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It has been a love-hate affair between Kenyans and Chinese

By WILLIS OKETCH and STANLEY MWAHANGA

KENYA: When a group of Chinese men came to Kenya three decades ago to begin constructing Nyali Bridge in Mombasa, little did locals know it was the beginning of a new era.

According to National Chamber of Commerce and Industry Mombasa branch vice-chairman Rukia Rashid, an influx of the Chinese followed after the construction of Nyali Bridge that ended in 1980.

“This is the time when Kenyans realised that the Chinese are good in construction works,” she told The Standard.

She explained that since then, the numbers of the South Asians had swollen, with a majority doing business. “We have very many Chinese nationals doing businesses in electronics, construction hotel and others,” said Ms Rashid.

She described Chinese traders as hardworking people and focused, adding that last year the chamber hosted 300 businessmen who had come on an exploratory tour of the coastal city.

They sought opportunities for trade in conjunction with locals. Most of them were interested in construction, shipping, fishing, education and electronics.

Planning visit

“We are also planning to go and visit them in China to learn how they do business,” said Rashid, disclosing that a reciprocal visit by Kenyan businessmen to China was delayed by the March 4 General Election.

Even before the December 2012 visit, Chinese businessmen have established enterprises in Mombasa. But there is a tendency to mistake these foreigners for Koreans, Cambodians, Vietnamese or even Filipinos.

The Chinese control a growing segment of tourists arriving in coastal Kenya following aggressive campaigns by the country’s tourism authorities in South Asia.

Lamu town has a growing presence of Chinese expatriates and professionals. One group won a contract to construct powerlines for Kenya Electricity and Energy Transmission Company between Rabai and Lamu , through Malindi and Garsen.

A separate group of Chinese expatriates is involved in a similar project at the Lamu port.

Chinese archaeologists are also engaged in excavation in Lamu and Malindi to retrieve ancient and sunken ships and rediscover the connection between the Kenyan coast and China during antiquity.

Among Chinese traders who  have established businesses in Mombasa recently include High Time Trading Company which assembles motorcycles at Kengeleni area.

The company’s official, Ms Ellen Maua, said the firm competes with well-established companies from China. “There are many big companies assembling motorcycle parts imported from China and our company is very small and not worth being mentioned,” said Maua.

According to Ms Maua, the business is not easy for Chinese traders also but added that High Time Trading was struggling to ensure they remain afloat in the business. The company has employed many local youths in its assembly lines using parts imported from China. Other Chinese companies established in Mombasa town include Fu Wang Import and Export Furniture. The firm sells imported furniture from China to locals.

But Mombasa residents have expressed mixed reactions about the presence of the Chinese in the city. Some accuse them of encroaching on businesses which local people perceive to be their preserve.

Many of the claims appear exaggerated and invented, including one that accuses the foreigners of taking over hawking. But the presence of Chinese in the streets of Mombasa is not very ostentatious.

Most Chinese nationals neither speak English nor do Swahili, according to residents who believe some of them refuse to learn these languages or decline for selfish reasons.

Others complain that the Chinese, like most South East Asians who come to Kenya, conceal their real names, identities or cunningly mislead those they meet for unknown reasons.

Often it is alleged that Chinese bosses pretend not to know English or Swahili in order to avoid contacts with employees or to spy on them. Or that Chinese firms are importing cheap goods into Kenya without control.

Samuel Karisa, a hawker on Mombasa’s Digo Road complained that the foreigners have ventured into hawking, tailoring, masonry and selling ready -made clothes in their residential houses.

Future of hawking

“If these people are hawking watches  imported from their country  in the streets of Mombasa, what will happen in future if they take over the hawking business in the town?” posed Karisa.

He complained that it was not clear if those doing business in their residential houses were paying tax or were licensed. Locals have also faulted the low wages they claim to earn while working for the Chinese companies in the city.

Those employed at Exports Processing Zones have been having problems with their employers over poor working conditions and salaries.

Employees in many Chinese-owned assembly plants allege they take home a meagre Sh350 in a day despite the firms raking in millions.  Among those trading in garments in their residential houses include Ms Kim Chon Suk. She has been doing the business for many years at Tudor area.

Locals believe the Chinese are favoured by authorities to conduct their businesses their homes because they have money to beat any competition. Competitors lament they feel the brunt of presence of the Chinese as they now occupy major business ventures within the county.