World / China-Africa

Building bridges

By Deng Yajun (China Daily Africa) Updated: 2014-08-01 09:19

Building bridges

Building bridges

Long-lasting relations cemented as more Africans and chinese study and work in both places

As economic, business and social relations between Africa and China deepen, more African students, young professionals and businesspeople are coming to China to live their dream.

But for relations between the sides to work best, people from both places have been learning to understand each other better - and numerous organizations representing African interests have quickly become essential in building the necessary links between the two.

One of the highest profile is the three-year-old Sino-Africa Center of Excellence Foundation, which its founders say was inspired by the story of a young Chinese official who traveled to the United States on a fact-finding trip nearly 30 years ago.

That 31-year-old Chinese official was head of a five-person delegation from Hubei province, in eastern-central China, to visit the US in 1985.

He and his colleagues visited different places. They had a traditional American dinner at the home of Sarah Lande in the small Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa; they visited local farms; they watched a baseball game.

That same young man returned to the US in 2011, this time as vice-president of China, and Xi Jinping visited the families who had given him such a typical, warm Midwestern US welcome in the 1980s.

During his second visit, it was reported that he and his Chinese delegation that time signed deals to buy more than $27 billion worth of US products.

Tawanda Mahere, SACE's business development manager in China, says it was Xi's lesson of building long-term friendships and relationships that last many years, that inspired the founders to create the foundation in 2012.

"China and Africa are set to be economic superpowers, and the next 15 years it will be crucial to build long-lasting relations between the sides.

"It will be the next generation of young Africans and Chinese who will create the key relationships of the future one-to-one contact, relationship-building - those are the ways for businesses to understand each other better.

"That's why we formed the foundation - to build and maintain lasting bridges."

The foundation's first action was to invite Chinese graduates from several top universities to spend time in Africa on work-placements in some of its leading companies.

The idea was that historically most Chinese students had very little experience of working in Africa, other than on charity work, and this had simply perpetuated the often incorrect stereotype of Africa being a land of poverty, war, disease and famine.

Opening the doors of African financial companies, law firms and consulting firms to young Chinese business leaders of the future will create a more balanced and realistic view of working life on the continent, she says.

"By working, albeit temporarily, with these kinds of companies, these young professionals learned very quickly, and became experts on the kinds of issues being faced and work practices."

So far, 16 Chinese graduates have been to Africa for work experience, two of whom have landed permanent jobs in one of Kenya's leading banks.

During their time in Africa, graduates are encouraged to tell their hosts about life in China, and give them help and advice in forging relations with Chinese businesses.

When they return home, the expectation is they can then tell their families and friends what Africa is like, and pass on that knowledge, ideally in a business context.

Mahere says the foundation also organizes workshops by international professionals to mentor African graduates on resume writing, how to prepare for job interviews and management skills. It invites graduates from both sides to attend corporate networking events.

The training started only five months ago, but already 10 African graduates have found employment in international firms doing business between China and Africa.

"The training not only teaches valuable skills but also self-confidence - something young people can lack when they prepare to enter the workforce for the first time."

Dineo Mathlako, one of the program's mentors, says: "It's fulfilling for me to empower young people to reach their full potential, it makes me feel good, and hopefully them, too."

Mahere's target is to train 100 African graduates.

"We are building long-term, people-to-people, company-to-company relationships. In a decade our graduates will be right at the heart of deals between China and Africa."

The Beijing-based Appreciate Africa Network has also grown remarkably quickly in its 18-month history.

Initially formed as an organization primarily to increase awareness of Africa among international schools in China, last year it held the African Achievers Awards for Asia Pacific, under the guidance of its ambitious founder and director, Samantha Sibanda.

Hosted by the Zimbabwe Ambassador Frederick Shava and Angola Airlines, the event rewarded 25 Africans from across the region in arts and culture, sport, humanitarian sectors, business and enterprise, and fashion.

Sibanda says the awards were the pinnacle of a year which had surpassed all her expectations, and underlined just what a contribution African people are making to the region.

"It is not easy for some to be recognized for what they do, and African people themselves do not know what great work others are doing.

"Africans, maybe more than other groups, have to take major steps to teach people about their culture."

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