Copyright The New York Times
Lilongwe, Malawi â€šÃ„Ã® When Yang Jie left home at 18, he was doing what people from Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s hardscrabble Fujian Province have done for generations: emigrating in search of a better living overseas.
What set him apart was his destination. Instead of the traditional adopted homelands like the United States and Europe, where Fujian people have settled by the hundreds of thousands, he chose this small, landlocked country in southern Africa.
â€šÃ„ÃºBefore I left China,â€šÃ„Ã¹ said Mr. Yang, now 25, â€šÃ„ÃºI thought Africa was all one big desert.â€šÃ„Ã¹ So he figured that ice cream would be in high demand, and with money pooled from relatives and friends, he created his own factory at the edge of Lilongwe, Malawiâ€šÃ„Ã´s capital. The climate is in fact subtropical, but that has not stopped his ice cream company from becoming the countryâ€šÃ„Ã´s biggest.
Stories like this have become legion across Africa in the past five years or so, as hundreds of thousands of Chinese have discovered the continent, setting off to do business in a part of the world that had been terra incognita. The Xinhua News Agency recently estimated that at least 750,000 Chinese were working or living for extended periods on the continent, a reflection of deepening economic ties between China and Africa that reached $55 billion in trade in 2006, compared with less than $10 million a generation earlier.
Even when Mr. Yang arrived here in 2001, he said, he could go weeks without encountering another traveler from his homeland. But as surely as his investments in the country have prospered, he said, an increasingly large community of Chinese migrants has taken root, and now runs everything from small factories to health care clinics and trading companies.
During the previous wave of Chinese interest in Africa in the 1960s and â€šÃ„Ã´70s, an era of radical socialism and proclaimed third-world solidarity, European and American companies held sway over economies in most of the continent. Here and there, though, the Chinese made their presence felt, often in drably dressed, state-run work brigades that built stadiums, railroads and highways, crushing rocks and doing other labor by hand.
Today, in many of the countries where the new Chinese emigrants have settled, like Chad, Chinese-owned pharmacies, massage parlors and restaurants serving a variety of regional Chinese cuisines can be found; the Western presence, once dominant, has steadily dwindled, and essentially consists nowadays of relief experts working international agencies or oil workers, living behind high walls in heavily guarded enclaves.
At first, this new Chinese exodus was driven largely by word of mouth, as pioneers like Mr. Yang relayed news back home of abundant opportunities in a part of the world where many economies lie undeveloped or in ruins, and where even in the richer countries many things taken for granted in the developed world await builders and investors.
Conditions like these often deter Western investors, but for many budding Chinese entrepreneurs, Africaâ€šÃ„Ã´s emerging economies are inviting precisely because they seem small and accessible. Competition is often weak or nonexistent, and for African customers, the low price of many Chinese goods and services make them more affordable than their Western counterparts.
You Xianwen sold his pipe-laying business in Chengdu, in southwest China, this year to move to Addis Ababa, Ethiopiaâ€šÃ„Ã´s capital, to join a startup company with a Chinese partner he had met only online. â€šÃ„ÃºBack where I come from we are pretty independent people,â€šÃ„Ã¹ Mr. You, 55, said. â€šÃ„ÃºMy brothers and sisters all supported my decision to come here. In fact, they say that if things really work out for me, they would like to move to Africa, too.â€šÃ„Ã¹
Mr. You said he had considered other African countries before settling on Ethiopia, including Zambia. â€šÃ„ÃºLuckily I didnâ€šÃ„Ã´t decide to go there,â€šÃ„Ã¹ he said, explaining that he had been frightened by the recent anti-Chinese protests in that country.
His new business, ABC Bioenergy, builds devices that generate combustible gas from ordinary refuse, providing what Mr. You said would be an affordable alternative source of energy in a country where electricity supplies are erratic and prices high.
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