Former T-shirt trader has invested millions to set up China's first Africa center
It's been three years since the thousands of lights that had glowed bright for six months went out, since the gates through which 70 million people entered a vast garden of cultures were closed. Three years ago, the huge Shanghai 2010 Expo came to a conclusion.
About 15 kilometers northeast of the area that staged the world's largest ever expo, a small but permanent version of the expo garden has been created by a Chinese businessman who was inspired by the event, which he says was "as unforgetable as the 2008 Beijing Olympics".
He Liehui, the founder and president of Touchroad International Holdings Group, developed the African Center in the Shanghai Jinqiao Export Processing Zone.
"Some Chinese businessmen call Africa their second home, but for me it's a place that has been as important to me as China itself," He says.
In 2001, He, then the 24-year-old son of a textile trader in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, traveled to West Africa with $700 cash, a cargo of T-shirts and the spirit of entrepreneurship inherited from his father.
He Liehui meets Djibouti Prime Minister Abdoulkader Kamil Mohamed on Dec 8. Provided to China Daily
A decade later, after building a multibillion yuan conglomerate in eight African countries with a portfolio in trading, real estate, mining, finance and tourism, to name just a few, the ambitious businessman hit on the idea of "joining his two hometowns".
"The expo opened a window from Africa to China, and vice-versa," He said. "But the window was temporary, and couldn't satisfy the appetites of both my African and Chinese friends. So I wanted to create a door."
As China's first and only economic, political and cultural exchange center between China and Africa, the facility is part of the 38,000-square-meter Touchroad Diamond Innovation Park, which He set up and funded in 2010.
He owns several diamond mines in Africa and originally planned to develop the area in Shanghai, with an investment of 100 million yuan ($16 million), into a platform for the diamond industry, which would handle diamond polishing, design and sales. But the African center, which accounts for two of the nine buildings at the project, quickly became the centerpiece.
About 40 of the 54 African countries have agreed to set up their consulates, government and company offices in the African center. And the number continues to grow. The center will be officially opened to the public early next year.
"It's far more popular than I expected," He says. "I appreciate the need on both sides, but I would have been satisfied even if only half of the (African) countries had wanted to be involved."
As well as processing visa applications and hosting trade promotions, the center will function as an African culture and arts hub, a tourism promotion facility and a museum.
Statistics from the Ministry of Commerce show that in 2012, annual trade between China and Africa had risen to a high of $198.5 billion, an increase of 19 percent from 2011.
At the seventh annual meeting of the New Champions, also known as the Summer Davos Forum, in September, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in response to a question from Richard Lesser, president of global management consultancy Boston Consulting Group, stressed that overseas expansion of Chinese enterprises will be beneficial for the global economy as well as the enterprises themselves.
"The globalization of the world economy is inevitable," Li said. "The government has always tried to attract foreign investment into China, and at the same time encouraged capable and credible enterprises to go out."
The go-out policy was introduced by the central government in 1999 to encourage domestic companies to invest abroad. It is also part of the "double-way strategy" in the opening-up policy. The other one, "come in", was initiated much earlier to attract foreign companies to China.
In 2012, Chinese companies completed construction contracts in Africa worth $40 billion, up 45 percent from 2009. This made up 35 percent of all China's overseas contracts, according to a white paper issued by the State Council in August.
According to the paper, more than 2,000 Chinese enterprises had invested in more than 50 African countries in almost all types of industries, including agriculture, mining, finance, logistics and real estate.
Premier Li urged investing Chinese enterprises to "learn more about the local market".
"After all the detours I have taken, I hope the center can also act as a guide which can provide my people a direct road (to Africa for business), if not a shortcut," He says.
As one of the pioneering Chinese businessmen who ventured into Africa's "virgin territory" at the beginning of the 21st century, He recalled his early days in Ghana as "practically handicapped".
"It's not only the languages that make you dumb and deaf, but also the hidden rules, social behavior and local customs. And if you don't know them, you are going to act like a blind bull."
One of his frustrating experiences was applying for a visa to visit Botswana, where he planned originally to start his business. It took him six months and he still failed.
"There are tricks you can't Google or find in a book," he says.
He says the word 'a touch' is important to him.
"And in Chinese, 'road' is the path that many people have walked over. That's why I named my company Touchroad. And now I hope the African center can be a new road, if not the Silk Road of the 21st century, that many Chinese and African people will travel on."
Seventeen senior legal officials and lawyers from 10 African countries came to visit the Africa Center in Shanghai on Monday.