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I.M.O.W. Team

Africa, China, and Women

Developing National Economic Relationships Can Be a Win-Win

The new economic relationship between Africa and China is full of potential successes and pitfalls, says Hafsat Abiola, human rights and democracy advocate from Nigeria.  Now, however, both countries have a trick up their sleeve: women, their greatest untapped resource. Abiola is the founder of China Africa Bridge and China Africa Forum, as well as the founder and executive director of the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy, an organization dedicated to promoting democracy in Nigeria.

In rural areas of China and Africa, women continue to live especially difficult lives. In Africa, the lack of rights to the lands women farm makes economic independence a far-off dream. Food security and the slow pace of the village hardly make up for the fact that there they are hemmed in by customs that privilege men over women, leading many women to seek the crowded cities and towns where they have more freedom. The situation is supposed to be better for women in rural China, but statistics show that China's rural women have the highest per capita rate of suicide: whatever progressive policy measures are in place, the living reality of rural women in China is yet to be transformed.

Yet a new economic relationship has developed between Africa and China that is providing more, better opportunities for the citizens of each region--particularly the women--to make huge economic advancements.

Despite some setbacks and conflicts, the truth is that the presence and resources of the Chinese could not have come at a better time for Africa. Within the first two decades following independence, most African countries had realized the limits to aid and had begun asking for investment as the missing key in their bid to develop. However, traditional investment into Africa declined through the ‘80s and ‘90s. China's entry introduced a new player with significant capital that was also willing to bet on the continent's prospects. Now, Chinese investment is paying for roads, bridges, building and other necessary infrastructure, and inexpensive Chinese products are enabling African consumers to buy needed goods in spite of their limited incomes.

In 2000, bilateral trade between China and Africa amounted to about $10.6 billion; by 2008, it jumped to $106.8 billion. The Chinese FDI stock in Africa (which was only $491 million in 2003) rose to $5 billion by the end of 2008. At the governmental level, there appears to be political will and commitment: in 2006, the Chinese government hosted the Heads of Government of 48 African countries in Beijing, signalling strengthening ties between the continent and the rising power in the East. In November 2009, the Egyptian government will host China and the other African governments for a follow-up meeting. Both sides speak about seeking a win-win relationship.

And the women of Africa and China are getting in on the action from the start. I arrived in Beijing a month before the historic Heads of Government meeting. I was inspired by the beautiful welcome for African leaders and peoples that the Chinese government and people rendered over the week-long meeting, but with just one female African Head of State among the 49 other leaders, it was clear that women would have to seek other avenues to ensure that their voices were included in the ensuing agreements.

The realization that women were underrepresented in the developing relationship between China and Africa inspired me to create a company called China Africa Bridge. I also initiated an organization called China Africa Forum, which enables the civil society in Africa and China to talk, to learn about each other and review the impact of their relationship. So far, I have hosted several African women who were visiting China to explore trading opportunities, and I've helped organize a seminar to help Chinese and African business women get to know each other and to discuss aspects of China-Africa relations.

Women like the ones I work with in China Africa Bridge are staking a place for themselves in this new economy. Some women head large investment companies that work between Africa and China--for example, the telecommunications company Huawei is one of the largest Chinese investors in Africa, and it is chaired by a woman; and the consultancy company Zuloga, based in Africa, is also led by a woman and primarily staffed by women. Thousands of other women are operating small- to medium-scale business in the Africa-China exchange. Chinese women produce the goods that African women then sell in their own small businesses, and increasingly, Chinese companies are setting up production in Africa.

So will China-Africa economic relations result in a win-win, or will it be yet another chapter in the old story of exploitation of Africa? It depends. Ultimately, how Africa ends up depends on what Africans do or fail to do. Africa's economic challenge has been its inability to draw in a broad enough segment of the population into the economy in a way that is viable. Chinese investment may provide an opportunity, but African states will need to establish policies that help women entrepreneurs and others move along the production chain. Win-win must mean getting beyond the few to the many--and reaching the women, the continent's greatest untapped resource.

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