African Commerce in China

Louis Hermann, 32-year-old independent Business Consultant tells why an African Board of Representatives is of utmost importance for future China-Africa Cooperation.

by Nicole Bonnah

The China based European Union Chamber of Commerce gives voice to European businesses across different regions of China while the French Chamber of Commerce in the same vain acts as a comprehensive representative of French businesses in China. The interests of these businesses and their engagement within China are at the heart of the work each Chamber conducts as recognized independent bodies.

Although an African Chamber of Commerce does exist in China’s most populous city, Shanghai, its mantra of “promoting a healthy business environment in China” for African businesses has been called into question. Business Consultant Louis Hermann asks – where is the ideal symbolic and practical representative of African commerce in China during the age of hyper Sino-African relations?

Graduated in 2014 with a Bachelor’s degree in International Economics and Trade and an MBA in International Commerce in 2017, Hermann speaks of a coming age where the African Union will need to take precedence as a leading voice and advocate for African business in China, “This organization must assume its responsibilities, like the European Union which imposes standards for Chinese products. We could push for industrialization of our countries or operate on a package-basis for each project. This would create employment over time. The African Union must fight for the rights of Africans!” he said.

“An African Chamber of Commerce should gather [African] countries [together]; uniting small strengths to become bigger,”

A successful middle –man between Chinese economic players wanting to forge new partnerships in and with Africa, Hermann has assisted hundreds of Chinese clients to transfer and build their businesses on the Continent while recognizing a growing gap in open policy, guidance and advocacy for their African counterparts in China, “An African Chamber of Commerce should gather [African] countries [together]; uniting small strengths to become bigger,” he said.

Hermann’s recognition of the lack of official guidance for African’s wanting to do business in China is coupled with the issue that many have yet to become proficient enough in Mandarin to negotiate and secure partnerships. As a result he has been encouraged to build up his African clientele. He is often closing the gap between African business owners and suppliers of the materials and equipment they most need in China, “I have been helping a business woman from Congo Brazzaville to find suppliers for agricultural equipment,” he said.

Hermann uses his consultation skills to secure heavy shipments of agrarian tools from a supplier in Zhejiang province in Taizhou to the port of Pointe Noire in Congo, “I have also been helping a business man from Cameroon. He is in construction, [and needs] materials. Our supplier is located in Hebei province – his materials are shipped from the port of Tianjin to the port of Douala.”

Although his consultation skills are helping African businesses obtain resources in China, Hermann still questions how African’s might be better prepared and assisted in crafting start-ups in or migrating their businesses over to China.

Speaking the Same Language

Choosing to learn and study in Chinese, Hermann recalls, was the foundation of his current success. Before completing his MBA at Beijing Union University, he interned at Hanglong Mining Company (HMC) whom he was later commissioned to represent in his home country of Cameroon. He was sent to help with lines of negotiation while helping to maintain a constant and efficient work-flow, “To be successful, it’s so important to speak the language; to negotiate on an equal footing. They [HMC] knew I spoke Chinese and could speak the native language in Cameroon. I was an asset because of this,” he said.

“Chinese language and culture is important if you want to do business with Chinese [people]. Many African’s do not speak Chinese and have no idea about Chinese culture, so it’s difficult for them to negotiate good deals – Chinese [people] who want to business with African’s have the same problem,” he added.

Although undefined as such, his role with both companies required the wits and know-how of professional consultancy and with a breadth of experience in tow, Hermann decided to build his own clientele of large and small Chinese enterprises’ to offer private, tailor-made guidance. Internal problems and missed business opportunities with both conglomerates prompted him to take a leap of faith and start out on his own, “I no longer wanted to work for Chinese companies whose projects were usually short-term,” he said, “I also thought I can be more useful as a consultant, because I can share my business experience in China with my fellow Africans – so they can make good deals with [the] Chinese,” he added.

In 2016, the 32-year-old entrepreneur established, Zhou Hua International Business Consulting Ltd. An African expert with first-hand knowledge of the business environment on the continent, Hermann has become symbolic of a rare kind in China-Africa business consultation, – a native of Africa, “Does it not make sense to think that Africans know Africa best?” he mused.

Global and Regional Representation

Hermann has developed a career in assisting the endeavors of Chinese commerce in Africa but what of the economic undertakings of Africans in China? The end goal in aiding Africans to truly benefit from growing global and China-Africa commerce is the building of what Hermann refers to as a Global African Chamber of Commerce. Part of the responsibility for uniting the needs of African nations into a collective that benefits from such initiatives as the Belt and Road, lies with embassies and the African Union, “There’s no representative of the African Union in China. Official African Representation in China could bring several African nations together within a common structure. China is a far too important market for any single African country to handle,” he said.

Hermann argues that African Embassies in China should create a platform through the development of programs, where relationship building and connectivity initiatives are at the forefront of helping Chinese businesses and companies build trust with African organizations and government departments. However there are a number of considerations that must be made first, “One Chamber of Commerce for all African nations is difficult to manage. It’s better to create a Chamber of Commerce [using] small African regional organizations, because they have points in common” he said.

These common points would help regionally constructed Chambers of Commerce efficiently provide services and guidance that is specific to the needs of each diverse nation on the continent, “For example in central Africa we have an organization called CEMAC (Economic Community and Monetary of Central Africa). The countries members use the same currency, the same passport, the same official language – it’s the same for Western Africa, Eastern Africa and Southern Africa and so on,” he said. If guidance and assistance is tailored around cultural and economic differences on the continent, African commerce would fare better with enhanced and strategic support and representation in China.

Heavy Chinese investment in African infrastructure and an increased Chinese labor force on the continent may deflect from the many ways in which Africa can offer a wealth of professional experience and knowledge in a number of industries yet to be exploited. Hermann believes that a focus on assisting African countries to industrialize may help African nations to utilize their resources to produce more products for import to China rather than the current trend of African businesses buying from China, while China monopolizes the continents natural resources.

He elaborated, “For the last 30 years, 60% of the products imported from Africa to China have been raw materials. This approach is no longer relevant as things evolve, and what we need now is to industrialize. We can, for example, transform African agricultural products directly on the spot. I am thinking of the groundnut in Senegal or the cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire. The market price of raw materials is volatile, so the only path to development for Africa goes through adding value. For this to happen, we need to diversify cooperation between the continent and China.”

Despite the expressed need for further innovative ingenuities, Hermann’s nine years of working in China-Africa commerce has cumulated into a wealth of knowledge of how locals are benefiting from initiatives such as the Belt and Road, which continues to help local businesses thrive, increase the mobility of the continents people and earning potential for companies. The growing presence of China in Africa has been welcomed, as Africa continues to benefit in a number of ways while retaining regional and state control, “China does not try and control Africa. Their sole purpose is to partner with Africa and increase cooperation,” he said “The Belt and Road Initiative represents a major opportunity for Africa to establish itself as a supplier and an essential backbone of this initiative. We should seize this opportunity,” he added.

Moving forward Hermann would like to see more African experts and consultants from the continent representing their countries and introducing the diverse continent to foreign investors and entrepreneurs, “I hope that the younger generation of Africans will be able to negotiate the way in which cooperation takes place on the ground. We do want to open up the African market to China, but on a fair basis”. This would help curate better cross-cultural partnerships and support for Chinese investment led by Africans for Africans.

Hermann also spoke of the importance of African consultants partnering with Chinese enterprise with the common goal of furthering China-Africa business cooperation and connectivity, “I have a Chinese partner. When approaching African businesses to partner with Chinese investors we each represent our nation but are also able to build trust with businesses as we work together as a symbol of China-Africa cooperation,” he added, “Now, we need this kind of representation and policy for Africans doing business in China!”

Original Edit written for ChinAfrica Magazine (July 2017 edition)

 

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