Richard Attias is an eternal optimist who believes Chinese entrepreneurs will play a big role in transforming Africa into an economic engine.
As the executive chairman of Richard Attias and Associates, the US-based global strategic consulting firm, and the founder of the New York Forum Africa, an annual meeting that promotes economic leadership in Africa, he says that though the continent has been long neglected, it still has the potential to offer rich rewards for investors.
The 54-year old Attias, who was born in Morocco, says he believes in new ideas and making things happen, something that he finds in abundance among present day Chinese entrepreneurs.
« They (Chinese entrepreneurs) are playing a key role everywhere, » Attias says pointing to the different projects, including roads, hospitals and sports centers, that Chinese companies have helped build in Africa.
The Pan-Africa economic conference, organized by the New York Forum Africa in Libreville, Gabon every year is considered to be an important economic event as it brings together the key stake-holders who have a big role to play in the continent’s development.
The third edition of the New York Forum Africa will be held from May 23 to May 25 in Libreville and will draw more than 150 speakers and 800 participants including business leaders, policymakers, and even some heads of state from 50 countries. The main points for discussion this time around are topics pertaining to the broad transformation of the continent.
« Transformation is a key word – it means all natural resources should be transformed on the ground, investment should be transformed in industries, and education should be transformed into talents, » Attias says.
« Chinese investors have a big role to play in this transformation, » he says. More importantly, it is also the opportune time for Chinese investment in Africa to be more « inclusive » and for the partnership to be a « win-win » one that creates more jobs and boosts the local economy.
« (Chinese) investment is certainly entering a new phase. It has moved beyond the traditional realms of just bringing in capital and expertise, » Attias says.
« The striking difference is that Chinese companies have now realized that being a good corporate social responsibility partner can bring huge economic benefits. »
For this, Attias says, it is important that Chinese investors form « long-term » goals and focus on what they can do « for » the local communities.
« The challenge for Chinese companies is to form sustainable economic partnerships and get the local work-force more involved in such projects, » Attias says.
Jerome Youmani Lankoande, chief executive of Innovation Quebec, a Montreal based firm specialized in technology scouting, says China will need to invest more in market research if it wants to make tangible gains in Africa as the African markets are very fragmented.
« Africa is a continent with many countries, many regions and different cultures. Chinese investors should get to know more about African culture – region by region, country by country – as French and British investors did, » Lankoande says.
« For that, an important element will be to invest in African culture from coast to coast. »
China-Africa trade has grown rapidly in the past decade. In 2000, the bilateral trade between the two sides was around $10 billion, while in 2012 it topped $200 billion. Chinese foreign direct investments in African nations is expected to reach $50 billion by 2015, according to a report published by Standard Bank, a South African lender.
In March last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo as part of his first overseas tour as president.
Earlier this month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made an eight day trip to Africa and visited Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya, as part of China’s efforts to expand economic ties with the continent. Li’s visit concluded with the signing of a number of deals on trade, energy, investment and development, including a call to expand cooperation in infrastructure and a pledge to increase Chinese aid to Africa by $12 billion (which includes $10 billion in loans and $2 billion for the China-Africa Development Fund).
In Kenya, Li signed agreements with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and other East African leaders to build a $3.6-billion, 380-mile railway line connecting Nairobi to the Kenyan port of Mombasa. Construction is expected to start in October and go on till March 2018 and will be part of a regional railway system that will extend through Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan. The Export-Import Bank of China will fund most of the project and the balance by the Kenyan government.
Attias says that China’s commitment to build infrastructure will help in forging long-term relationships with local communities in Africa.
« It’s important to understand the vision and strategies of the Chinese companies, » he says.
Wang Xiaoyong, secretary-general of China-Africa Business Council, says the railway agreement is an important milestone in Sino-African relations.
« Building the railway is a significant step for Kenya and other African countries. At the same time, it is also important for China to be part of this process and help in the actual construction, » Wang says.
According to Wang, constructing the railway line will involve not only financing and construction but also materials supply and vocational training of local workers. « Chinese investors can help on different fronts and it will help them build their reputation as investors in Africa, » Wang says.
Lankoande, the author of the book the political economy of China’s Foreign Direct Investments in Africa, says China stands out as an investor not by short term but « by long-term return on investment in Africa ».
« While oil and mining remain an important focus, Chinese investments are targeting sectors ranging from manufacturing to food. This diversification is very important for the African economy, » Lankoande says.
However, he also agrees with Attias’ ideas about African transformation.
« I think the most important thing the Chinese investors can bring to Africa and make a difference is through technology transfer, » he says. « As we all know, China became a major player in technological innovation and it has several technologies that meet Africa’s needs, especially in terms of the features and cost, » Lankoande says.
Terming China, « a human resources power in the global market », Lankoande says there is immense potential to create a win-win partnership with Africa in vocational training.
« China produces over 400,000 engineers every year, and this is huge compared to any other country in the world. These engineers can help make technology transfer from China to Africa a reality, » he says.
There are also opportunities for Sino-Africa technology transfer in natural resources also as Chinese engineers are facing the same development challenges that African engineers are striving to overcome, Lankoande says.
He says that most of the investment opportunities in Africa are still untapped. « Africa is the last frontier for growth, » Lankoande says. « Many African countries are generating wealth at a rate presently unmatched in any other part of the world and that makes them primary destinations for investment from all around the world. »
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