left corner left corner
China Daily Website

Positioning South Africa right

Updated: 2014-02-28 10:25
By Bob Wekesa ( China Daily Africa)

 Positioning South Africa right

Lefifi says they must create opportunities for South African firms to thrive in the China market and also market and position South Africa as a destination for Chinese firms. Kuang Linhua / China Daily

A vague interest in China led to an ambitious young African woman developing a unique career

Go-getter and risk-taker, bold, fast talking and a natural networker, newly appointed Brand South Africa's China Country Manager Tebogo Lefifi is the personification of the Chinese dream for those who dare to dream and are prepared to temper idealism with realism.

When I met her at the classy South African brand, the Pinotage Restaurant in Beijing's Sanilitun Soho, I insisted she switch her constantly ringing phone to silent mode so the interview could proceed without too many interruptions. And once I gained her full attention, an awesome tale of courage and innovation, hard work and tenacity flowed fast and furious.

The explanation for the incessant phone calls is that Lefifi was in transition from private practice to becoming a pioneering face of South Africa's corporate image in China.

"I am offloading all my private engagements so that there is no conflict of interest as I embark on a new phase of my life in China," she says.

When the Beijing UN Women's conference was all the rage in 1995, Lefifi was a commerce student at University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. The conference made an impression on the young woman, blending as it did with the women's liberation aspects of the heady experimentation with broad freedoms in post-apartheid South Africa. Little did she know that far away Beijing would be home away from home in the intervening years.

After a brief sojourn at South African companies, a Portuguese-learning stint in Brazil and a detour to London to work for Kryterion, a Canadian-US educational testing and certification firm, Lefifi moved to Beijing in the winter of 2008.

Looking back, her interest in China emanated from a mix of gut feelings and research. The 30-something explains: "My role in London was to drive global educational certification for Kryterion. The US market, which was our principal market, was rapidly maturing and getting saturated. In our looking elsewhere, emerging Brazil, China and India offered 'low hanging fruits' due to factors such as increasing adoption of technologies against rampant instances of people cheating about their educational qualifications coupled with big populations."

In the end, Lefifi and her seniors at Kryterrion chose China but the idea was abandoned altogether.

However, Lefifi was bitten by the China bug, with the seemingly endless opportunities that the country's fast-paced economic developments offered. Being one for whom challenge is opportunity, the apparent complications that many saw in China spurred her to go there on a whim. For one, the consultant rates in China in her field were nothing short of mouthwatering.

"Long before my contract at the UK-based firm came to an end, I started preparing to head to Beijing rather than back home to South Africa," she says, adding that at the time international certification for degrees and diplomas in South Africa or elsewhere on the African continent was, and remains, rather unappreciated. On a trip to Hong Kong around that time, she decided it was "too English" and cast an eye onto the mainland.

Soon after she arrived in Beijing, Lefifi realized that she would have to be there either for three months or 15 years. She chose the latter. "China is as huge as it is deep. You can't just be academic about it. You have to live here for an extended period of time to become a China subject matter specialist and to cultivate guanxi (relationships), whichever field you choose," she says.

Her entry strategy was a three-month Chinese language course. Unlike the bulk of Africans who arrive in China on scholarships, she was self-sponsored. Her abode in Beijing's downtown was basic.

"It was a tough but rewarding choice. I got an up-close opportunity to interact with everyday Chinese," she says.

It helped that she had carefully set aside savings for the China option. But Lefifi was also lucky that her former UK employer was the first client for the then nascent Africa@work, her start-up advisory consultancy firm. Thus, she didn't have to worry over her keep.

In the meantime however, she was seeing opportunity for China-Africa work everywhere she looked. A believer in the value of membership in organizations, Lefifi joined the South Africa-China Society from where she would scout for work. Ahead of the 2009 Forum on China Africa Cooperation conference in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, Lefifi signed up as the China representative of Stellenbosch University's Centre for Chinese, the pioneer think tank in the field on the African continent.

Her contact list - comprised mainly of Chinese Africanists such as Peking University's Prof Li Anshan - expanded considerably and with it, a deepening of knowledge of the agencies of China-Africa relations, from the China Council for Promotion of International Trade to the African division of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

She also signed up for the China Export Import Bank scholar program, a requirement of which was attending Beijing's University of International Business and Economics for a business Chinese language course.

"It was more than just phonetics and phonology. We gained invaluable knowledge on the basics of Chinese business culture," she says.

Once she was on firm ground, Lefifi intensified her footprint in China-Africa dynamics in the voluntary sense of the word. The Young African Professionals and Students was a trailblazer, engaged in activities as diverse as job placement for recent African graduates to career counseling and mentoring, boasting a database of 3,000 people. Lefifi and five other young Africans started it in 2009 after mingling with African students and career entry professionals.

Noticing her enterprising spirit, the South African ambassador to China at the time seconded her to the South Africa-China Business Association, "to help align students' and educational interests in the FOCAC framework".

On the consultancy end of things, Lefifi runs through a multitude of the self-assigned duties that speak of an enviable track record.

"I did everything from corporate representation and market intelligence, market segmentation and human resource advice to joint venture negotiations and customized researches," she says.

Her client portfolio grew to include Rockefeller Foundation, Kenya-based African Technology Foundation and Sino Africa Centre of Excellence (associated with the Carter Center in the US), South African banks - Standard Bank, Nedbank and Equity Bank of Kenya - and the African Leadership Network and World Wide Fund for Nature.

Like a seesaw, Lefifi's China journey has cut both ways. With the African Leadership Network, she has been instrumental in placing Chinese university students with Equity Bank in Nairobi.

"These will be great ambassadors of China-Africa relations out of their once-in-a-lifetime experience in Africa," she says, adding that a number of African countries, particularly from South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, are increasingly looking to recruit young Chinese nationals for strategic reasons.

Lefifi says her inspiration comes from her parents - a mother engaged in commercial farming and whom she takes after in terms of risk-taking and a retired librarian father from whom her knowledge-seeking traits emanate.

In her new role as Brand South Africa's China boss, the function of building South Africa's corporate reputation will fall squarely on her shoulders.

"Our China office is new and my role is to set up the operation from scratch, of course with the support of my headquarters, the South African embassy in Beijing and Tourism SA, which also has a presence in China, among others," she says.

"China is the biggest trading partner for South Africa and South Africa is the fifth-largest trading partner for China. However trade is imbalanced in favor of China, and the role of our China office will be to create circumstances under which this can be corrected. This in essence means we must create opportunities for South African firms to thrive in the China market as well as market and position South Africa as a destination for Chinese firms," she says, adding that South Africa remains grateful for China's lobbying for its inclusion in the BRICS organization in 2009.

Lefifi has an impressive international exposure, having traveled to 39 countries backed by membership in organizations spanning Youth4change, Africa 2.0, Harambee Entrepreneur Alliance and Young Business South Africa among others.

China Daily

(China Daily Africa Weekly 02/28/2014 page28)

  • Group a building block for Africa

    An unusually heavy downpour hit Durban for two days before the BRICS summit's debut on African soil, but interest for a better platform for emerging markets were still sparked at the summit.