Excerpts from a piece by Andrew Alli, the former Africa Finance Corp (AFC) CEO, in his debut column for Quartz Africa on separating myths and realities of the role of China in Africa’s infrastructure developments.
- China’s was the fourth largest foreign investor in Africa spending about $40 billion in 2016, according to UNCTAD’s World Investment 2018 report, behind the US ($57 billion), the UK ($55 billion), and France ($49 billion).
- Construction contracts are backed by Chinese financial institutions—like China Export -Import Bank and Sinosure – looking to support the exports or sales of Chinese products and services. The mission of these financing entities is to support jobs and income generation in China, as well as to support more strategic objectives of the Chinese government.
- Chinese companies are surprisingly risk-averse when it comes to Africa – most Chinese financiers will not consider a project without insurance from Sinosure, the Chinese government-owned political risk insurer, or other similar institutions. In turn, Sinosure often requires a guarantee from the government of the country in which the project is located. (e.g. – with Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway construction, the contracts specify that there will be insurance cover of 6.93% of the commercial loan – done by a Chinese firm, SinoSure, to take care of nonpayment). Sinosure insurance and other financing costs do not come cheap, which leads to the point that Chinese firms are not necessarily cheaper than firms from other countries – and while the bare construction costs of certain projects may seem cheaper, even after equalizing for quality, there are other costs that may apply including the insurance and other financing costs mentioned before, and costs associated with local content.
- It is true Chinese firms prefer to use all-Chinese inputs. If you want local workers and contractors, you will have to make that a negotiating point.
- While some work done by Chinese firms can indeed be shoddy, this doesn’t have to be the case. For example, while a Western firm may tell you a bridge will cost you, say, $300 million. A Chinese firm may tell you that you can have a $300 million bridge, or a $250 million one.- and things that may be taken for granted in other parts of the world can be negotiable when dealing with a Chinese firm. You have to be careful to specify the quality that you want and the standards that you would like the project to be built to. You also need to be very specific about the environmental and social standards you want the project to adhere to.
- For too long the number of firms willing to engage in, and finance, projects in Africa has been very limited, meaning that competition has also been limited leading to high prices and a lack of innovation. The increase in interest by Chinese firms has increased the amount of competition, forcing prices down overall and improving quality. The bleating of companies being forced out of cozy monopolies is probably one cause of the constant refrain we hear about the “dangers” of Chinese interest in Africa. We shaved the costs of that project in Ghana by over 20% from initial quotes by running a competitive process involving a Chinese firm.