Despite falling investment in the continent, Chinese entrepreneurs, investors, and wanderers are digging in.
NAIROBI, KENYA — Jeff Kiarie was guarding a Chinese mine back in early 2014 near Arusha, Tanzania when Chinese managers and investors picked up and left, leaving their excavators, tractors, and wheel loaders behind, offering no explanation.
“They couldn’t just leave so many machines here,” Kiarie, the lone Tanzanian now guarding thousands of tons of Chinese mining equipment, says he reasoned.
But that’s exactly what seems to have happened; Kiarie’s mine remains abandoned, and other Chinese operations on the African continent seem to be in peril. For years, Western media has covered Chinese trade and investment with the continent somewhat breathlessly; a November 2006 New York Times report declared that Chinese development “looks more like Africa’s future than its past,” and a February 2011 article for the BBC proclaimed that “the Chinese are coming” to Africa.
Now, with the recent drop in Chinese investment and trade with the continent, it might seem appropriate to declare that the Chinese are going. But as some are leaving, others are innovating, exploring, and digging in.
Since the turn of the 21st century, Chinese state-owned and private enterprises have poured into African countries, seeking natural resources, new markets, and other business opportunities. China’s trade with the continent has skyrocketed; in 2009, China surpassed the United States to become Africa’s largest trading partner, and by 2014 flows exceeded U.S. trade with the continent by more than $120 billion. These trends coincided with an explosion in optimism about Africa’s economic growth prospects.
But now with the slowdown in China’s economic growth — its GDP expanded 6.9 percent in 2015, down from 7.3 percent in 2014 and the lowest growth rate China has seen in 25 years — things are changing. China’s customs office recently reported that African exports to China in 2015 fell 38 percent from 2014.
In November 2015, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced a 40 percent year-on-year plunge in investment to the continent, what the state-run English-language China Daily called a “collapse.” As the jumbo jet that is China’s economy slows — or worse, perhaps heads for a hard landing — some analysts believe the outlook for the African continent is bleak. South Africa’s plunging currency, the rand, is one recent manifestation of more pain to come.
In September and October 2015, as part of our work at China House, a Chinese-led social business which focuses on China-Africa issues, we spoke with investors, managers, employees, and wanderers of Chinese origin across several eastern and southern African nations including Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia.
What those people observed provides a mix of optimism and pessimism for Africa’s future. On one hand, as China’s previously insatiable appetite for oil, metals, and minerals wanes, African economies dependent on the export of commodities are hurting.
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