Culture shock: Helping Chinese investors to better integrate in Africa

China House co-founder Annie Hu

China House co-founder Annie Hu

A Chinese restaurant in Nairobi was in March accused of denying Africans entry past 5pm, causing uproar on social media. The restaurant’s owners told a local daily the “no-African after 5pm” policy was instituted to make its Chinese patrons feel safer and more comfortable. 

After the racism scandal broke, the restaurant was looted by angry youths, shut down by county officials for violating health standards, and its owner charged in court for operating the business without a licence.

This incident is one of many that paint the delicate relationship between Africans and Chinese nationals in the continent. There have been multiple labour disputes at Chinese operated companies and protests by small traders over fears of competition from Chinese business people. Conservationists have also pointed fingers at Chinese nationals for driving the ivory and rhino horn trade that is rapidly wiping out Africa’s elephants and rhinos.

Over the past decade China has increased its economic ties with Africa pouring billions of dollars in infrastructure and mining projects. Many people praise and support China’s involvement in Africa, but others are sceptical and talk of “resource colonialism”. And the presence of China in Africa is only set to increase.

Helping the Chinese integrate in Africa

It is for this reason that Nairobi-based social enterprise China House is seeking to help Chinese companies and professionals integrate better by reducing social and environmental conflicts arising from Chinese foreign investment. The organisation was established last year by Hongxiang Huang, a twenty-something journalist who came to Africa to study Chinese investment. The Columbia University graduate saw the challenges Chinese companies face fitting into their new environment.

“There are the labour issues, [companies not being] familiar with local laws and closing channels to local media – as well as the lack of integration with local communities because of language barriers and cultural differences,” says China House co-founder Annie Hu. “So we started looking at ways of contributing to Chinese sustainable investment in Africa.”

China House does consultancy work for Chinese companies investing in the continent, helping them improve labour relations and carry out their activities without damaging the environment. It also provides corporate social responsibility (CSR) consulting and sustainable impact investment research services. Its research focuses on developing customised solutions in the areas of law, taxation, finance and labour.

China House hopes to see Chinese companies pursue an economically sound investment model that is also socially responsible. One of the projects it has been involved in is a technology entrepreneurship competition, dubbed Africa Tech Challenge – which it planned and executed as a CSR initiative for Chinese state-owned firm AVIC International.

“Our goal is to help Chinese investors find sustainable opportunities here – not just earn their money and leave,” say Hu.

China House is based in Nairobi’s Kilimani district, in an apartment that serves as residence and co-working space for its employees and fellows. The firm’s operations are driven by Chinese young people who “have a strong interest in Africa” and are dedicated to solving “Chinese overseas engagement issues”. The fellows are selected from universities across the globe.

“They come because Kenya is a really nice country. The [fellows] have cross-cultural backgrounds, some have studied in the US and Europe and are in the media and international development sectors. So Africa is a good destination for their [degree] major.”

Cultural walls

She says many Chinese companies are eager to improve relations with Africans. In most companies, Hu explains, the majority of employees are locals, contrary to perceptions. In fact, a 2014 study found 78% of full time employees in Chinese companies doing business in Kenya are locals.

But the Chinese suffer “culture shock” when they come to Africa and struggle to shake off the habit of doing things as they are accustomed to back home.

“Language is also a big problem. Many Chinese [professionals] here cannot speak English well and thus can’t understand local employees. And when there is a language problem they just close the channel to talking to local employees. So we bring Chinese who are well educated and have cross-cultural experience to help ease that interaction,” says Hu.

Aside from the social and environmental work, China House is also encouraging and helping Chinese companies engage with local media to reduce stereotypes against Chinese nationals that are driven by lack of information.

“There is a cultural difference in that Kenyans are willing to speak to reporters but we are not used to it. Chinese people don’t like talking to media even when they are in China. So we are trying to convince them that it is good to talk to the media and to not be afraid of them.”