Chinese and Africans discuss business opportunities at two-day forum

The Investing in Africa forum held in Changsha city, Hunan province, on Thursday (Sept 6) and Friday saw lively discussions on development issues and business opportunities in Africa including agriculture, energy and climate change, skills developmen
The Investing in Africa forum held in Changsha city, Hunan province, on Thursday (Sept 6) and Friday saw lively discussions on development issues and business opportunities in Africa including agriculture, energy and climate change, skills development and the digital economy. ST PHOTO: GOH SUI NOI

CHANGSHA - Early last week, Beijing held a cooperation summit with 53 African countries against the backdrop of criticism, mainly in Western media, that it was practising new colonialism and "debt trap" diplomacy.

Yet, two days after the summit, the Western-led World Bank together with the Chinese Finance Ministry and Chinese Development Bank held a two-day forum in Changsha, Hunan province, to encourage more Chinese firms to invest in Africa.

The Investing in Africa Forum (IAF), which is in its fourth year, was established as a platform to promote multilateral cooperation and investment opportunities in Africa. It brings together private and public sector representatives from China and Africa, international and regional institutions, development partners and think-tanks to deepen policy dialogue, share experiences and discuss business opportunities to boost investment and sustainable development in Africa.

Explaining why the World Bank went into partnership with China on the IAF, Dr Haleh Bridi, director of regional communications and partnerships for Africa, said: "China just 40 years ago was the third-poorest country in the world and now look what has happened to China after 40 years. There are so many lessons that China can bring to Africa."

Beyond the lessons, China can also bring a lot of investment and technology transfer to Africa, she added.

In exchanges with the Chinese, "we have seen a very strong willingness to contribute to the development of Africa with financial resources, with advice, with guidance and with know-how", she told The Straits Times.

On the "debt trap" issue , she acknowledged that it was true and important in some countries.

 
 
 

She added, however, that the Chinese were the first to bring up the subject of debt in discussions with the World Bank, indicating their awareness of the problem.

"And they are taking concrete action," she said, pointing to Chinese President Xi Jinping's pledge last week at the summit on debt relief for the poorest African nations.

She also noted that among the eight initiatives announced by Mr Xi was the doubling of support for the China-Africa Development Fund which finances equity. A new fund being created for industrial development with an endowment of US$10 billion was also an equity fund, she noted.

Dr Alawi Shaaban Swabury, a Tanzanian who runs a consulting firm based in Germany that promotes investments from China and Europe into Sub-Saharan Africa, has no problem with China's engagement with Africa.

"The Chinese government is helping Africa to build infrastructure so that investors can come utilise those infrastructure," he told The Straits Times, pointing out that without infrastructure, Africa cannot industrialise.

Dr Swabury remains wide-eyed about why the Chinese are in Africa.

He said: "The Chinese are not missionaries, they are not coming to Africa to preach religion, they are coming here to do business."

"It's a win-win situation, and we like that," said Dr Swabury, who attended the IAF.

China also does not dictate to Africa on what it should or should not do, which is what the World Bank and other lenders had done, he said, alluding to China's policy of non-interference in Africa's domestic affairs and multilateral institutions' tough conditions for loans.

"So now we have an alternative in our friend China" who would want returns on its investment but help make things happen, he said.

Dr Benson Ayodele Cole, a Nigerian who is the medical director of a medical diagnostic company, said that with the West retreating from the continent, Africans should welcome the Chinese.

He noted that China was looking at Africa as the next frontier and a place where they could do business while Africa at this time needed to develop, grow its economy and grow capacity. If China was willing to offer capacity building, investment and development, Africa should take it, he added.

In a 2016 report by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research network, 63 per cent of Africans saw China's influence as somewhat positive or very positive, while 15 per cent deemed it somewhat or very negative.

Among the sectors discussed at this year's IAF was agriculture and agro-processing, with agriculture seen as key to reducing poverty in Africa as it employs more than 50 per cent of the continent's labour force.

China, which has been hugely successful in lifting hundreds of millions of its people, including farmers, out of poverty, is seen as providing lessons on how Africa can go about increasing yield and production.

Another refrain at the forum was Africa's hope to leapfrog into a prosperous future through technology and innovation. Apart from agriculture, other topics discussed included education and skills development, climate change and energy, health and the digital economy and innovation.

Sixteen deals were inked between Chinese entities, including funds, private firms and universities and African and international organisations in areas such as poverty alleviation, agri-business, affordable housing and technological and railway talent training.

Chinese participants at the forum aired their grouses about doing business in Africa.

One complained that while Africa is a big continent with a large population - 1.2 billion - it was divided  into quite a number of countries, with each a small market cut off from the rest by trade barriers. There are 54 countries in Africa.

Another, Mr Yuan Tao, who is in the e-commerce business and employs about 100 African workers, said he faced many challenges managing them and leveraging their talent. He thought that African and Chinese education focused on turning out professionals but neglected the affective part and asked if Africans and Chinese could be taught to love each other and enjoy each other's culture more.

Still, Dr Bridi felt the forum was a success.

"Every year the quality of the discussions get better and there is closer dialogue and more trust building between the two sides," she said.