A few months ago, a new Chinese restaurant opened near my parents' place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I decided to try out this new eatery with my 60-year-old mom, who, like most Ethiopians, had never had Chinese food.
There were not many Chinese restaurants until recently and even if there were, most locals wouldn't venture in anyway. Ethiopians have long heard that the Chinese consume "forbidden meats" including donkeys and dogs, and eating these is not only disagreeable but also a sin for most people.
When we walked into the restaurant, my mother looked shamefully at the ground and said, "I hope my neighbors do not see me walking in here. They are going to think I went crazy!"
The waiters were confused to see us there, too. One of them, an Ethiopian man in his mid-twenties, wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing. "You do know that we serve only Chinese food, right?" he asked.
We said we did and asked if there was anything on the menu that does not contain meat. He said that almost everything contains pork (another "forbidden meat"), and that the grilled vegetables were our only option. We ordered some. My mother could not bring herself to eat the vegetables, which were free of any forbidden elements, despite my assurances. She said she lost her appetite when the Chinese owner of the restaurant took a big fish out of the shallow basin in the middle of the restaurant and whacked it on the ground to kill it before sending it to be cooked in the kitchen.
Restaurants like this are not the only Chinese small businesses that are devoid of local customers. Most supermarkets and hotels do not attract an Ethiopian clientele, either. The cultural barrier is just too high for food-related establishments to be frequented by Ethiopians. The owners of these businesses do not brand their restaurants to attract locals either. None of the restaurants I have seen advertise using Amharic, Ethiopia's official language.
But this does not mean that all Chinese small businesses have failed to attract local customers. One sector that has been particularly successful in this regard is healthcare.
Dr Liu's Dental Clinic is a good example. Liu Qing, a young dentist in her early thirties, has been in Ethiopia from Guangzhou for almost eight years. She began her practice only a year ago, after working in another dental clinic for almost six years. Most of her clients are Ethiopians. "I have been here awhile and a lot of people know me ... so I get a lot of referrals," she says. Liu speaks English and if need be, her Ethiopian assistant helps smooth out communication issues with her patients.
Another Chinese business that is inundated by local customers is a massage therapy clinic located in a bustling part of the city. Jack, a Chinese man from Shanghai who runs the business, says that his clinic is often completely booked one to two weeks in advance. This is even though he and his partner work more than eight hours a day, seven days a week. More than 90 percent of his clients are Ethiopians, most of whom have back problems.
Healthcare is in high demand in Ethiopia. There are only three doctors per 100,000 people and most citizens do not have many choices in the quality of care they receive. The Chinese, known for their medical expertise going back thousands of years, are not only welcome by local customers but also needed. When it comes to Chinese businesses, Ethiopians are happy to let the Chinese heal their bodies, but not to prepare their food.
The popularity of the Chinese in healthcare is resonating throughout Africa. In 2012, the China Chamber of Commerce for Import & Export of Medicine & Health Products reported that Africa was the largest export market for Chinese medicine, beating Europe and North America for that year. Numerous reports around the continent have said Africans are flocking to Chinese clinics because they are a cheaper alternative to Western medicine. With the recent announcement of a Chinese company developing an Ebola drug, the credibility of the Chinese in healthcare will certainly grow.
It is safe to say that healthcare is the low-hanging fruit for Chinese nationals looking to open small businesses in Africa. If they're only interested in Chinese clientele, however, opening a restaurant is always an option.
The author is founder at Dalu Insights, an Africa-China marketing and research organization. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
Seventeen senior legal officials and lawyers from 10 African countries came to visit the Africa Center in Shanghai on Monday.