This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on September 10, 2017
Earlier this year, McKinsey and Company, released a report on Sino-African relations that assessed the activities of Chinese businesses in Africa as well as Sino-African economic partnerships. There are about 10,000 Chinese-owned firms operating in Africa today and about 90 percent of these are privately owned debunking the myth that Chinese business activity in Africa is dominated by State Owned Enterprises and overly influenced by state craft. Of particular interest is understanding how the Chinese presence is informing industrial development, a chronically underdeveloped sector on the continent.
31 percent of Chinese firms in Africa are in manufacturing and they already handle about 12 percent of industrial production in Africa with annual revenues of about USD 60 billion; revenues in manufacturing outstrip that of any other sector listed. Chinese factories are focused on Africa’s domestic markets, 93 percent of revenues come from local or regional sales in Africa.
One third of Chinese firms report profit margins of over 20 percent in 2015. In manufacturing this is attributed to ample pricing headroom in Africa; prevailing market prices for manufactured products are so high that Chinese firm earn comfortable profits and their profit levels are higher than those of African firms. Interestingly although manufacturing is capital investment and commitment heavy, 31 percent of firms made investment decisions within a week. 67 percent of firms investments are self-financed and Chinese companies are optimistic about the future of the African market with most firms indicating plans for expansion.
Chinese firms are also generating local employment as 89 percent of employees are African; this figure is 95 percent in the manufacturing sector. 61 percent of firms upskill African employees through professional training and/or apprenticeships, an indication that Africa is poor at educating Africans with skills relevant for employment. In terms of management, 44 percent of managers are African, this figure is 54 percent in the manufacturing sector. Chinese firms contribute to African markets mainly by introducing new products, services, technologies and methods.
The report is clearly optimistic of Chinese firm activity in Africa, for example more content is focused on detailing the benefits than to delineating the costs; one wonders why. And the costs are significant, there are concerns of Chinese firms engaging in dumping where they sell products in export markets at prices below those in domestic markets. This may be leading to ‘unfair’ capture of export markets from African firms. Breaches of labour regulations are more common among Chinese firms than in other foreign-owned firms. These include inhumane working conditions, work without contracts, exceeding legal limits on work hours and threatening to fire workers who refuse to work in unsafe conditions.
Clearly Chinese firms will continue to make inroads into Africa and the continent will accrue many benefits from this but will also have to vigilantly manage the costs. With regards to industrialisation, it will be interesting to see how African industrial policy will be structured to encourage a stronger indigenous presence in the sector given the ability, innovation, efficiency and commitment of Chinese manufacturing firms, firms which also benefit from African trade deals as they are domicile here. Chinese firms make it clear that there is a lucrative domestic market that indigenous firms have failed to fully tap and thus African firms have a lot to learn from Chinese firms. If trends continue, a situation may emerge where African industrialisation is owned and dominated by Chinese firms. While this is welcome in terms of contributions to Africa’s development, can it then be termed ‘African’ industrialisation?
Anzetse Were is a development economist; firstname.lastname@example.org