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From Lagos to Guangzhou

June 18, 2012

There are more and more African business people moving to China. But although business may be flourishing, entrepreneurs often encounter red tape and racism.

Image: DW/N.Graaf

Toyin Lawal stands in the kitchen of her one-room flat in a brand new apartment complex some 30 kilometers away from China's capital Beijing. She is cutting up small pieces of fish and throwing them into a pot of steaming red chili sauce.

"I'm not that good a cook," the 41-year-old Nigerian says modestly. "But the other Nigerians love my food and always want me to cook for them."

Every day except for Sunday she packs her food and takes it to the center of Beijing where she sells it in a small shop that belongs to a Chinese family.

Workers at a textile factory
Guangzhou has many factories where goods are mass producedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Most of the Nigerians in Beijing are traders. They buy mass-produced Chinese products - from cooking utensils to fake designer clothing - and ship them to Nigeria to sell them at a profit.

'All sorts of things'

Toyin does not only sell food. "I sell all sorts of things. Shoes and bags. Some schools order their uniforms from me. They send me money and I go off to buy what they want."

She usually orders her clothes from manufacturers in Guangzhou. There is already a big African community in the southern port city.

Kabir Amuda lived there before moving to Beijing. The 30-year-old exports wall tiles and flooring to Nigeria, where "many people are building houses these days."

"When people stop buying tiles I'll look for something else," he continues. "Maybe tomorrow I'll be selling car parts."

A market place in Lagos
Chinese wares can be sold at a profit at African marketsImage: AP

Once he has shipped his products, Kabir flies to Nigeria to sell them to local business people. He says he can make a profit of between five and six thousand US dollars (between four and five thousand euros) per container.

"If you have your own shop and sell your products, you can make even more money but I just sell my goods on to small traders so I can come back quickly to ship a new load."

Toyin, on the other hand, only flies home once a year to see her two sons. She left the country almost eight years ago and does not want to go back. "It is not easy there," she explains.

"There is no money. If you want to do something for your children you have to go abroad to earn money. My children have to go to school and then university. I want them to have an easier life than me."

Red tape and racism

Life is not always easy for Africans living in China. "Chinese people hate blacks," Toyin says. "Very few taxis stop for me for example."

It is also difficult to get through the red tape and to get papers for extended stays. Many Africans in China register as students as this is simpler and cheaper. There are also specialized agencies which charge up to $3,000 for visas, but these are often issued for six months only and do not allow multiple entries.

Many foreigners end up in jail when their visas expire and recently the Chinese government announced it was going to step up checks even more.

Toyin and Kabir refuse to have their photos taken even though their papers are in order. They do not want to draw any unnecessary attention.

Chinese business people in Africa
There are also many Chinese business people in AfricaImage: REBECCA BLACKWELL/AP/dapd

Nevertheless, they say they like living in China. Kabir has married a Chinese woman and Toyin says she feels safer than in Nigeria. "There are so many attacks and violence in my country. Here I can go home at 3 in the morning. I love China because of that."

Author: Nicole Graaf / act
Editor: Sarah Berning