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From legal umpire to business empire

Updated: 2014-10-10 07:26
By Chen Yingqun (China Daily Africa)

Former judge made crucial decision to leave the bench and move to africa with some t-shirts to sell

Fifteen years ago, He Liehui embarked on what looked like a long, promising legal career as a judge, but within months he had given all that up to sell T-shirts in Africa.

From legal umpire to business empire

He Liehui (second from right) and Zimbabwe's minister of international cooperation, Priscilla Mishihairabwi-Mushonga, signed the Hangzhou Declaration at a Touchroad China-Africa Investment Forum, encouraging more Chinese enterprises to invest in Africa. Provided to China Daily

The unlikely career change came when he received a call from his father, a textile manufacturer in Zhejiang province, who was setting up a factory in Botswana and needed some help.

However, He Liehui ran into problems with his visa application and eventually decided to head for Ghana instead, with little more than $700 cash in his pocket and a small consignment of T-shirts.

That decision to change careers may have been the most inspired decision He made in his short time on the bench, because in the 14 years since then he has turned the T-shirt business into a multimillion dollars behemoth dealing in finance, mining, real estate, tourism and trade, with branches in eight African countries and a presence in 17 more.

Along the way, the founder and president of Touchroad International Holdings Group has become a goodwill ambassador between China and Africa, and is now in the process of opening the Africa Center in Shanghai, a meeting point for African governments and businesses, a project in which Touchroad is investing 1 billion yuan ($163 million). More than 80 percent of African governments have agreed to set up offices in the center, or expressed support for the center.

Touchroad China-Africa Investment Forum, which his firm started, has already helped more than 100 Chinese companies set up operations in Africa.

The morning China Daily talked to He, he was in Nanjing seeing the prime minister of Djibouti, Abdoulkader Kamil Mohamed. The day before he had been in Beijing talking with African ambassadors and business leaders, and a week later he was to return to Africa looking for business opportunities with Chinese entrepreneurs.

"The 21st century is Africa's century, and anyone who owns Africa owns the century," he said in his book China's Africa Strategy, published last year.

When He first decided to go to Africa, he, like most Chinese, was largely ignorant about it, and his overwhelming impression was of poverty and insecurity, he says. That notion evaporated as he flew over the Sahara, at twilight, toward Ghana for the first time.

From legal umpire to business empire

He Liehui met Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh during a recent business trip to the country. Provided to China Daily

"When I saw the desert and how majestic it was, I realized it was possible the power of Africa was much greater than I had imagined, and I needed to take my courage in my hands and press on with what I was about to do." With no business plan, little money, no connections and no commercial experience, He started by selling the T-shirts, bought from his father's textile factory. The tough road he had to cover to obtain business success included a frightening drive at night through a jungle full of wild animals, he says, and once he had to negotiate his way through flying bullets on a Nigerian street.

The pace of change in Africa is rapid, he says, citing the fact that when he was in Nigeria in 2000 there were few mobile phones there, but within three years they were everywhere to be seen.

The economic relationship between China and Africa is now much bigger and on a much higher plane than it was just a few years ago, he says, and Chinese companies need to invest in more advanced industries in the continent.

"Africa is now demanding much more from Chinese companies who want to invest there, so our products and service ideas need to keep up with the times. In the past when Chinese companies went to Africa to open factories, it was all about clothes, shoes and that kind of thing, but now it can be cars, or companies could be going into the service sector.

"The economies of China and Africa are growing rapidly, and in many areas they complement one another, but those areas are changing all of the time, and we need to adapt to that."

When he started doing business in Africa, China-Africa trade was worth $10 billion a year, and it is expected to be 20 times that this year, he says.

"So business is very competitive in terms of trade, and we need to transfer to other areas before other companies do."

His company is now heavily involved in tourism in Africa, and it is building a special economic zone in Djibouti that includes businesses related to finance, manufacturing, maritime and air logistics and tourism.

"In building a special economic zone, we can introduce to Africa many ideas that have been used successfully as China has industrialized and urbanized," he says.

In investing in Africa, every company needs to find its strong selling points and adapt to local regulations, He says. For example, some countries have restrictions on foreign capital in retailing, something some business people ignore, which locals can take a very dim view of, he says.

To He, born in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, Africa is a second home, and many of its folk are people of the land, diligent, and always in quest of a better life. Some Chinese businesspeople take them the wrong way, he says.

"Being judgmental and not respecting or understanding other people's cultures and ways of living and thinking is wrong. If you see workers who are not particularly efficient, you need to find out why and work out a solution rather than just calling them lazy. That kind of thinking is just going to create problems. There is a reciprocal process here; we are learning from Africans, and they are learning from us."

Apart from making money in Africa, he says, Chinese entrepreneurs should be keenly aware of what they can give back to the continent. His company has invested millions of yuan in public initiatives over the years, he says. While looking to establish a special economic zone in Djibouti, it has supported a program at the Shanghai Maritime University to help cultivate maritime talent for the country.

"All fortunes are made in conjunction with society, so society should be able to draw on that fortune. After all, you can't take your money with you to the grave, and once you are clear about that, there are no surprises."

Frederick Shava, Zimbabwe's ambassador to China, says he has worked with He since the Shanghai Expo in 2010.

"He is very kind to Africans, and he is transparent. He has worked very hard over 15 years to make his fortune, and he is very generous."


(China Daily Africa Weekly 10/10/2014 page8)

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