Throughout history, Chinese merchants have been famed for their eye for business opportunities.
Business entails competition, but, at times, that competition evokes feelings of mutual dislike, which is why all is not well in some streets of Nairobi, where local traders have developed that uncomfortable feeling that a couple of Far Eastern hawkers are pushing them out of business.
As you read this, Chinese archaeologists are digging up Malindi, where they hope to unearth evidence of their presence in the East African coast dating way back to the Ming Dynasty, when Chinese admiral Zheng He is said to have rounded the coast of Somalia and sailed down to the Mozambique Channel. The Ming Dynasty was in power from 1368 to 1644.
Some accounts mention the sinking of some ships from Admiral Zheng He’s fleet near Lamu in 1415 and intermarriage between the survivors and local women. Recent archaeological findings and DNA tests have proved that such intermarriages actually took place; that some Lamu residents have Chinese ancestors. The most famous of these Chinese Kenyans is Mwamaka Shirafu, a Lamu-born girl studying medicine in China under a Beijing scholarship.
Well, centuries after the Ming Dynasty, when sailors blazed the trail, Chinese corporations are here, almost ubiquitously, building roads and skyscrapers. And with them have come small-scale traders... and a source of friction.
Last week some Nairobi traders staged a street protest and presented a petition to the Office of the Prime Minister and Parliament.
“They are a crafty lot,” said a Luthuli Avenue-based generator and public address system dealer who identified himself as Karis, of the Chinese.
“They usually come to our shops disguised as customers and ask for our prices, only to go back to their country and bring to the market the same products at a much lower price.”
According to Karis, the Chinese employ Kenyan salesmen only to offload them after building a client base and learning local business dynamics.
“Most of these Chinese don’t have shops, which means they don’t pay rent or tax, hence they can afford to sell their products cheaply,” the trader lamented to DN2. “The government should step in and either tax them or expel them because I suspect most don’t even have work permits.”
After the Kenyan traders protested against this “invasion”, the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi issued a statement to the effect that all the Chinese people and businesses in Kenya operate within the law.
“The Chinese companies and citizens in Kenya strictly comply with the local laws and regulations in their production and management process,” a statement from the mission read. “The Chinese Embassy in Kenya has always been committed to educating the Chinese companies and citizens in Kenya to operate businesses within the law, make contributions to the local society and live together in harmony with the local people”.
The embassy also stated that it was concerned about some leaflets that have been dropped in some areas of downtown Nairobi threatening Chinese businesses and citizens.
“We have noted that a few people were circulating leaflets in Nairobi recently, making a threat to both the Chinese business people in Kenya and the Kenyan people,” the statement stressed.
“Everyone with a conscience should condemn such an irresponsible behaviour by a few people to bring shame on a specific community and stir up contradictions and hatred in the Kenyan society.”
But even as Beijing denied claims of impropriety, the hawkers’ cries were echoed by many traders along the busy Luthuli Avenue of Nairobi.
“Since they are in contact with some manufacturers from their homeland, sometimes they bring in low-quality goods that they sell cheaply,” complained Yunis Abubakar, a mobile phone trader based at the Luthuli Complex business centre. “For this reason, and the fact that most don’t pay rent or City Council levies, they are also eating into our client base”.
Riding on the goodwill cultivated by Chinese corporations, the Chinese retailers are doing everything, from retailing in cheap phones to selling garments, second-hand cars and real estate.
But Nairobi is not the only African city swarming with the enterprising merchants from the Far East. Small-scale traders in Dakar, Lusaka, Luanda, Maputo and many are contending with the entry of the dragon.
To protect local vendors, the government of Malawi passed a law last month that restricts all foreign traders to the country’s four major cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu and Zomba, besides having to deposit $250,000 (Sh20 million) in the country’s central bank which they must invest in the country.
“The new law clearly outlines what kind of businesses foreign investors will be allowed to get involved in,” the Inter Press Agency quoted Malawi’s Minister of Trade, John Bande, as saying. “We will not accept foreigners to come all the way from China and open small businesses and shops in the rural areas of this country and compete with local traders.”
Apart from trade and business disputes with locals, several reports have claimed that the inclusion of China as one of the “approved” ivory importing countries in the world by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Word Wild Fund (WWF) and other conservation bodies, coupled with the huge presence of the country’s nationals in Africa, has fuelled the rise of illegal poaching in recent years.
Last year, Chinese Fuel Resurgence in Ivory Poaching, a documentary by Kenya’s A24 Media, claimed that 50 per cent of poaching incidents in Kenya today happen within a 20-mile radius from Chinese road-building projects.
The documentary also alleged that major poaching activities were reported in areas where the Chinese were grading or constructing roads, like Tsavo and Amboseli. “I think there is a link between the number of Chinese who have come into Africa recently and elephant ivory purchasing,” explained Dr Esmond Bradley-Martin, a conservationist interviewed in the documentary.
“For instance, in about 2000/2001, there was something like 75,000 Chinese working in Africa, now the figure is well over 500,000 and the Chinese are being caught all over Africa… in Kenya they have been caught with ivory coming in from Congo and Cameroon,” he said.
But this is not to say that the Chinese government encourages poaching. In 2005, the new economic giant enacted a new ivory registration system, where only operations that receive government licenses can engage in legal ivory trade. The system also requires that every piece of ivory sold needs to have accompanying proper documentation or identity card, reported Shanghai Daily in February.
While 134 Chinese nationals are said to have been arrested in Africa trying to smuggle illegal ivory to China in the last decade, there have been 426 cases of ivory seized on its way to China during the same period.
But just like the silver lining in every dark cloud, the benefits of a China-Kenya relationship cannot be gainsaid.
“The Indian workers who remained behind after the construction of the railway by the British in the 1900s formed the first crop of entrepreneurs in Kenya,” says Tiberius Barasa, a policy analyst from Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA).
“Africans learnt a lot of business skills from these Indians and the same attitude should be adopted towards the Chinese. Kenyan traders should view them not as enemies but competitors whose presence will cultivate a healthy business environment.”
He explains that with every one out of six human beings being Chinese, most ordinary citizens from that densely populated country are forced to seek greener pastures in developing countries like Kenya.
However, Barasa says, the government should ensure the Chinese traders in Kenya have the necessary papers and pay taxes and other levies to create a level playing field.
“Another issue is pricing, where the government should ensure studies are done to find out why the Chinese are able to sell same goods at a lower price than Kenyan traders. This should also involve discussions between the governments of Kenya and China to ensure the issue of taxation on imports and exports on both sides is ironed out.”