Chinese national Jinghao Lu was a student in the US when he first came to Africa in 2009. For six months he was an exchange student at the University of Ghana.
“At that time China-Africa was a very new topic. I spent half my time studying Chinese companies and their operational behaviour in Ghana. I became very intrigued with this topic,” says Lu.
He went back to the US to complete his studies. And after graduating returned to the continent to work on the China desk at an investment advisory firm in South Africa. To date Lu has been to more than 10 countries in the continent. He is now based in Kenya, working as project director at the Sino Africa Centre of Excellence (SACE) Foundation, an organisation seeking to improve China-Africa relations.
Across the continent there is an estimated one million Chinese, with South Africa hosting the largest percentage of approximately 350,000. However, some argue the actual numbers are much higher.
The SACE Foundation runs a China-Africa Internship Programme for Chinese students to work in African companies.
In addition, Nairobi-based China House brings Chinese students to Kenya to do research for their degrees and help run the organisation’s operations. The social enterprise seeks to assist Chinese professionals to better integrate in Africa.
Jessica Lee (20) is one of dozens of students brought to Kenya by China House. A student at the China Agricultural University, she first came to the East African country in January for a month-long study trip focused on wildlife conservation. She returned months later to do research on agricultural investment in the continent.
“I came here because I see Africa as a place for opportunity. I am very interested in agriculture and I have visited some Chinese farms here – and interacted with local people. I like it here,” says Lee. “I think Africa has more opportunity for Chinese companies compared with other regions.”
Chinese perceptions of Africa
While Lee sees the potential in Africa, this is not the general perception back home. She notes that “the average Chinese thinks Africa is a very scary place”.
“People who have not been to Africa before think it is a huge desert, with poor people starving and dying from diseases and war. They ask, ‘why do you want to go to Africa? It is not safe, there is no food and, it is hot’,” says Liu Tiancai, general manager of Chinese-owned real estate firm Sultan Palace Development.
Tiancai came to Africa in 2009 to work at a construction project in Namibia. He moved to Kenya three years ago where he is overseeing the development of a $47.5m luxury resort on a 43-acre beach-front property at the Kenyan coast.
According to Tiancai, only 5% of staff working on site at the Sultan Palace Beach Retreat project are Chinese. The company needs Chinese experts to work with its local teams to ensure transfer of knowledge and hopefully improve workmanship in the industry.
But bringing Chinese professionals to Africa is hard because of difficulties in securing work permits, and the misperceptions about Africa in China.
“There are people who have a wrong impression of Africa, so trying to convince them to come here is very difficult,” says Tiancai.
Annie Hu, co-founder of China House, notes the biggest challenge attracting Chinese students to her organisation is their “parents’ concerns”. Hu says she too faced resistance.
“[The parents] know little about Africa. When they think of Africa they think diseases, poverty and security issues – but Nairobi is very international and modern. When I told my parents I was coming to Africa they couldn’t believe it. They were concerned about safety. I invited my teacher to speak to them and I also asked someone to send me photos of Nairobi so [my parents] could see [what the city looks like]. Eventually they agreed,” explains Hu.
But Jessica Lee, an only child, had a different experience. “My mother supported me very much. She thinks Africa is not so safe, especially because I am coming here alone – so she thinks this is an opportunity for me to grow and become independent.”
The language barrier and cultural differences are some of the many difficulties Chinese nationals face in Africa.
“The biggest challenge is that our mindset is very different from that of people here,” says Lee.
“Insecurity is a great concern for most people. Sometimes houses get broken into, and sometimes the domestic staff and drivers collude to steal from and hurt their Chinese employers,” adds Liu Tiancai.
Nonetheless, SACE Foundation’s Jinghao Lu is excited by the continent’s opportunities.
“What I like about Africa is how the market is full of opportunities to leave your mark – something you can’t do in the US. I also like the environment, the culture and how nice people are,” he says.
But it is “too early” for Lu to decide whether to settle in Africa for good. He is an only child and his family, including his aging grandparents, live in Shanghai. So in the meantime, he will keep travelling back and forth.
Jessica Lee is yet to complete her studies in China but is certain she will keep coming back to Africa, while Liu Tiancai will “definitely” be in Africa for a long time.
“I like it a lot here. My wife and my two daughters are here. My elder daughter, aged four, goes to a private school in Nairobi. They like the climate here and we love that Kenya is a free country,” says Tiancai.
He advises Chinese professionals in Africa to learn to understand and respect the culture and engage amicably with locals.
Jinghao Lu urges Chinese migrants to expand their social networks and not just interact with other Chinese people.
“I see even the young Chinese people coming to Africa with good college backgrounds and English degrees still struggle to engage with local communities. But this is the most important thing [to do] if you want to stay informed about the actual environment, not just the perceived one.”