By @SimonCocking, review of The Next Factory of the World : How Chinese Investment Is Reshaping Africa, by Irene Yuan Sun. Available from Harvard Business Press.

China is now the biggest foreign player in Africa.

It’s Africa’s largest trade partner, the largest infrastructure financier, and the fastest-growing source of foreign direct investment. Chinese entrepreneurs are flooding into the continent, investing in long-term assets such as factories and heavy equipment.

Considering Africa’s difficult history of colonialism, one might suspect that China’s activity there is another instance of a foreign power exploiting resources. But as author Irene Yuan Sun vividly shows in this remarkable book, it is really a story about resilient Chinese entrepreneurs building in Africa what they so recently learned to build in China–a global manufacturing powerhouse.

The fact that China sees Africa not for its poverty but for its potential wealth is a striking departure from the attitude of the West, particularly that of the United States. Despite fifty years of Western aid programs, Africa still has more people living in extreme poverty than any other region in the world. Those who are serious about raising living standards across the continent know that another strategy is needed.

This is a smart book, and it goes deeper than the simplistic stereotypes that shorter articles tend to articulate about China, Africa and this whole topic. Sun also has a great pedigree with Chinese ancestry, raised in the US, and then as a worker in Namibia. Having also spent time working in Namibia too, her depiction of the challenges she faced are accurate. Sun describes her realisation that the traditional Western model of ‘helping’ Africa through good works and development projects might not actually be that valuable to the local population. After several decades of not very successful Western aid interventions in Africa, the Chinese approach has offered a very different, and potentially transformative approach.

It’s easy to forget how quickly China has transformed from a mainly rural and economically backward country (Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward were many things but not an economic success) to the world’s leading industrial powerhouse. A potentially unexpected consequence of this is that their success has pushed up prices, to the point where it is often more economical to shift production from China to other, lower cost, countries. Chinese upward economic mobility is still only a relatively recent phenomenon, over the last couple of decades. Consequently, the drivers of this transformation are still young enough to remember their own journey, and therefore can see the potential and opportunity by locating in Africa to repeat this process of economic development.

In this way Sun digs deeper than quick and easy generalisations and seeks to uncover what has happened in Africa. What the goals and experiences of individual entrepreneurs have been, and what this might mean for both the future of China and Africa too. It is a well written and accessible book. If you have any interest in both the present and potentially future dominant forces in our world’s economic drivers then this is a book well worth reading.


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