a variety of supermarket chains around the globe. For the last three years he has worked on the mainland at his current position and in his view there are a couple of challenges that while not unique to China, can be a hurdle for entrepreneurs.
In D’souza’s words, “one of the issues that all grocery stores face when trying to import goods is changes in duties and clearing customs. So for example, recently it has become difficult to import certain products like organic foods which require the CCC stamp from the government yet may not be approved for a variety of unstated reasons. On the other hand, items like organic milk from Australia are typically allowed entry. So supermarket owners need to keep up-to-date otherwise they will have backlogs in their supply chain. Another reason this is important to a grocery store like ours has to do with location. Each of our store locations is placed in a different neighborhood with differing demographics. So for example, one location may cater to a client base that is comprised entirely of mainland Chinese. Another location may have a mix of businesspeople from Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. And yet other locations may have 50% of their customers that are expats from the West. As a result, we have to stock each store with different items that the target market wants, thus the consistency and flow of items is different. Which brings us back again to keeping up-to-date with changes in the import rules so that way we can remain flexible to the demands of our diverse customer base.” As mentioned in Chapter 1, CCC stands for China Compulsory Certificate and is required in order to import any item. Furthermore, import taxes such as those on wine or breakfast cereal can vary throughout the year and the list of which is maintained by the General Administration of Customs (海关总署). Additionally, all organic foods imported or produced locally needs to be approved by the China Organic Food Certification Center (COFCC).
At the same time D’souza sees several untapped opportunities in this segment. According to him, “because of the rapid development in the last several decades and scarcity of shelf space, there is a product gap, a lack of certain flavors and tastes as some of the food that supermarkets import on the mainland may not necessarily be of interest to customers from India, Russia or Southeast Asia. For instance, there are between 40 to 50,000 Indian businesspeople and traders that work in Shanghai throughout the year, yet finding specific food like basmati rice can be difficult to locate in the metroplex. One example in our own stores is that based on customer feedback we added avocados and guacamole throughout the year due to the popularity of Mexican food. So other entrepreneurs could likewise satiate demand from ethnic niches and become successful doing so. On the other extreme is volume and scale: the bigger the store, the more products you can stock. Entrepreneurs and managers could try to emulate big-box stores such as Costco which may be able to keep costs low and process bulk orders to cost conscious buyers – but this also has its own share of inherent challenges.”
Another challenge that D’souza and others that I interviewed raised that is not unique to China is fixed capital costs. Or in other words, leasing real-estate. In busy areas like Raffles City (来福士广场), one of the most popular shopping malls in Shanghai, space may cost 15 RMB per square meter per day. It is significantly higher in the case of supermarkets, 10,000 to 15,000 RMB per square meter or up to 50% of the total operating costs may come solely from rent. Entrepreneurs should also be aware of the gestation period in receiving import permits and licenses. According to several businesspeople that I spoke with, it may take 6 or more months to have all the paperwork processed and approved (photocopied, translated, verified), especially if it is a new type of food or ingredient that has never been sold in China.
However, before you come away thinking that hypermarkets and supermarkets throughout China are filled row-after-row with imported goods, the same USDA report noted that even international retailers “typically carry less than 1% imported SKUs” and that “imports rarely constitute more than 5% of total SKUs” even in high profile stores in large cities like Shanghai and Beijing (an SKU is a stock-keeping unit). One of the reasons why this is the case is that few of the retailers have been able to build out a distribution network (e.g., cold storage) that they already have in Western countries on the scale that KFC has managed to do (as I note in Chapter 16). What this means is that by-and-large, these same retailers typically still source their food from local suppliers. This presents an opportunity to foreign distribution and supply chain management experts – to bridge the wide gulf between an increasingly wealthier consumer that would like to purchase imported products for quality and safety reasons versus the amount of imported goods that retailers are able to continuously stock.
Another opportunity is for cold storage experts as well. For example, PFS (Preferred Freezer Services) is a joint venture between an American company and a Dalian-based company (Yida Group). During the next several years they will spend more than 7 billion RMB ($1.1 billion) to build out a cold storage network across China, including a 40,000 ton facility in Shanghai. And according to Li Wanqiu, head of Zhongde which is a cold-storage consultancy, “Beijing alone built over 50,000 square meters worth of new cold storage warehouses in 2011.” The reason these are needed is that according to Datamonitor, “China’s frozen food market grew 9.9 percent annually between 2004 and 2009.” One of the reasons for why this marked increase in consumption has occurred is that as an economic develops and urban residents work longer hours, they have less time to cook. So the demand for quick, easy-to-make meals such as TV dinners (e.g., Hungry-Man) increases. Can your firm take advantage of this opportunity?
You don’t need to bet the farm
In Chapter 16 I discuss the failures and successes of foreign owned and operated restaurants (such as KFC and McDonald’s) but even with their entry there is potential for additional competition. For example, in October 2012 I interviewed Glenn Wilkinson an Australian who has lived in China for the past 25 years. He is a Senior Consultant at Beacon Consulting, a Shanghai-based firm that specializes in corporate training and HR staffing. In his mind, one of the biggest opportunities for both foreign and local entrepreneurs is in the “food industry,” a very vibrant and dynamic market.
What he means by food for example, are the restaurants I listed above. One of the reasons this is a vibrant market is that according to the National Bureau of Statistics, the restaurant industry as a whole has been growing 14% annually since 2007 “reaching two trillion Chinese yuan (US $319 billion) in 2011 to account for 11.3% of all revenue in the consumer products category.” The food-service industry (e.g., catering) jumped to $99 billion in 2011 also up 14% from a year earlier. Furthermore, as noted by Wilkinson and others interviewed, there is a high demand for a quality product due in part to safety concerns and in part because of a growing middle class. For comparison, retail sales in China have risen an average of 17% for each of the last five years and the luxury goods market (see Chapter 11) is expected to grow 20% a year for the next decade.
Yet to be even handed, enthusiasm should be tempered due to policy changes from the top. According to the China Cuisine Association (CCA) that due in large part to Xi Jinping’s (the new President of China) fight to stop waste of public money on extravagant meals, the CCA recently conducted a survey that found, “60 per cent of nearly 100 restaurants saw bookings cancelled recently, with one Beijing-based outlet reporting an 80-per-cent drop in sales.” Furthermore, “The survey found that business owners felt pessimistic about the outlook of the industry. They think it’s necessary to readjust their business models to adapt to the new market conditions.” Prior to the new national policy, the average monthly failure rate of restaurants was 15% in mid-2012. Thus the risks involved in setting up a new food & beverage establishment arguably have changed and that failure rate may increase in the short and medium term.
While each city has different rules regarding local partnerships and minimum registered capital requirements, the restaurant business is relatively open to market participation (e.g., certain districts in Shanghai require a $150,000 minimum in registered capital). While you would need to do your own fact-finding exploration to measure the return-on-investment, based on anecdotal evidence, it appears that mainland Chinese are apt to eat foreign food just as voraciously as they eat domestic food.
For example, in 2002, Element Fresh was founded by two foreigners, Scott Minole and Sheldon Habiger, has since opened 13 stores in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. While a bit on the expensive side, in my mind the quality of the salads more than make up for the price. In 1999, Bob Boyce from Montana co-founded Blue Frog with his business partner Kathleen Lau. I have visited two of its 9 locations (there are 6 in Shanghai and 3 in Beijing) in part because they have great specials on Monday’s and because the burgers are some of the best in the city. Also in 1999, John Christensen of Denmark founded Wagas, a delicious sandwich shop that I have personally frequented several dozen times. There are now 25 and counting Wagas locations in Shanghai alone and one in Beijing.
One of the reasons these Western-style restaurants are finding success is as I note in Chapter 15, you have several million Chinese residents who have lived, studied and worked overseas and some of them now enjoy Western food. For example, according to one estimate by the government, 186,000 Chinese living abroad moved back to China in 2011. According to the China Tourism Agency, 70 million Chinese tourists traveled overseas in 2011 and an estimated 82 million traveled overseas in 2012 (who spent $98 billion). McKinsey & Company estimates this number will climb to 94 million by 2015. And by 2020, Boston Consulting Group predicts that “China’s total outbound market [will] likely be three times as big as Japan’s.” In addition, nearly one million Chinese students now study overseas, including more than 190,000 in the US alone. Thus, the Chinese middle class is increasingly familiar with Western-flavors and styles. And if my own anecdotal experience is any indication, restaurants like Wagas and Blue Frog, while popular with expats, are also quite popular with locals as well – some nights accounting for 90+% of the customer base. Perhaps you could create a BBQ or Tex-Mex franchise, both of which there are currently few market participants.
Simultaneously, domestic firms whose management understands these dynamic tastes are not sitting idly by. For example, the Alibaba Group, the largest ecommerce internet company in China (owner of Taobao, Tmall and Alibaba.com) is developing a new procurement system to bridge consumer demand with foreign, international suppliers. According to its founder, Jack Ma, “Tmall will work with the center to build a database of international suppliers that Chinese consumers are most interested in. It would then collect orders to make group purchases.” The new system is expected to be rolled out within the next two years and part of the domestic plans is to deliver anywhere on the mainland within 24 hours.
Tastes and flavors from home
In March 2013 I spoke with Charles Zeng, founder of Piro, a restaurant and bar located in Shanghai near Jing’an Temple. Zeng is originally from New York City and previously worked in the financial industry before moving to Shanghai. After some cursory research he saw an unmet demand: tasty Western food with a normal price tag. Thus two years ago he setup shop, teaching himself how to cook, learning as he went. In his words, “while both of my parents were originally from Shanghai, they moved to the US about 30 years ago. Yet despite this cultural connection, starting up the restaurants was still difficult for me due to a lack of guanxi and knowledge of the regulatory climate. The learning curve was steep but based on my research I found that there was not enough American-style food for a price that both expats and locals could afford. And so despite the hurdles I have turned this project into a profitable business venture and definitely think that there are a wide range of opportunities for more competition in this food and beverage area.”
In his view, obtaining the necessary licenses and permits and meeting the food code regulations are an ongoing challenge that all business owners must face. Specific opportunities beyond food that he sees are “niches such as micro brews, craft brews – there are currently not many out here despite the enormous consumption of beer and liquor. More specifically, craft beers that are higher value, top-shelf products.” In 2011, 50 billion liters of beer were consumed in China compared with 24 billion in the US and 9 billion in Germany. With $1 billion in industry profits in 2012, China is the largest beer market by sales and Nomura forecasts that profits will rise to $9 billion in 2021. Yet according to Accenture, 85% of the domestic beer market is “comprised of low-end domestic beer brands” such as Tsingtao which sells a 330 mL bottle for $.32 (for comparison, a similarly sized Budweiser costs $1). Thus, Zeng sees this as an opportunity to serve a niche market that will invariably grow as consumers become more familiar with what the market offers. Maybe your local microbrew club could find success, like Carlsberg has attempted to do, as it recently bid to takeover Chongqing Brewery Company for $461 million.
Yet to temper visions of immediate grandeur, consider champagne and chocolate. In contrast to the large amounts of wine importation (see Chapter 11), the consumption of champagne remains relatively subdued. Only 1.3 million bottles of champagne were sold in China in 2011 compared with 1.3 billion bottles of red wine during the same year. Similarly sales of other red wines to China from areas such as Germany remained muted because of lack of brand awareness (i.e., Chinese consumers are unfamiliar with German brands). In other food segments, chocolate consumption also remains low-key on the mainland. The average Chinese consumes a mere 100g of chocolate a year; in comparison the average Japanese eats 11 times as much, an American eats 44 times as much and a German eats 82 times as much.
And if you own a farm
Roughly 2% of all American’s work in the most productive agricultural industry in the world; an industry which not only feeds the 3rd largest populace but also grows and exports significant portions of the world’s caloric intake (up to 20%). In 2011, the US exported a record $137 billion in agricultural products globally and China imported a record $20 billion from the US (surpassing Canada). In fact, due to a variety of reasons, in 2011 China became the largest importer of agriculture. Among other products, US farms exports soybean, rice, corn, cotton and pork to China. And in part because of a variety of domestic policies in China (discussed in Mark DeWeaver’s new book ), China is essentially dependent on the US for food security and thus is investing in and buying secure supply channels to improve its livestock.
For example, the New York Times noted this past spring that the US, “exported a record $664 million worth of breeding stock and genetic material like semen in 2011.” Who is buying this material? In 2011, Chinese companies “bought $41 million worth of live breeding animals and genetics.”
Why are they buying this? The New York Times quoted, Ronald Lemenager, a professor of animal sciences at Purdue University in Indiana, who said, “[w]hen you have a nation’s diet changing as rapidly as China’s, the most efficient way to build up production is to improve your animal genetics. We have the genetics they want.”
Thus, if you own or operate a farm in the US, not only can you export your products to China, but you can probably provide services to improve China’s knowledge base of breeding and husbandry.
Domestic initiatives in agribusiness
As I detail later in Chapter 14, NetEase is the 2nd largest tech company in China. Its founder is William Ding who is investing a significant portion of his personal multi-billion dollar wealth in agriculture. He along with his company “have set aside $16 million for agricultural investments” such as an organic piggery stocked with 5,000 pigs “raised and sold under conditions that can satisfy health-conscious consumers spooked by China’s many food safety scandals.”
How large is this organic industry? According to Du Xiangge, chairman of the China Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (CFOAM), “Only 1.9 million hectares of land are used for growing organic vegetables in the country, less than 1 percent of all farmable land. It is possible that the ratio could reach 5 percent over time.” Thus there is ripe potential for investors such as SAIF partners a domestic private equity (PE) fund that finances specialty shops like LohaoCity which sells organic health food in Beijing and Tianjin.
And on the other end of the spectrum is Peter Zhang a former-chemical engineer at a large SOE (and an autodidact) who is originally from Heilongjiang in the northeast. Over the past several years he has retrained and retooled to become an English teacher, yet in an effort to hedge against food safety he has retrained yet again, becoming proficient in agribusiness and has leased several dozen hectares in Southeast Anhui province to grow organic produce, primarily fruits and vegetables, for his friends and family. Zhang told me in November 2012 that, “I am concerned about food safety issues and have invested my personal savings into growing quality produce for my family and friends. I belong to the middle class, I should be able to afford the quality of food that previous generations have in the past, yet due to inflation and a number of other macro factors, cannot. So I have invested our savings into a dozen hectares of crops including carrots, rice, pears, cherries, grapes and even free-range chickens. And after you get through the inconvenient paperwork, land is relatively cheap to lease outside of urban areas thus making the whole endeavor worthwhile.” He is leasing roughly 80 acres (around 500 mu or亩) for about 30,000 RMB ($4,800) a year based on a 55-year lease between the government and rural farmers who exchanged the land with him (the typical lease on the mainland is 50-70 years, after which time ownership automatically reverts back to the state).
According to Zhang and others I have spoken to, inflation has pushed the price of chicken past a psychological “100 yuan per pound” line, a price that makes eating high-quality chickens unaffordable to those living, ironically, in larger cities. Why have these prices increased? According to the Ministry of Agriculture, “urban Chinese increased their consumption of chicken 219% per capita from 1983 to 2006.” What Zhang is also referring to are consumer price index (CPI) increases which have added transportation and storage costs for farmers that bring poultry and produce from outlying farms due to a nascent supply chain network and cold storage network discussed earlier in the chapter. For example, while CPI increased at a relatively low 1.7% in October 2012, roughly two years ago in January and February of 2011, CPI in China increased by nearly 5%, led in part by a 10% increase in food costs. Similarly, the CPI index rose 3.2% in February 2013, a 10-month high due to a 6% increase in food costs – more specifically, residents in Beijing pay more per pound than their peers in Boston Yet to give you an idea of how this fluctuates and differs according to category, in mid-February the average prices of 21 different vegetables declined 11.2%. And since Chinese consumers spend a significantly larger portion of their disposable incomes on food (28% in China versus 10% in the US ), even a relatively small increase in price of staple goods is immediately felt.
Zhang also noted that one of the main reasons he and his family have become increasingly vigilante about what they eat is “because our trust and our faith in domestically owned restaurants has been shattered due to milk powder poisoning, gutter oil, fake honey and even moon cake scandals.” While each region varies, roughly half of all honey currently sold in Shanghai is reportedly fake, comprised of substantially cheaper substitutes made of syrup and gum. Moon cakes are a traditional dessert made and given as gifts during Midautumn Festival usually held in September. Over the past several years, investigations have uncovered several domestic mooncake producers, who in an effort to reduce costs have reused and resold both filling and entire inventories of mooncakes – made from previous years – to customers believing that they were buying newly made desserts. For example, in 2003 a Shanghai-based company, Guanshengyuan, “was caught making mooncakes with expired and mildewed fillings.”
He also mentioned that similar scandals have taken place at grocery stores and restaurants that dyed rotten pork to make it look younger and “leaner,” dyed noodles and even sold fake steamed buns. He is referring to a scandal in 2011 in which 17 noodle manufacturers in Dongguan added ink and paraffin wax “to give their products the look and texture of more expensive varieties.” In addition, while there have been several steam bun scandals, one of the most recent notables cases is the Shanghai Shenglu Food company, which added food coloring to lower costs (e.g., turning corn flour buns into a different color) and repackaged expired buns.
This is not to say foreign restaurant chains are scandal free. KFC advertised that its soybean milk was freshly ground, when it was not; and its chicken suppliers in Shandong may have used antibiotics to fatten the chicks faster (same-store sales declined 37% in January 2013 as a result). In fact, to alleviate food safety concerns, in February 2013 KFC announced that it was launching a new quality assurance program and cutting out small farmers due to the difficulty in overseeing them. Ajisen Ramen (a Japanese noodle restaurant) claimed its soup was made from bone-based broth, which upon further investigation turned out to be highly diluted (e.g., “a concentrate”). And a McDonald’s outlet in Shenyang reportedly served laundry detergent instead of a Coca-Cola.
Yet perhaps by partnering with these entrepreneurs, foreign agriculture companies can establish a foot-hold on the mainland and satiate consumer demand. And as I discuss later in several other chapters (notably 11 & 12), branding, trust and market perception are distinct advantages that foreign firms typically have when entering the mainland market. This is in part because of the immense resources invested in quality control programs (e.g. Six Sigma) by foreign brands in order to proactively innovate and prevent any potential quality-based scandals from ruining their company images. In contrast, this kind of branding issue is not taken as seriously on the mainland as it is elsewhere which itself creates an opportunity for brand marketing consultants.
According to China Daily, a substantial portion of businesspeople in Zhejiang have moved away from the low-end, low-margin manufacturing industry to agriculture. In fact according to the Zhejiang Provincial Administration for Industry and Commerce, “the average annual amount of money invested in agriculture by Zhejiang businessmen has exceeded 10 billion yuan over the past five years. The total amount reached 20 billion yuan last year.” Could your ag firm work with these businessmen in modernizing their farms?
Or maybe foreign companies that build or design automated farming equipment (e.g., robotic fruit pickers) can find demand for products in an industry that is still largely based on manual labor. For example, according to a 2010 statement from China’s Ministry of Agriculture, “in corn production, the mechanization rate for sowing has reached 72.5%, but the mechanization rate for harvesting is only 16.9% and has become the bottleneck for corn production.” In 2012 this figure was updated and the new estimates for the overall mechanization rate for corn harvesting is now 38%. In contrast, in the US both planting and harvesting of corn are fully mechanized. In fact, through the use of mechanization and genetically modified crops, an acre of US farmland “yields twice as much corn as in China or Eastern Europe and four times as much as in India.” Yet mechanization, as shown in the statistics above, is increasing rapidly on the mainland and according to a recent Reuters report, “[m]ore than half of China’s ploughing, planting and harvesting is carried out by machines, compared with a third a decade ago.” In fact, the 2011 harvest yields in Heilongjiang province broke nation-wide records, rising 11% over the previous year due to “bigger and better machinery for threshing and plowing.”
And according to Der Spiegel, one of the reasons German companies purchased the imported strawberries from Shandong in the first place (see the strawberry story at the beginning of the chapter) was because strawberry picking robots capable of washing and cutting are an unknown variable – hence the relatively cheaper labor costs in China provided a cost advantage that neighboring countries did not have (at the time). In fact, because of relatively high labor costs in California, farm companies have begun looking for robotic alternatives such as prototypes from Vision Robotics that while still on the drawing board, have the potential to assist and replace manual human labor. Similarly, German and Californian agribusinesses may even be interested in a project unveiled two years ago: Japanese researchers demonstrated a robotic system that can identify the ripeness of a strawberry which enables the machines to “cut harvesting time from 500 hours to 300 hours.” Thus if you and your company build the agribusiness machines or software that powers the machines, you may be able to find new revenue sources in China.
Yet there are two sides to every coin. As one Chinese source recently told me, “the potential for opportunities for foreign firms remains high in the agriculture industry because it is still largely underdeveloped. Compounding the issue is that much arable land has been seized from farmers for real estate development during the urbanization process, and major labor forces have migrated from the farmlands into the cities, which leads to worries that the current food production capacity may not meet the growing food demand for the populace.” For example, between 1996 and 2008, arable land decreased from 130 million acres to 121 million acres. Another estimate put the loss at 123 million mu (one mu is about 1/6 of an acre). Thus China must either import food or modernize its agricultural industry to increase production to make up for the food shortage. Simultaneously there are regulatory hurdles that sometimes require technology transfers from foreign agriculture firms to Chinese companies. For example, seed companies like Monsanto must team up with local partners in order to gain market access. Yet, these provisions have not prevented Monsanto from increasing both earnings and market share – and it plans to further boost investment on the mainland.
Takeaway: as China develops, its middle class will have more funds and resources to allocate towards food and beverages. US businesses and entrepreneurs are already providing both products and services in the form of agriculture, knowledge and physical storefronts. Yet because of the continued growth, there are still opportunities to start new restaurants or even restructure and train a largely non-mechanized agriculture workforce to the industrial-scale agribusiness that is the envy of emerging markets. Chapter 12 discusses how you can establish a brand in China through its diverse domestic social media networks.