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When it comes to Africa, China's inroads are just getting started

Updated: 2015-01-21 10:38
By CHRIS DAVIS (China Daily USA)

US firms have had plenty to do at home, in Latin America and in Asia and there hasn't been a big push for the US to get involved in Africa.

Until recently. It's all changing and Cook is one of the engines of that change. She was recently appointed to the President's Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa.

Their mission: "Trying to stimulate a lot more activity from US companies," she said. "The view is that in order to have successful long-term stability, job creation is such an important part of that."

With a lot of the big Chinese conglomerates, she explained, their Africa activities are often buried so deep that unless you are in Africa asking people who they work for it's hard to find out about Africa from the Beijing or Shanghai side.

"It's true for a lot of companies," she said. "Africa can be done in a very small division that people aren't aware of."

In US companies, the CEOs are under such intense pressure to deliver earnings growth every quarter and there's not a lot of tolerance in the institutional investor community for long-term investments where no one has a clear idea of what the path is going to be.

Cook has found that the smaller companies, the $1 billion to $5 billion sized, have a much better success rate in Africa because they don't have to answer to public shareholders and can be a lot more nimble.

On her last trip to China, Cook looked for companies that are not SOEs that have overseas divisions. What she found was that the older, more senior people didn't seem to have any idea and were a little more risk-adverse.

"But then in every place I went I found some guy in his 30s who's been to Africa 40 times and just goes all over the place," she said.

At the Africa Infrastructure and Power Forum in Beijing last September, Cook said she met two young Chinese women who had just graduated college and were going to work for one of the big SOE engineering and construction companies in Africa. One was going to live in Equatorial Guinea; the other was bound for Brazzaville, Congo.

"I said to them, are your parents nervous, and they giggled, it was really cute," Cook said. "But that's what China's doing that the US is not doing. You've got to get people in on the ground."

It's a long-term commitment, she said: Make local contacts, hopefully have a great experience and learn how things are really done.

Contact the writer at chrisdavis@chinadailyusa.com.

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