RENEW Strategies

Are We Losing their Hearts and Minds…Because of our Wallets?

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Matthew Davis, CFA
| August 28, 2011

For the past six years I have been traveling in Africa and South Asia. I have spent most of that time in East Africa, where the United States has long been the dominant “goodwill” country. With initiatives like PEPFAR and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Africa fell in love with “Bushy,” and had high hopes for President Obama, with his paternal roots in Kenya. I have long enjoyed the strength of the American brand as a businessman traveling in Africa. But on my last trip, I noted a significant change.

Our company does two things: One, we find and assess small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) investment opportunities in developing countries, and two, we connect those opportunities to angel investors. There’s a lot more technical stuff involved, and some amazing investor trips, but mainly we do transactions — brokering deals for "impact investors."

Connecting investors to good investments in Africa and other developing countries has not been easy, seeing as most Americans hold an inaccurate perception about what is actually happening on the ground. Nonetheless, we are starting to see some interest from investors. We have even started to organize angel investors for investments in Afghanistan.

Back to Africa…as I travel I always keep a close eye on who is making moves on the continent. If you have been reading the news from Africa for the past few years you understand why I keep a close eye on China. China’s presence in Africa is not new. They have been working in some of the hardest countries in Africa for years. The general sentiment in Africa, with its many different countries and cultures, is concern about China’s presence. I experienced a clear example of this three years ago at the Hilton in Addis. A group, who I believe were Chinese diplomats, walked into the business center in the hotel. One of them was confronted by, what appeared to be a disgruntled Ethiopian man in his mid-thirties. If you have met Ethiopians, you know that they are some of the gentlest people on earth. I was shocked by his outburst, and clearly so was the Chinese woman who was verbally assaulted. His attack was swift, direct and memorable: “Why are you in my country? I want you out!”

So, on my recent trip to Ethiopia I assumed the sentiment would still be the same, even worse given the impressive advances China has made throughout the continent. I was wrong.

The shock didn’t hit me at first, because I was still living in the memory of the scene from the business center. I’d ask question, like I always do, about the Chinese: Where are they investing? Why? Is it working? Who are they working with? What are the perks, etc.? The questions go on and on. For a long time I have been rewarded with scowling faces and answers like, “Roads, because they want to get mining consignments.” Or “They work very hard, but they treat us poorly.”

For the first part of my recent trip around East Africa, this is exactly what I heard. I was even rewarded with a “They [the Chinese] are coming here by the thousands. You need to do something!” Now, I honestly think most of these were genuine statements from concerned friends, diplomats and entrepreneurs. But it wasn’t until Ethiopia where I was given a little dose of reality.

I don’t know if it was irony given that I was back in Ethiopia, or that I finally spoke with someone that was not afraid to tell me the truth. Either way, the answers I was given did not tell the story I was used to hearing about China in Africa. The story is changing. And what’s more, so has Africa’s story about the United States.

This is what happened: I was driving around with a successful Ethiopian entrepreneur looking at his stone crushing plant and a few other projects he is working on. Like most successful entrepreneurs in Africa, I am always fascinated and a little skeptical (hey, I get paid to ask questions) about how he “made it.” Nonetheless, I really liked this guy and he matched the profile we like to look for (I’ll save that for another post.). As I worked through my series of questions I finally got to the ‘China section.’ “What are your thoughts on China?” I asked. “Oh, they are great! We do tons of business with them. They are our largest trading partner, and we have been working with them on a number of projects.” His enthusiasm caught me off guard. I wanted to stop my questioning, afraid that if I scratched much deeper I would find out just how much sentiments towards China are changing.

I am an American who encourages high net worth individuals (angel investors) to invest in SMEs in developing countries. It’s a new model for economic development, but it’s also a model for foreign diplomacy. In my humble opinion, diplomacy in Africa is more about business than it is policies or health initiatives, or aid.

Entrepreneurs generally know what I do, and they know what to say about China to fire me up about the need for America to get involved with business in Africa. But this conversation ignored all of that. He didn’t sugarcoat his answer, or roll his eyes about the Chinese, or complain of their cheap goods, or talk about how they are corrupt, or throw his arms up asking why the Americans aren’t investing. He smiled and shot me a straight answer… “they are great!”

I am not saying that everyone who has complained about what China is doing in Africa was lying to me, but maybe I have been getting some theatrics. The reality is that China’s economic success in Africa is dwarfing the U.S. — the international leader of capitalism. And these efforts on the part of the Chinese have begun to win the hearts and minds of the people. It’s not just about damns and roads and mining projects; it’s about trucking companies and textile factories and coffee farms. And yes, the Chinese do build nice hospitals, like the one they just constructed south of Addis. Ethiopia loves it. Read this from a newspaper:

“The hospital is historical as it is named after the renowned athlete Tirunesh Dibaba, he said, adding it would further help to enhance the people to people relations of the two countries [China and Ethiopia].”

There’s a whole website on the China-Ethiopia relations. On the site are links to aid being given to Ethiopia alongside news of shoe companies wanting to invest, and investors interested in the cotton industry. The truth is that China has learned that the hearts and minds of the people can be won by working with them, giving to them, and investing in them.

In the United States, we have taken a hard position on things like bribery, which we say the Chinese do almost blatantly. We are also doing amazing development projects all across the developing world that get little media exposure. Being an American visitor in these countries, I can imagine the frustration of our policy makers when the U.S. influence is so clearly diminished. As a Kenyan so eloquently put it, "we've turned our back to the West to face the rising sun." An outdated cliché but it still delivers a sting.

So China is gaining favor in Africa and the U.S. is losing it. But thankfully, I don’t think it’s too late to try something new. It involves the U.S. Government doing what the Chinese are doing; taking a more active role in facilitating investments. And not just huge, massive infrastructure investments; I am talking about investing into SMEs—the backbone of any economy. I have had the honor of spending time with some amazing businessmen and women in the U.S. who know the value of entrepreneurship and the benefits that come from the investor/investee relationship. Our Government needs to get creative about how to efficiently facilitate these relationships.

We’re missing out on a major opportunity for diplomacy through business, investing and good old-fashioned capitalism. China is winning in Africa by using this strategy and it feels like we’re stuck. Is it time for the U.S. to try something new?