The Chinese presence in Africa is quite extraordinary and the continent collectively is the third-largest recipient of Chinese outward foreign direct investment of nearly $90bil.
AFRICA, with its one billion population and surging birth and economic growth rates, is and will be the next economic battlefield, a terrain that will be fought over by Chinese, Indian, American and European investors.
While Malaysia is a small fry among this company, we have a surprisingly high profile thanks to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s foresight and enthusiasm for the continent in the 80s and 90s. Dr Mahathir founded the Langkawi International Dialogues in 1995, which was and remains an important platform for Malaysia to engage with African nations.
We shouldn’t let these relationships lie forgotten. Instead, we need to build on this remarkable goodwill because it can provide real business opportunities for our country.
As the IMF had forecast in October 2012, Sub-Saharan Africa’s regional output is expected to expand by about 5.25 percent in 2012 and 2013.
The Financial Times on the other hand reported in November 2011 that the African Development Bank expected pan-African GDP in 2012 to be 5.5 percent.
True, poverty and political instability remain major issues but these are phenomenal rates compared to its former European colonial masters now.
Meanwhile, the Chinese presence is quite extraordinary, beginning from my fellow travellers on the late-night Kenya Airways Boeing 777 bound for Nairobi during my November trip there – many of whom were clearly from Guangzhou where the plane had originated. I still remember drifting off to sleep as announcements in Mandarin droned on in the background.
Upon arriving in Nairobi, I noticed to my surprise that most of my fellow Asian travellers had merely changed planes for other more exotic destinations – Juba, Lilongwe, Maputo, Addis Ababa, Kinshasa and Douala.
Nairobi, while strange and alien enough for me, was already old-hat for my Chinese compatriots.
Driving into town along the Mombasa Highway, I hit the morning rush-hour, enduring what can only be described of as a truly Asian traffic jam, replete with peddlers selling newspapers, magazines, household implements and toys.
We crawled along for mile after mile, negotiating the now inadequate roundabouts, overtaken in turn by the many people walking along the side of the busy thoroughfare.
After an hour or so, the city’s downtown with the distinctive cylindrical-shaped Kenyatta International Convention Centre – an icon in Nairobi where I was to stay – thankfully emerged into view.
Turning off the highway towards my hotel, I noticed a new intersection, replete with flyovers up ahead. Squinting, I could just about make out the banners announcing its upcoming launch.
Having been struck by the poor state of Nairobi’s infrastructure, I asked my driver about the new development and was told: “The Chinese built it sir. It’s the new Thika Expressway and the president will be opening it tomorrow.”
Chinese trade and investment in Africa has boomed. As Greg Levesque of the US-China Business Council wrote in the Business Insider on 27 June, the continent collectively is the third-largest recipient of Chinese outward foreign direct investment (OFDI) of nearly $90bil (RM273bil).
Major destinations include South Africa, Angola, Nigeria and Algeria.
The key sector is of course energy, with Chinese state-owned firms like the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) hunting oil and gas blocks to meet the Asian giant’s energy hunger.
However, China is also moving into other sectors like infrastructure. The Thika Expressway for instance created 3,500 jobs for local Kenyans.
Also, in July, outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao offered over $20bil (RM60.8bil) in loans to African countries over the next three years.
But China’s push into Africa hasn’t come without criticism, and during the Mo Ibrahim Foundation dialogue that I attended in Dakar later on, a number of speakers touched on the imbalance in relations. Most felt uneasy about the way Africa’s natural resources were being exported to China, in return for which Africans were importing all manner of consumer goods.
As one speaker said, “The Chinese need to set up factories here in Africa to supply this market. In years to come, we will have the largest pool of young workers”.
The pan-African investment banker, Mamadou Toure felt that the continent is generally receptive. However he stresses: “China’s investments in Africa currently exceed the World Bank’s. We do need to diversify our partners.”
Indeed, there’s concern that China’s influence could alter the very social fabric of Africa. Afia Asantewaa Asare-Kyei, a Programme manager with George Soros’ Open Society Foundation in Senegal and a Ghanaian recalls a recent trip back home to her village in the Ashanti Region:
“I was surprised to see Chinese workers panning for gold alongside the locals.”
The Chinese presence is multi-faceted and deep. Indeed even in Dakar, at the newly built National Theatre (where the foundation’s dialogue took place), constructed with Chinese funding (they picked up around $28mil (RM85mil) of the total $32mil (RM97.3mil) cost) and know-how. Chinese workers – pleased with what they’d achieved, were very much in evidence.
The African decade is upon us. Are we in Malaysia ready to seize the opportunities that Dr Mahathir bequeathed us?