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Made at home

Updated: 2014-01-24 10:21
By Andrew Moody and Wang Chao ( China Daily Africa)

 Made at home

From left: Qin Jian, deputy head of mission at the Chinese embassy in Addis Ababa; Helen Hai, former vice-president of Huajian's overseas investment operation; Alemayehu Geda, professor of economics at the University of Addis Ababa.

Fana Gabresenbet, a lecturer at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies, also at Addis Ababa University, says most Ethiopians connect with China through things that impact their lives.

"The average person relates to China in terms of clothing, kitchenware, cell phones and other consumer goods that China is exporting. With infrastructure, their evaluation might be positive in terms of getting the job done quickly," he says.

"I am not sure that China does too well with their soft power. The state media here reports about all the big infrastructure projects and meetings with ministers but the private media contains a lot of criticism, particularly in relation to roads that are supposed to last 20 years showing wear after a few years."

Gabresenbet, who was speaking over coffee in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, one of the city's five star hotels that contrast sharply with the poverty on the streets outside, dismisses the idea that China is acting as a colonial power in Ethiopia or Africa but he says it does have interests.

"We don't have oil and valuable natural resources so you can't blame China for these things in Ethiopia but I would say Ethiopia is a important country to have relations with since by extension you have the potential for influencing the political process in Sudan, where China has big natural resource interests."

For many Ethiopians what China can bring in terms of jobs are paramount. Eastern Steel, which makes spiral steel and other steel products, is one of the latest Chinese companies to set up operations in the country.

It began operations in October at an 8,500 sq meter factory at the Eastern Industry Zone.

With a capacity of 300,000 tons a year, it will be Ethiopia's biggest steel company.

By December it had already hired 108 workers and had 50 Chinese staff on the ground training them. It will be supplying steel to among others Chinese construction companies around the city.

Miao Wenwei, the 42-year-old general manager, says there is a need for higher-grade steel in Ethiopia.

"The quality of the locally made steel is not good. It is like the quality in China in the 1980s. There are going to be problems here in the future with bridges and tall buildings made from local steel," he says.

Apart from the market opportunity, lower labor costs make the margins more comfortable.

Made at home

From left: Mula Warsa, one of Huajian's first employees; Fana Gabresenbet, a lecturer at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies. Wang Chao / China Daily

"Labor is cheap. In China you have to pay workers between 160 yuan ($26) and 200 yuan a day. Here it is about 20 yuan per worker," he says.

The Eastern Industry Zone, where 11 factories are currently located, has been a magnet for a lot of Chinese investment. It is one of the largest industrial parks of its kind in Africa.

The park is a combined Chinese-Ethiopian government project but has been developed and operated by a private Suzhou, Jiangsu-based Jiangsu Qiyuan Group

It is not just aimed at Chinese companies. Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant, is set to open a 5,000 sq meter shampoo factory in June, and a Vietnamese textile company is also planning opening a base.

Lu Qixin, deputy director of the site, with his trademark big Versace dark glasses, is a familiar figure as he drives around the park.

He says the whole project has been a major commitment and the company has already invested $80 million in the site.

"It is draining on the finances. Currently, we are doing this with my brother's money. We are looking to get a subsidy this year from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce," he says.

Nonetheless, the company wants to further develop the site and now has planning permission for a five-star hotel and a residential and retail development complex adjacent to it. It should be completed by 2017.

"We will do the residential area first so when Chinese companies send people here there will be somewhere for them to stay," he adds.

Amid all this development the lives of many Ethiopians are being drastically transformed.

Mula Warsa, 20, was one of Huajian's first employees and is now manager of the packing department, which involves supervising 20 people and earns 3,000 Ethiopian birr ($150) a month. She was hired straight from technical college where she studied footwear production.

Speaking after lunch at the impressive canteen at the factory, where workers eat either in the section serving Chinese food or the one with local dishes, says there is a good working relationship between the Chinese and Ethiopian staff.

"There may be cultural differences but these do not affect how we work together," she says.

She says it is a good opportunity and next year she may join 80 other staff being sent to Guangdong for a year's training.

"I am really looking forward to it. I want to learn so many things not just about working in China but about China itself."


( China Daily Africa Weekly 01/24/2014 page1)

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