One of Africa’s attractions is that it is largely uncontested territory. “Chinese companies can go and cut their teeth at [low] prices, because the top tier of western companies is not there. It’s an ideal training ground.”
Mr French remembers 18 months ago on the drive into Kampala from Uganda’s Entebbe airport, seeing billboard after billboard for Chinese goods: “Mattresses, fridges, washer-driers, roof tiles — you name it.”
Cheap Chinese products, such as textiles, have often been blamed for wiping out whole swaths of African industry. But Mr French argues that the death of inefficient industries selling overpriced goods to unfortunate African consumers is not necessarily to be mourned.
The trick is to harness the new opportunities provided by Chinese interest in the continent, he says. If governments respond with the right incentives, as Ethiopia has tried to do, by encouraging manufacturers to invest locally, transfer technology and employ local staff, China can be more a boon than a threat.
Ha-Joon Chang, a development economist at Cambridge university, says that even though the Chinese state has been every bit as exploitative as the west, Beijing’s growing presence in Africa has been largely beneficial.
“The most important thing is that there’s competition,” he says. “For African countries, there used to be only one bank in town. It was called the World Bank.” Ethiopia has found Chinese finance “smoother and faster”, he adds. African nations, says Mr Chang, must wean themselves off simply “digging things out of the ground”.
Instead, they need to move to an early industrial phase in the mould of now-wealthy South Korea, whose GDP per capita in 1960 was half that of Ghana’s. One of South Korea’s first successful industrial experiments was wig-making, he says, a labour-intensive operation that required workers to attach individual strands of hair.
Other countries such as Rwanda, Mauritius and Ghana, have set off in the right direction, says Mr Chang. On the other hand, “Zambia is still digging copper . . . and Angola doesn’t appear to be doing much to prepare for the future.”
The next decade or so, he predicts, will see a sharp divergence between countries with good policies and those without. China’s interest in Africa, albeit tempered by its current slowdown, means that opportunity will continue to knock. But it will not knock equally.