By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions
Two-way trade between Africa and China has been an outstanding success story of the past decade. It has led to significant new investment in the continent and brought many new job opportunities. The Chinese community in Africa comprises a mix of entrepreneurs and workers. In formerly war-torn Angola, Chinese workers and investors have led an economic boom as the country recovers from decades of conflict.
The Chinese are generally young, well-educated, English-speaking, ambitious and hard-working. Estimates put the number of Chinese people in Angola at 100,000, and about 1 million across Africa.
The reason these bright young things need to come to Africa goes back to the essential reality of modern China: despite rapid economic growth, per capita incomes classify it as a poor country. While the outside world sees the glitzy, go-go progress of China’s cities, the country’s rural poor go unseen. Around 400 million of China’s 1.3 billion people have annual per-capita income equivalent to US $8,000, while the remaining 900 million have per-capita incomes as little as one-tenth that amount.
Some 6.3 million people in China will graduate this year from university, and it is still very hard for a well-educated Chinese person to get a good job right away. More than a quarter of these graduates will be unemployed, according to the Education Ministry.
There has also been disquiet in parts of Angola over China’s role, with some calling it “neo-colonialism”. But clearly, both Africa and China have much to gain by increasing cooperation.
In the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guangzhou), a trading hub nicknamed “Africa Town” has emerged since 1998. There are officially 20,000 African traders and entrepreneurs in the city of 18 million, but unofficial estimates put the number at more than 100,000. This African trading hub has emerged to the benefit of both the Chinese and Africans. It is a coming together of small traders matching Africa’s strong demand for consumer goods with China’s manufacturing powerhouse.
In Angola, the mix of entrepreneurs and workers is having a big impact on the country’s development.
Betty, a 22-year-old Chinese woman who has various projects in Angola, including the local Chinese language newspaper, is a typical go-getter.
“I am doing much better here than if I had stayed in China,” she told the BBC.
Another beneficiary of the two-way trade is Deng, a construction a worker: “I earn twice as much as I would at home and I have got a better job,” he said.
For most Chinese, foreign travel is still rare and the excitement of going to Africa to work both attracts and repels because of the continent’s reputation.
“At first I found it frightening, “said Wang. “You hear lots of stories of Chinese people being robbed by the locals.” But he found “there are great opportunities here.”
Another, Jet, who runs an air conditioning business, came to Angola five years ago.
“Everything had been destroyed,” he recalled. “There were no roads, railways, shops, nothing. Some Western companies were already here selling their products but I knew I could import things cheaper from China.”
The large infrastructure projects being undertaken by major Chinese companies are also creating new opportunities. Many Chinese labourers are working on building roads, railways, hospitals and vast housing complexes.
One of the more visible symbols of Chinese investment in Angola is the restoration of the Benguela Railway (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benguela_railway), considered one of the great routes of Africa and built by British contractors. An engineering triumph, its 1,344 kilometres (835 miles) of track stretch up the Angolan coast, right into southern Congo. The railway took almost 30 years to build in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but little remained. Until very recently all but a tiny stretch of the line was closed. Now Chinese investment is rebuilding the railway and bringing economic improvement in its wake.
“I couldn’t do this before the railway was fixed,” a woman using the train to get to the market to sell her plump red tomatoes told the BBC. “Before, I had to travel by car which was much more expensive.”
And her income has improved along with the refurbished railway. “I am not rich, but a bit richer,” she said.
And unlike the British, who used the railway to export copper without paying for the resource, the Chinese labourers are getting paid and the Angolan government is paying back the Chinese loan for the railway repairs by selling oil overseas for a market rate.
Published: October 2010
- A Financial Times report on Africa-China trade in 2010. Website:http://www.ft.com/reports/africa-china-trade-2010
- An article about “Africa Town” from the official Guangzhou website. Website: http://www.lifeofguangzhou.com
- Trade Winds: Guangzhou’s African Community by Graeme Nicol is a photo book about the community. Website: http://graemenicol.com/?page_id=115
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
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© David South Consulting 2023
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