China’s gung-ho foray into Africa is waning. As trade with the continent surpasses an annual $160 billion, its companies are avoiding risk by taking smaller stakes in projects close to making money.
Cowed by capricious commodity prices, political instability and a string of lost investments, Chinese financiers aren’t as gutsy as when state-owned giants used their heaps of cash to propel the nation’s “Go Out” drive and whip up business abroad 15 years ago.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm and momentum,” said Clement Kwong, whose Beijing-based Long March Capital Ltd. clubbed together with other investors last year to take over a South African gold company. “That momentum is definitely reined in by a new level of risk aversion and caution.”
China surpassed the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. Trade volumes soared 11-fold in the decade through 2013, according to data from the Geneva-based International Trade Centre. The quest for profit now trumps the wider aim of creating a Chinese footprint abroad.
Smaller private companies are taking the lead from the state-owned giants that prepared the ground. After many African leaders doubled back on the initial fervor for China, the new players are less conspicuous and score quicker returns.
China’s enthusiasm for the mega-deals of the past, such as the landmark $2 billion oil-for-infrastructure accord with Angola in 2004, is tempered by failures.
Gabon scrapped China Machinery Engineering Corp.’s $3.5 billion project to develop the Belinga iron-ore deposit in 2012, while a Chinese copper-cobalt mine in Democratic Republic of Congo has been delayed as the companies await legislation guaranteeing tax exemptions.
Jinchuan Group Co. Ltd.’s search for nickel and copper in Tanzania failed in 2011, when the world’s fourth-biggest nickel producer realized it wouldn’t get a license to dig up a nature reserve. Project leader Jianke Gao was sent to build a South African mine as Chief Executive Officer of Wesizwe Platinum Ltd. Jinchuan had bought a 45 percent stake.
“Before coming to buy a project here, Chinese companies will now do more research before making a decision,” Gao said in an interview. “When Chinese investors come to other countries to invest, there are lots of examples of failure.”
Libya gave China its biggest wakeup call, when the 2011 civil war forced Chinese construction companies to abandon billions of dollars worth of equipment and business, and 30,000 Chinese workers were evacuated.
“We need to price in things like regime change and the cost of operating in a somewhat less than transparent environment,” Kwong, 47, said wearing a checked shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers and sipping iced coffee on the terrace of his Johannesburg hotel. South Africa’s business hub is Kwong’s base from which he looks for other African acquisitions.
Examples of the new pattern abound. China National Offshore Oil Corp. is partnering with Tullow Oil Plc and Total SA to develop Uganda’s oilfields, which they estimate hold 3.5 billion barrels of crude. Beijing Haohua Energy Resource Co. Ltd. last year bought a 24 percent stake in South Africa’s Coal of Africa Ltd. for $100 million.
China National Petroleum Corp. last year bought a fifth of an off-shore Mozambican gas field for $4.2 billion. China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. purchased a 10th of an Angolan oil and gas field for $1.5 billion. In Sierra Leone, China Railway Materials, Shandong Iron and Steel Group and Tianjin Materials and Equipment Corp. between them invested $1.8 billion in London-listed African Minerals Ltd.’s Tonkili mine, Africa’s second-largest iron-ore producer, including in rail and port infrastructure.
With growth in developed economies sluggish, Chinese appetite for Africa is undiminished.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on a visit to Africa last month that the government will boost its line of credit to African nations by half to $30 billion. He repeated a pledge to almost double capital in the China-Africa Development Fund, which gives financing to Chinese companies for private equity deals including Long March Capital’s, to $5 billion.
Chinese capital growth has been “frighteningly explosive” and has spread to private groups, or “nouveau capital,” which need to invest abroad to make greater returns, according to Kwong.
“The more de-risked a project, the easier it is to get funded today, so something without even a pre-feasibility report is a little difficult to swallow,” Kwong said, before flying to Zimbabwe to look at another possible project. “But if it is near production, but requires a substantial amount of capex to take it into production in order to unlock value, that is probably our favorite type of profile.”
China Investment Corp., the country’s $575 billion sovereign wealth fund, has entered the fray, joining Huawei Technologies Co. to diversify from oil, minerals and infrastructure to include telecommunications and finance.
“Africa is by far and for sure the single most important and most welcoming destination,” Changhui Zhao, the chief country risk analyst at China Exim Bank, said in an interview from Beijing. “For many outsiders these countries may seem risky, because of the order disturbances, ethnic tensions or even foreign incursions. If you understand the place you are in, then you will see how much premium you will be awarded.”
The bank agreed last month to finance 90 percent of a $3.8 billion railway connecting five East African countries.
Platinum mine chief Gao’s experiences during his four foreign postings tell of the difficulties many Chinese have in bridging the cultural gap with Africans. Speaking through an interpreter, he said he failed to understand the resistance by South African engineers to Chinese technology, which has proven to make the construction of new mine shafts more efficient.
Kwong went to a Catholic high school in Singapore and studied at the University of British Columbia, and is just as fluent in English as in Mandarin and his native Cantonese. He is part of a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs who’ve overcome some of the cultural differences impeding their African adventure.
“The fact that they have a lot more exposure in Africa now, a lot more experience, a lot more knowledge, they are a lot pickier,” said Standard Chartered Plc Director for Corporate Finance in Africa George Lo, who moved to South Africa at the age of 10 when his father, a property developer, wanted to escape the Hong Kong rat race. “They know where the stuff is. They’re very knowledgeable now.”
Lo advised the China Investment Corp. on its first investment in Africa in 2011, when it bought a 16 percent stake in Shanduka Group, the diversified investment group started by South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
As well as political risks, Chinese companies know they need to overcome opposition from Africans who sometimes feel they exploit the continent. Zambian workers in 2012 killed the Chinese manager of a coal mine over a wage dispute. Two years earlier, two Chinese managers at the same mine wounded 11 protesting workers when they opened fire on them.
“The Chinese go there with a mentality to conquer,” Elias Masilela, the outgoing chief executive officer of the Public Investment Corp., which manages $153 billion of mainly South African state worker pensions, said in an April interview. Chinese companies demand regulatory breaks because of the amount of investment they bring, he said.
“I cannot blame the Chinese entirely for that,” Masilela said. “I also blame the receiving governments.”
Even though many Chinese companies have the highest operating standards, that attitude is something Kwong says Chinese companies need to address.
“In Africa, many enterprises have learnt lessons along the way,” he said. “We may do things a little differently the next time round.”