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Francophone Africa is left right out

By Li Lianxing | China Daily | Updated: 2013-06-28 09:11

Dearth of language skills means business opportunities go begging

At the New York Forum Africa in Libreville, Gabon, in June, panelists from France, China, Gabon and the Republic of Congo appeared in a discussion session called "Looking to East" that was mediated by Beatrice Marshall, a well-known Kenyan TV presenter.

Three languages needed to be simultaneously interpreted but it turned out that most of the speeches by Chinese panelists were not just lost in translation but lost completely because the African interpreter could not make out what was being said because of the speakers' dialect accents.

Language is often an obstacle for Chinese business people when investing in Africa and elsewhere, so what happened in the Libreville debate was not particularly novel. In this case the frustration was to do with the inability of the Chinese to express themselves in French. Some complained that they could not even order breakfast in English in the hotel and they felt isolated on the streets without a French interpreter.

Those delegates were far from alone in their plight, and many Chinese investors are still hesitant to put their money in Francophone African countries given the unfamiliarity of those regions. When talking about China's presence in Africa, its countries are almost invariably lumped together as though they were one and that China is dealing with an indivisible unit. How wide of the mark that is can be no clearer than when you look at the matter of language.

"We have already tried very hard to learn a foreign language, English, but now it seems to us it's nearly useless, and I don't think I have time to learn another one," said a Chinese entrepreneur who produces sewing machines.

English has long been compulsory for students in China, and some first and second-tier cities even make it compulsory in primary schools. All the major tests in China, from the college entrance examination to professional tests at work, require English as part of the test. Because only a few specialized high schools and colleges have French as a major subject, French-speaking Chinese are few and far between.

"Since the reform and opening-up policy came into effect, we have become familiar with English, and that has made it easier to do business worldwide," says Liu Jun, vice-president of Avic International Holding Corp.

"So in African Francophone countries we feel hobbled because everything needs to be translated."

Apart from the language, the social, political and business cultures in these countries differ from those of Anglophone countries, Liu says.

"The legal system is a challenge for us," he says, adding that turmoil in countries such as Mali and the Central African Republic has also shaken the confidence of Chinese entrepreneurs considering investing in Francophone countries.

However, Beijing's political agenda including aid and large-scale projects is more likely to be well balanced between these two regions. That point is proven by its non-discriminatory macro Africa policy and top-level official visits. When Xi Jinping made his maiden overseas trip as China's president this year, one of the three African countries he visited was the French-speaking Republic of Congo.

But for investment from the private sector Francophone regions remain a second choice. It is difficult to find figures on investment from China to French Africa, but you can get an idea by looking at where major investors put their money.

The China-Africa Development Fund is one of the main investors and supporters of Chinese businesses in Africa and has set up more than 30 representative offices across the continent, but none is in a Francophone country. It has spent $2.5 billion on more than 60 projects, none of them in Francophone countries.

Even within African countries, there is a division of investment preference, says Katie Fettea, an analyst with a South African consultancy. But there are huge opportunities waiting to be tapped, she says.

"People have to realize that there are more than 30 African countries speaking French, with a total population of more than 115 million, which means it has a huge market and business potential."

For Chinese enterprises and investors, this could be another opportunity to expand their investment, says Wang Yong, vice-president of the development fund.

"We are going to open our first offices in Francophone countries soon in Gabon or the Republic of Congo, and we are also discussing several projects with our partners from those countries."

The author is China Daily's correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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