Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The Africans looking to make it in China

By Eunice Yoon and Teo Kermeliotis, CNN
April 18, 2012 -- Updated 1039 GMT (1839 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Growing numbers of Africans are seeking economic opportunities in China
  • Many are keen to export goods from world's second-largest economy back into Africa
  • Beijing is sponsoring programs at its universities to encourage Africans to study in China
  • Despite opportunities there are still many challenges for Africans doing business in China

(CNN) -- China has stepped up its engagement with Africa in recent years, scouring the resource-rich continent in its bid to access natural resources and forge new trade routes. But the Asian powerhouse is also emerging as an attractive business destination for Africans.

China's booming economy has been luring an increasing number of Africans to its shores in recent years, most of them eager to export goods from the world's second-largest economy back into their continent.

"I found out there are a lot of opportunities of doing business," says Nigerian shop owner CJ Cajetan, who moved to Guangzhou two years ago as a student but decided to stay in China and try his luck as a clothes seller.

Cajetan is one of the tens of thousands of Africans who've gone to live and work in Guangzhou, a manufacturing city located on the Pearl River in southern China.

Africans multinationals in China

This strong new trading community builds on a growing business engagement between the two sides. Already Africa's largest trade partner, China's economic cooperation with the continent has shot up in recent times. Two-way trade between the two surged to a record $114.8 billion in 2010, according to Chinese authorities.

Linking aid, trade and investment, Beijing's business model in Africa involves building extensive infrastructure projects in the continent and granting loans in exchange for access to natural resources, trade opportunities and expansion into new markets.

Read more: Why Asian giants scent opportunity in Africa

But the burgeoning relationship between the two has also seen a number of African companies trying to get a foothold in the Chinese market, hoping to tap the country's growth and expanding middle class.

South African drinks giant SABMiller has been working for years with a local Chinese brewer and now produces China's biggest selling beer. Such success can be achieved by more African companies as their nations gain a firmer footing, according to consultant Kobus van der Wath.

"China is very open for business for us," says van der Wath, founder of Beijing Axis, a China-focused international advisory firm. "China's repositioning itself continuously for the new Africa that's emerging. We're very well received. We don't come with baggage," he adds.

But despite the growing opportunities, many Africans in China still feel the overall relationship is far from a two-way street.

China's repositioning itself continuously for the new Africa that's emerging. We're very well received.
Kobus van der Wath, Beijing Axis

In Guangzhou, some Africans complain of discrimination, restrictions on religious practices and visa issues. Residents like shipper Festus Mbisiogu -- who has been working in China for six years -- say they have trouble getting documents allowing their families to join them, making it harder for them to settle down.

"Our children are not allowed to reside in China and our joy is not fully complete, we are not living with our children," says Mbisiogu, of Blue Diamond Logistics. "To make the money is not the problem ... but what about your family?"

Read more: Doing business in China: Five tips for success

Others say that navigating potential pitfalls, like protecting intellectual property, can also be a challenge in China.

"If people bring things into China to get them manufactured here, I think keeping that technology secret, as it were, will be very, very difficult," says Graham Hughes, a South African factory manager based near Beijing.

The Chinese government says it's fighting to protect intellectual property rights. It also says it welcomes foreigners to work and live in China and says its visa policies have been applauded.

Beijing has also been sponsoring programs at Chinese universities to encourage young Africans to come to the country to study.

See also: Is the West losing out to China in Africa?

One such student is Susanne Nambatya, from Uganda. "I believe the social problems affecting China, they are the same problems affecting Uganda," says Nambatya. She takes part in a Masters program in Beijing, where she learns economic models that she hopes can spur her country to a sweeping transformation of its own

"I keep asking my question, what is China doing that Uganda can't do?" she adds.

Fellow African student Martin Larbi says his China experience has also been enlightening.

"Coming to China I have seen the other side of industrialization," he says. "I believe industrialization promotes the development of the economy, but the other side I've seen is the pollution of the environment -- it's hard for me to see the blue skies I used to see in my country."

But back in Guangzhou, Cajetan has adapted to his new environment. Like the students in Beijing, he wants to help modernize his home country one day by drawing on his experience in China.

"My plan is to establish a factory because I like to live in Lagos," he says. "I like to help people. I want to employ people to work at my factory."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Marketplace Africa
May 26, 2014 -- Updated 1815 GMT (0215 HKT)
Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has installed two talking robots to help regulate the city's hectic traffic.
February 20, 2014 -- Updated 1121 GMT (1921 HKT)
A South African app allows buyers to pay for goods using their phone, without having to worry about carrying cash or credit cards.
February 19, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
A Zambian computer tablet -- known as the ZEduPad -- is trying to open up the country's information highway.
January 9, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
South Africa may be the dominant force in Africa's wine economy, but other countries are making inroads in the industry.
January 6, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Commuters aboard an overloaded passenger train 03 February 2004, celebrate after arrival at the train station in the centre of the capital Nairobi.
A $5 billion Chinese-funded railway project in Kenya could transform transport in east Africa.
December 13, 2013 -- Updated 0027 GMT (0827 HKT)
African astronomers want world-class observatories to inspire young scientists and build a tech economy.
November 27, 2013 -- Updated 1029 GMT (1829 HKT)
A new report praises South Africa's economic transformation since apartheid. But enormous challenges remain.
November 19, 2013 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Landlocked Burundi is looking to compete on the international stage as one of Africa's most prestigious coffee producers and exporters.
November 22, 2013 -- Updated 1718 GMT (0118 HKT)
zword app zombies
From zombie spelling games to walking snails, Africa's mobile gaming industry is taking off across the continent from Uganda to South Africa.
November 8, 2013 -- Updated 1146 GMT (1946 HKT)
Ethiopia is turning to renewable energy technology as the East African country looks to become a powerhouse for its regional partners.
November 13, 2013 -- Updated 1422 GMT (2222 HKT)
Animated cartoons are helping Kenyan companies to engage with audiences and lure international investors.
November 4, 2013 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Downtown Johannesburg -- once a no-go zone riddled with crime -- is undergoing urban restoration.
October 16, 2013 -- Updated 1412 GMT (2212 HKT)
Using helicopters and night-vision, crime syndicates are taking rhino poaching to a new level and conservation parks are struggling to keep up.
October 10, 2013 -- Updated 0927 GMT (1727 HKT)
Eko Atlantic city design concept
A lack of infrastructure has hindered Africa's development, but a series of megaprojects could change that.
Each week Marketplace Africa covers the continent's macro trends and interviews a major player from the region's business community.
ADVERTISEMENT