Zhang Huarong points out of his office window to a bleak block of grey portacabins at the Huajian International Shoe City, in Addis Ababa. “That is what I lived in for six months when I came to Africa,” he says. “I am 60 years old. Back in China, I am a wealthy man — my house in Dongguan even has a swimming pool. But I chose to come here and do something very difficult.”
In 2011, this self-made textile tycoon from Jiangxi province became one of the first Chinese entrepreneurs to heed the call of Ethiopia’s then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to open a factory in his country. Within three months, Huajian was producing footwear for giants such as Nine West, Guess and, later, Ivanka Trump’s fashion line, before it closed.
“This is something God is telling me to do,” Zhang says, framing himself as a 21st-century manufacturing missionary whose goal is to create more than 100,000 jobs in the poorest parts of Africa. Rwanda is next. “In China, no one wants to make shoes anymore,” he adds.
Ethiopia is undoubtedly one of the continent’s poorst countries, but that’s changing. In the decade leading up to 2016, Ethiopia’s economy swelled 10% a year making it the fastest growing in Africa. And with 100 million people, 70% of whom are under age 30, it also has the continent’s second-largest population. That’s both a massive demographic dividend and a real risk: with unemployment at 16.8%, jobs are urgently required.
Businessmen like Zhang are seen as the country’s ticket out of poverty. Huajian employs 7,500 local workers at its two enormous factories in the Addis Ababa region. “As long as they have the right skills and training, Africans are just like Asians and Europeans,” he says.
As one of the biggest Chinese employers in Ethiopia, Huajian has attracted intense scrutiny. Reports last year of poor working conditions at the firm’s Guangdong factory, in China, and rock bottom wages in Addis Ababa saw two customers, one of whom was Trump, jump ship.
While many of the criticisms were valid, Huajian is operating in an environment of deep Western suspicion of the Chinese in Africa. In March, Rex Tillerson, then secretary of state, told leaders at the African Union, in Addis Ababa, that Chinese investors “do not bring significant job creation locally.” His comments echoed warnings about neo-colonialism in Africa and Chinese labor importation by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively.
“China is a rising economy, and it’s going to be the global number one by 2030 latest,” says Arkebe Oqubay, a senior government official and architect of much of Ethiopia’s industrialization strategy. “There’s always rivalry when a great power diminishes. But we as the Africans are the ones to say if we are benefiting from China. We don’t need a witness.”