The Transformative Power of Chinese Manufacturing Investment in Africa

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In recent years, Chinese manufacturing companies have been making significant investments in Africa, transforming the continent’s economy and society. We explore the impact of Chinese private investment in Africa’s manufacturing sector, highlighting the opportunities and challenges it presents. By providing formal employment, fostering entrepreneurship, and inspiring institutional support, Chinese entrepreneurs are playing a pivotal role in Africa’s industrialization. Although not without flaws, these investments have the potential to drive Africa’s economic growth and raise living standards for millions of Africans.

The Rise of Chinese Manufacturing Investment in Africa

Chinese companies have been increasingly investing in Africa’s manufacturing sector, with data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce showing over 150 investments per year, up from only two in 2000. These figures may even underestimate the actual number of investments, as many Chinese companies operating in Africa are not captured by government data. These investments have already had a major impact on various African countries.

In Nigeria, Chinese businesses are smelting steel to fuel the construction boom, while in Lesotho, they have contributed to the growth of the clothing industry, making it the largest economic sector in the country. Additionally, Chinese pharmaceutical companies, such as Humanwell, have invested in Ethiopia’s pharmaceutical sector, providing much-needed drug production capabilities.

The Promise of Formal Employment

Chinese manufacturing investments in Africa have provided millions of Africans with formal employment for the first time, offering an opportunity to transition from informal and unsteady work to high-productivity jobs connected to the global economy. Local workers are overwhelmingly employed by Chinese factories in Africa, with studies showing that the proportion of local workers rarely dips below 78%. This represents a significant opportunity for African individuals and families, as formal employment provides stability, higher incomes, and the potential for upward mobility.

For example, Sun Jian, a Chinese entrepreneur, invested $40 million to build a ceramic tile factory in Nigeria, employing nearly 1,100 workers, a thousand of whom are locals. Despite challenges such as unreliable electricity supply and high costs, Sun is able to earn a 7% profit margin in Nigeria, compared to the 5% he earned in China. This demonstrates the potential for higher profitability and economic growth in African manufacturing.

Fostering African Entrepreneurship

As Africans gain experience in the manufacturing industry, many of them are becoming entrepreneurs themselves. The localization of ownership is driven by the nature of the manufacturing business, which seeks shorter supply chains, and national policies that prioritize locally-based manufacturers. Chinese investors often seek trustworthy local partners, fostering partnerships between Chinese and African entrepreneurs.

Zaf Gebretsadik, an Ethiopian entrepreneur, partnered with Chinese pharmaceutical manufacturers to establish a joint venture to produce gel capsules, becoming the first and only gel capsule manufacturer in sub-Saharan Africa. Her company, Sino-Ethiop Associate Africa, has become a major player in Ethiopia’s pharmaceutical industry, exporting products to various African and Middle Eastern countries. Gebretsadik’s success story exemplifies the potential for African entrepreneurs to partner with foreign investors and become manufacturing leaders in their own right.

Building Stronger Institutions

Chinese manufacturing investments in Africa are not only transforming the economy but also driving institutional development. Chinese companies are actively working to build institutional capacity in Africa by interacting with governments, co-creating institutional innovations, and adapting their plans to changing conditions. This approach mirrors the Chinese experience of transforming a Marxist economy into the world’s second-largest economy.

Chinese entrepreneurs, like Qi Lin, are actively engaged in developing technical education and vocational training in Africa. Qi’s company partnered with the Kenyan Ministry of Education and the Kenya National Youth Service to supply state-of-the-art machinery to vocational training centers. Recognizing the need for skilled operators, Qi also initiated the Africa Tech Challenge, a competition that trains and tests students in industrial machining skills. This proactive approach to supporting institutions and capacity building contributes to the long-term development of Africa’s manufacturing sector.

The Flying Geese Paradigm: Africa’s Path to Industrialization

The Chinese investments in Africa’s manufacturing sector align with the flying geese paradigm, a theory in development economics that describes the movement of manufacturing companies from country to country as costs and demand change. Just as geese migrate in a V-formation, companies migrate to follower countries, helping them accumulate ownership and move up the technology curve.

Industrialization is key to Africa’s development, as it enables higher productivity and creates opportunities for higher living standards. Unlike services, manufacturing becomes more productive over time and has significant multiplier effects on job creation. By investing in manufacturing, Africa can follow in the footsteps of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China, and raise living standards for its population.

Challenges and Opportunities

Chinese manufacturing investments in Africa are not without challenges. Issues such as bribery, poor working conditions, and problematic environmental practices are pervasive. However, the increasing presence of Chinese manufacturers provides an opportunity for African governments and institutions to address these challenges and foster a more sustainable and responsible manufacturing sector.

Moreover, the potential benefits of Chinese manufacturing investments in Africa outweigh the challenges. The creation of formal employment, the growth of local entrepreneurship, and the development of stronger institutions are transformative for Africa’s economy and society. With proper regulation and support, African countries can leverage these investments to promote sustainable and inclusive industrialization.


Chinese manufacturing investments in Africa are reshaping the continent’s economy and society, providing millions of Africans with formal employment, fostering entrepreneurship, and inspiring institutional development. While challenges exist, the potential for economic growth and improved living standards is significant. By embracing the opportunities and addressing the challenges, African countries can leverage Chinese investments to drive industrialization and promote sustainable development. The transformative power of Chinese manufacturing investment in Africa should not be underestimated, as it holds the key to a brighter future for the continent.

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