China-africa busi­ness: Dis­course still lacks equi­lib­rium

Lesotho Times - - Business - Isaac Kwaku Fokuo is prin­ci­pal at BOTHO Ltd. and co-founder of the Sino-africa Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence (SACE) Foun­da­tion – a think tank based in Nairobi, Kenya that aims to fa­cil­i­tate sus­tain­able China-africa trade and in­vest­ment through re­search, project in

IT is not hard to view re­cent de­vel­op­ments in Sino-african re­la­tions through rose-tinted glasses. Num­bers from a re­cent Mckin­sey re­port sug­gest that Africa’s en­gage­ment with China may be the con­ti­nent’s most sig­nif­i­cant re­la­tion­ship till date, as China out­strips In­dia, France, the USA, the UK, and Ger­many to be­come Africa’s top eco­nomic part­ner. Whether it is aid, trade, in­fra­struc­ture fi­nanc­ing, or for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment (FDI), China ranks among the top five in every cat­e­gory of in­flu­ence.

It is, in fact, no se­cret that I, too, am a ma­jor pro­po­nent of Sino-african re­la­tions and the enor­mous po­ten­tial that it holds. How­ever, while the nar­ra­tive has shifted con­sid­er­ably from ear­lier spec­u­la­tions around China’s neo-colo­nial “scram­ble” for Africa’s re­sources, the dis­course sur­round­ing China’s en­gage­ment still lacks equi­lib­rium. Specif­i­cally, there is an im­plicit ten­dency to down­play Africa’s agency, with China serv­ing ei­ther as a ra­pa­cious neo-im­pe­ri­al­ist, or a benev­o­lent big brother, and the con­ti­nent ly­ing gen­er­ally on the re­ceiv­ing end of what is a skewed re­la­tion­ship one way or the other.

The afore­men­tioned Mckin­sey re­port, for ex­am­ple, por­trayed a re­la­tion­ship that was more or less uni­di­rec­tional, with China serv­ing as the fo­cal point. At a macro level, the num­bers were un­doubt­edly im­pres­sive, but were heav­ily con­cen­trated on how cap­i­tal, labour and re­sources flow from China to Africa. At a mi­cro level, the dis­cus­sion re­volved around how African firms should strate­gi­cally po­si­tion them­selves rel­a­tive to their Chi­nese coun­ter­parts.

If African coun­tries are to com­pete glob­ally, at some point the con­ver­sa­tion has to move to­wards how Africa can cre­ate re­cip­ro­cal link­ages with its in­ter­na­tional part­ners. While it is im­por­tant to court in­bound FDI, there should also be a si­mul­ta­ne­ous push to­wards de­vel­op­ing path­ways and chan­nels for Africa’s pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors to make in­roads into in­ter­na­tional mar­kets. How, for ex­am­ple, can African com­pa­nies com­pete in Chi­nese mar­kets, when there are al­ready, ac­cord­ing to Mckin­sey’s find­ings, over 10,000 Chi­nese-owned en­ter­prises play­ing across the con­ti­nent to­day? How can African gov­ern­ments ne­go­ti­ate with their Chi­nese coun­ter­parts to en­sure that the Chi­nese govern­ment holds Chi­nese com­pa­nies in Africa to the same stan­dards that they en­force in China?

A re­cent study on how var­i­ous brands are far­ing in Africa re­vealed that non-africa brands are con­sis­tently dom­i­nat­ing lo­cal mar­kets across the con­ti­nent. Among the top-50 most ad­mired brands in Africa, only eight are “home grown.”

In light of this, per­haps the ques­tion of how Africa can at­tract more for­eign in­vest­ments is not the only is­sue at hand. If any­thing, there is a need to cre­ate greater im­pe­tus around how Africans can be­come more com­pet­i­tive in their own mar­kets, as well as how they can ac­cess and com­pete in over­seas mar­kets whose play­ers are al­ready en­trenched through­out the con­ti­nent.

Ear­lier this year, I had iden­ti­fied China’s eco­nomic slow­down as an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate greater in­ter­de­pen­dence and mu­tual ben­e­fit for both re­gions. In­stead of re­act­ing to global forces that are mo­ti­vated to en­gage in Africa for an ar­ray of rea­sons, it is high time that African gov­ern­ments, en­ter­prises, and pro­fes­sion­als took charge of the dis­course sur­round­ing their var­i­ous in­ter­ac­tions.

There is an al­ter­na­tive to the ‘Big Brother’-‘neo-colo­nial Preda­tor’ di­chotomy and it is on that path that Africa will be able to find equal foot­ing with its in­ter­na­tional part­ners.

Isaac Kwaku Fokuo

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