China’s approach to helping Africa

China’s approach to helping Africa

China is investing heavily in Africa. While many African welcome the capital and know-how, others fear that China is stepping in with heavy boots. Matthew Brunwasser reports from Nairobi, Kenya.

(image: China Digital Times)

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MARCO WERMAN:  China is also flexing its economic muscles in Africa.  But Matthew Brunwasser reports from Nairobi that many Kenyans consider China’s capital and developmental know-how to be a mixed blessing.

MATTHEW BRUNWASSER:  China began boosting its economic presence in Kenya about eight years ago.  That’s when western aid donors and Kenyan leaders fell out over concerns about corruption and political reforms.  Chinese aid comes with few political strings and in Kenya it came at the right time.  Patrick Oh-Bawth is with the Kenyan Private Sector Alliance.

PATRICK OH-BAWTH:  Over the last five or six years they have begun to now independently compete for projects in Kenya, major infrastructure projects.  And they are winning them hands down.

BRUNWASSER: Analysts estimate that half of all construction work in Nairobi is now done by Chinese firms.  Their increasing dominance of the market has hurt Kenya contractors.  Though most Kenyans seem to agree that Chinese made projects are better quality.  Bo Liu is the spokesman at the Chinese embassy in Nairobi.

BO LIU:  Compared with companies from other countries, the Chinese people, they are working hard.  Some local people, they cannot understand why the Chinese people work at night.

BRUNWASSER: Chinese builders work at night to minimize traffic disruption.  Chinese companies also meet deadlines and stay on budget.  Chinese managers are paid less than their western counterparts and don’t stay in luxury hotels, so they can do the work cheaper.  At the Kenyan Prime Minister’s office, Sylvester Kasuku is an advisor on infrastructure.  He discounts suggestions that China is wooed because of it’s politics, or lack of politics.

SYLVESTER KASUKU:  There has never been a government policy anywhere that the contracts are awarded to Chinese companies.  Never has it been a public policy debated anywhere.  But it has happened by chance that they happened to be the people who have bid lowest.

BRUNWASSER: But aid projects are decided on a bilateral basis between governments.  And there is no question that China avoids getting involved in other countries’ internal issues like human rights and democratic or environmental reforms.  Consultant George Washira says thee is no doubt that African leaders appreciate this.

GEORGE WASHIRA:  I think in many countries they have found it to be very convenient.  The Chinese don’t have to talk of accountability, transparency, which seems to be a mainstay for the western governments.

BRUNWASSER: While some in the west argue that China reinforces bad governance in Africa, Kenyans just scratch their heads.  Mbarak Omar, a silver smith, says the Chinese can do a better job than Kenyans at almost anything.

MBARAK OMAR:  These people, the Chinese, they work day and night those guys.  These people of ours, too much corruption.  They are crazy, better to give the Chinese, they will make everything proper.  Our people they are useless I’m telling you, they’re useless, 100 times I can tell you that.

BRUNWASSER: But there is a downside to Chinese efficiency.  Nicholas Makombi sits in his stall in the dirty and chaotic passages of the Kariokor outdoor crafts market.  He makes sandals like those worn by Masai tribesmen.  Makombi is just one of hundreds of artisans here.  He says about five years ago Chinese made imitations of his Masai sandals started appearing on the market.

NICHOLAS MAKOMBI:  They used to come here and take photos of our products.  Then they go and produce almost the same designs and they sell it at a cheaper price.

BRUNWASSER: Economists say the global flood of cheap Chinese imports have retarded the growth of manufacturing in Kenya and across the developing world.  Makombi says machine made Masai sandals from China have cost him half his sales.

MAKOMBI:  Sometimes we try to compete and make different things than the previous ones but every time we change even the designs, we find they have been taken and another batch comes just the same.

BRUNWASSER:  China is a valuable resource for a continent hungry for capital and development.  In turn, Africa feeds Chinese hunger for energy and raw materials.  But the balance is fragile.  While China is realizing its strategic aims in Kenya, observers say the question is whether Kenyans have a strategy to maximize theirs.  For The World, I’m Matthew Brunwasser, Nairobi.

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