Thoughts on Chinese workers in Africa

"We need more of the right profile people on the continent from all over the world, China being one of them,” says Isaac Kwaku Fokuo, founder of the Sino-Africa Centre of Excellence Foundation.

“We need more of the right profile people on the continent from all over the world, China being one of them,” says Isaac Kwaku Fokuo, founder of the Sino-Africa Centre of Excellence Foundation.

China’s expanding presence in sub-Saharan Africa tends to elicit rather passionate, and sometimes controversial responses. Some see China as Africa’s modern day colonial master while others view the Asian giant as a catalyst for growth.

But it’s a safe bet that China will remain prominent in Africa for years to come, and the numbers of Chinese migrants coming to live, work and study in Africa will also likely increase. The present Chinese migrant population in Africa is estimated to be one million, although some argue the actual total is much higher.

As the numbers have risen, so has unease, especially among those who believe the Chinese are taking jobs away from Africans. But such claims are simply not true, says Hongxiang Huang, founder and CEO of Nairobi-based China House – an organisation that helps Chinese nationals and companies better integrate in Africa.

“Honestly, I haven’t seen real competition here between a Kenyan worker and a Chinese over the same job vacancy. They each have different skills and advantages. The Chinese people here cannot take a lawyer’s job, we cannot take an accounting job or a field construction job. Even businesses run by Chinese here are targeted towards other Chinese. If we open a supermarket selling Chinese stuff, will it be competition to Nakumatt (Kenyan supermarket chain)? If we open a Chinese restaurant will it be competition to local nyama choma (roasted meat) restaurants? No,” explains Huang.

Huang says it is also no longer the case that Chinese companies operating abroad are only interested in appointing Chinese employees. And hiring locals is often not just an effort for Chinese companies to endear themselves to host communities, but the better economic move.

“It is cost effective, because to bring one Chinese employee here will cost you enough money to hire several locals,” says Huang. “Additionally, immigration is already a challenge in many countries. In Kenya, the working visa is super expensive.”

But instead of worrying of other “people taking our jobs” Kenya-based Ghanaian Isaac Kwaku Fokuo notes Africans should think of the opportunities created by skilled economic migrants. Fokuo is founder of the Sino-Africa Centre of Excellence (SACE) Foundation. The organisation runs a ‘China-Africa Internship Programme’ which brings Chinese students to Africa to work local companies. Over the last two years it has brought 15 Chinese students to do three-month internships in African companies in the financial, legal, human resources and infrastructure sectors. The goal is to give such companies access to Chinese clients and to foster linkages with potential partners in China.

Fokuo notes that Africa is in dire need of professionals due to a shortage of skilled labour in some sectors.

“Most of our countries could use more engineers, medical doctors, innovators, so we can’t say people are taking jobs, especially those on the professional side where we have a shortage of talent,” explains Fokuo. “We need more of the right profile people on the continent from all over the world, China being one of them.

“If there is a Chinese neurosurgeon who wants to work on the continent, I am very happy to find work for her in Africa because who knows, she may inspire a young African into medicine or importantly save a life.”

Immigration concerns

The issue of immigration, and perceived threats to jobs meant for locals, “is not unique to Africa”, says Fokuo.

Immigration is an increasingly hot issue around the world. It has become a dominant topic in campaign debates in the US where the number of immigrants hit more than 40 million in 2013, according to Pew Research Centre. Across the Atlantic, Europe is also witnessing a record number of migrants and refugees coming to its shores, and at the same time a rising anti-immigrant sentiment.

“All over the world somebody thinks someone is taking their job. Americans are complaining the Mexicans are taking their jobs, Europeans have been complaining about immigrants from Africa and elsewhere taking their jobs,” says Fokuo. “The evidence remains though that immigration breeds diversity which in turn breeds innovation, job creation, disruption of boundaries, and many other good effects.

“If we only focus on what is in front of us, we may never realise the macro benefits to our communities.”

While it is essential to preserve jobs that can be done by locals, Fokuo says Africa will benefit by allowing in foreign companies, and highly skilled, innovative and entrepreneurial professionals.

“The father of [Apple founder] Steve Jobs was a Syrian immigrant to the US. Michael Joseph (the celebrated former CEO of Kenyan telco Safaricom who led the development of mobile money service M-Pesa) was a foreigner in Kenya,” notes Fokuo.

“The migrants we are talking about create jobs and they innovate. We should be careful in terms of policies – but we shouldn’t be scared of people coming here.”

“There should be some sort of control – but it shouldn’t be about numbers. It should be controlling the kind of people you want to come here,” adds China House’s Huang. “There is no need for fear. More Chinese people are actually going to developed countries in the US and Europe [than those coming to Africa].”