President Obama’s recent trip to Africa, visiting Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, is a good time to look at China’s developing role in Africa. Much of the commentary on Obama’s trip included the fact that China, in 2009, overtook the US as Africa’s largest trading partner and now has twice the trade that the US has with the continent. This has been conveyed as if it were a super bowl match between the two biggest economies of the world. On his trip, Obama took along over 100 US businessmen to consider business opportunities in Africa. What is my take on this?


History repeats itself. When I first arrived 49 years ago in Tanzania, the conspiracy theory then was that the godless Chinese communists were taking over Africa. In particular, they had signed a contract to build the railroad from Dar-es-Salaam on the cost of Tanzania to landlocked Zambia where the Chinese were trying to seize control of the Zambian/Congolese cooper belt. I heard this first from the Bishop of Rulenge Diocese in northwestern Tanzania when I was teaching Rwandan refugees. The Bishop’s emphasis, of course, was on the “godless” part. Two years later when I was at the training for the Peace Corps in Dar-es-Salaam, a man from the US Embassy, whom we assumed was the CIA agent there, gave us a briefing. He emphasized the “communist” aspect of this theory.


Here we are really comparing mangoes and bananas. For decades the Chinese have been flooding East Africa with consumer goods. If Chinese goods in the US are sometimes of poor quality, those imported into Africa are of terrible quality – in six years I have had to replace the Chinese-made faucet in my bathroom sink three times. More recently the Chinese have been focusing on large infrastructure projects – railroads, ports, pipelines, and roads. For example, the Chinese financed and built the first superhighway in Kenya from Nairobi to Thika – four express lanes and two local lanes in each direction. They worked 24 hours per day 365 days in the year and it is now complete. They are heavily involved in building the new Kenyan port in Lamu with the road, railroad, and pipeline to South Sudan where they hope to export the oil from South Sudan as they are the biggest purchaser of that oil. This indicates China’s major interest in Africa – the ability to purchase the long neglected resources that Africa has to offer. If this major increase in extraction of African resources will benefit Africans is a question still to be answered.



The United States, on the other hand, mostly invests in business in Africa. Here in Kenya you can find Everyready Battery, Goodyear Tire, Coca-Cola (of course), General Electric, and even Google. Kentucky Fried Chicken is here – I went once last year and found that there offerings in Kenya were just as greasy and salty as in the US. Walmart is on its way to Kenya via its new acquisition in South Africa. I have never known of American companies building roads, ports, gaslines, or railroads in this region. Of course, how this benefits Africans, is also an open question.


An overlooked aspect is that China is hardly the only country eyeballing African resources. India, in particular, has a strong interest and, in East Africa, has the added benefit of the Indians who were imported to the region in the late 19th century to build the original railroads. Indians still control the building trade stories in Kenya including nearby Turbo and Kipkarren River. Others, though, have become tycoons and are able to leverage support from large Indian companies. Many other countries are also involved – Japan (Japanese cars dominate here), Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea. A strong, new entry in the region is Turkey, which wants to establish strong relations with countries that encircle the Arab Middle East – they were the first major country back into Somalia and are now helping to rebuild the Mogadishu airport.


One major negative effect of the interest of China in Africa is the rise of poaching of elephants and rhinoceros. Over 30,000 elephants were killed last year. During the first decade of this century, poaching was contained and the number of elephants and rhinoceros were increasing, but recently this has changed as the scarcity of ivory and rhino horn medicines increased their price. In the past few years the poaching has escalated as more Chinese have access to Africa.


African trade and development is not a major league sport where there are winners and losers. Rather it is the interaction of the global community that, if done correctly, benefits all those who are involved.

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