A Chinese businessman looks out the window on board an SNIM train carrying iron ore and mine workers across the desert outside Zouerate in Mauritania. Photo: REUTERS / Joe Penney
A Chinese businessman looks out the window on board an SNIM train carrying iron ore and mine workers across the desert outside Zouerate in Mauritania. Photo: REUTERS / Joe Penney

Georgetown University Professor Yoon Jung Park notes that Africa’s Chinese population is a hodgepodge of disparate groups.

The migration expert says roughly half of all Chinese migrants in Africa are employed by Chinese State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) or private companies in construction, mining and oil. However in West African nations like Nigeria and Ghana, Park says local oil and other industries hire Chinese because they’re seen as being cheaper or more efficient.

Next, there’s a smaller community of Chinese diplomats and journalists who tend to circulate in and out of the region, followed by an independent group of Chinese who are trying their hand as entrepreneurs and small business owners.

These independents comprise a minority, albeit a significant one, of all Chinese migrants, though no one knows exactly how many there are. They manage to stay in Africa by borrowing money from family and friends, often taking years to pay off debts.

Chinese workers hired by Chinese companies, in contrast, typically work for 1-3 years, are issued round-trip tickets back to China and leave when their work is done.

Analysts say some of these company workers will remain in Africa if they perceive opportunities, becoming independents who seed small businesses.

“Independent” Chinese migrants usually run small grocery stores, clothing shops and restaurants across Africa as part of small Chinatown communities that can number as many as 500 people. The degree of job creation and skills transfers, according to Park, varies according to business size.

Small mom-and-pop stores generally hire only a handful of local Africans, though larger businesses employ more. The degree of skills transfer also depends on the size of the venture. Park says the trend going forward is for Chinese companies to hire locally.

New migration patterns

Chinese migration to Africa also diverges from past migration patterns across the globe, according to Hannah Postel, a migration researcher at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t square with what we usually understand about migration strategy,” she says.

Postel notes that unlike with people who move to the US, such Chinese immigrants aren’t interested in reuniting with families or seeking political asylum in Africa. “You don’t usually see Chinese moving to poorer countries, as in Africa,” she said.

Another recent break from the past, says Park, is that Africa is drawing Chinese from the country’s poorer inlands, rather than the traditional coastal provinces of China that were the source of earlier immigrants to Africa. “A lot of these migrants are heading to Africa on their own,” without the help of Chinese companies, says Park.

Park notes that Chinese migrants are also contributing to the development of small retail enterprises across Africa.

In South Africa, for example, she says that local Africans are copying Chinese business practices. “Africans will open clothing shops that look very much like Chinese clothing shops,” Park says. In many cases, locals emulating the Chinese are themselves immigrants to South Africa from other African nations, according to the Georgetown University professor.

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times

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