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Chinese Businesses in Kenya Under COVID-19

File image of a Kenyan employee at the e-commerce company Kilimall preparing a package for a customer. Kilimall was founded by former Huawei execitive Yang Tao. Image via Xinhua.

By China House Fellows Zang Yiming, 15, Beijing National Day School; Fan Xia, 17, Yao Hua High School and Yu Kaidi, 17, Nanjing Foreign Language School Xianlin Campus

Since March 13, Kenya discovered its first COVID-19 case in Nairobi. Up till March 11, 2021, the cumulative number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has risen up to 110,356. The government took measures that they locked down schools and overcrowded areas to have quarantines. Also, Kenya’s economy has been affected from multiple perspectives, on tourism, business, and other fields. The World Bank (WB) recently released the latest global economic outlook report, saying that the epidemic has a huge impact on the economy of sub-Saharan Africa. Along with the global recession, Kenya’s GDP contracted by 5.7% in the second quarter of 2020 and 1.1% in the third quarter of 2020.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, there are at least 30,000 Chinese in Kenya. Chinese in Kenya are mainly engaged in commerce, tourism, catering, and medical industries. About 100 small businesses are working in the import and export trade in Kenya. A large number of Chinese traders in Kenya is due to the forming “Chinese Market” in Kenya. One scholar explained that the Chinese traders view on a longer-term to gain profits which helps a “Chinese Market” to appear in Kenya’s business system.

Like most Kenyans, the Chinese in Kenya are affected by the pandemic and the lockdown measures financially and mentally. The Chinese traders in Kenya are especially hit hard as the global supply chain is massively disrupted. We will explore how their business has been affected by COVID, and how do they view cultural conflicts.

Challenges Facing Chinese Traders in Kenya Under COVID-19

Many people returned to China before the Spring Festival 2020 and failed to go back to Kenya in time when the epidemic broke out in Kenya. In the meanwhile, some people in the local industry failed to return home in time because of their work, and they stayed in Kenya.

Due to the epidemic situation, some Chinese business people who remained in Kenya had to stop work or limit the number of people who go to work. COVID also affected the travel and consumption of local Chinese in Kenya. As a result, Chinese traders have suffered a certain loss compared to previous years.

We interviewed a Chinese trader Su Biqun, Mr. Su, who has been in Kenya for ten years. Mr.Su and his family now sell seafood. Mr. Su has 4 shops and one factory in Kenya. His industry was affected as seafood can be considered as a present when people return home. Mr. Su was just maintaining the business without making any money. He told us as long as the flights are opened, his business will not fall. But he had to wait until the flights are opened once more.

Even after the major restrictions on business are lifted, some Chinese business people are still more inclined to reduce the risk by isolating themselves at home which might mean a greater economic loss to them.

Also, many companies are unable to their business at all. For some catering service companies, the impact is greater, especially at the peak of the epidemic. Some employees are unemployed and unable to work at home. Mr. Su told us he had to fire most of the employees, including a lot of local employees. There is only one employee looking after the factory for him. Mr. Su, however, emphasized most Chinese businesspeople in Kenya have some wealth accumulations during years of running a business and thus are not on the verge of bankruptcy.

Regarding daily life, we interviewed a lawyer who is currently living in Kenya and to express his general views on daily life. He said it was quite convenient for them to get access to supermarkets  “Many supermarkets are still doing their businesses and so do restaurants. The only difference is that people have to wear masks and wash their hands before going into public places otherwise you’ll be taken away for a “trial” and be fined.”

However, seeking health care in Kenya was a challenge to the Chinese community. Mr. Su mentioned most Chinese business people would not go to a hospital even if they have been infected with COVID19. “They would rather tough it out. Actually, many Chinese in Kenya died of COVID19.”

Since the outbreak of the epidemic started in China, some local residents were wary of the local Chinese at the beginning of the epidemic. Later, with the outbreak of the epidemic in Kenya, the discrimination against the Chinese became more serious, this also poses a challenge to the Chinese in Kenya.

We also interviewed Chinese in Kenya about their views on the governmental policies about the lockdown. Some interviewees think the government policies are pushing back the economy and it is recovering at a relatively quick speed. One interviewee also appreciated that the government has taken the pandemic very seriously that they will deploy police in public places and they have made it compulsory to wear masks and sanitize hands before entering supermarkets and public places.

How Local People See Chinese Business People

Chinese traders have a mixed reputation in Kenya. On one hand, producers don’t like traders because ‘Made in China’ is cheaper, which makes their products less competitive. Local traders have raised concerns over a rise in Chinese nationalities who have ventured into retail trade at local markets, selling at throw-away prices, pushing them out of business.

On the other hand, many consumers often love Chinese traders because they provide cheaper options available. Many products are made accessible by these Chinese traders which once was unaffordable for some local people. However, many Chinese traders profit from selling sub-standard and even fake goods. One Chinese trader we interviewed mentioned he is sometimes discriminated but the profit gained are not bad. Locals also view the Chinese as stealing local job opportunities, especially when unskilled labor is also taken up by the Chinese in Kenya. For example, there was a documentary about African traders who objected to the chickens sold by Chinese traders. African traders said that Chinese chickens are raised with ripening agents. The meat is very tough and not tasty at all. They were however more popular because of the low price. The African traders were very unhappy about it. In another circumstance, we interviewed Mr. Su and he told us that in his seafood industry, there are many local people as colleagues. They sometimes face problems like the previous case, however, he views it as a positive competition that happens everywhere regardless of region or race.

Under COVID-19, Chinese in Kenya like many Chinese overseas suffered from further prejudice from local communities. Since the outbreak of the epidemic started in China, some local residents were wary of the local Chinese at the beginning of the epidemic. Later, with the outbreak of the epidemic in Kenya, the discrimination against the Chinese became more serious, this also poses a challenge to the Chinese in Kenya. Videos showing a large crowd shouting “You are corona” to two Asians in Nairobi circulated widely on social media.

In April 2020, the epidemic appeared in the African community of Guangzhou. Strict epidemic prevention policies and the fear and rejection of some local residents have brought many difficulties to Africans. A McDonald’s put up a “no blacks allowed” sign, and some Africans were evicted from their homes by landlords; A screenshot of a Weibo user cursing Africans has sparked heated discussion online and even caused a diplomatic incident.

This discrimination incident resonates with several incidences of discrimination and unfair treatment of local employees by Chinese managers in Kenya. Public perception of Chinese being racists further led to a certain degree of estrangement between Kenyan residents and Kenyan Chinese.

We Need Better Communications

During the interview, it is obvious that some Chinese people do not trust the local people. For example, when the economy of Kenya decreased and the employees didn’t get paid regularly, the employers usually fire local people first. That leads to mistrust and suspicion between the Chinese and Kenyans. Kenyans and Chinese are reluctant to communicate, which makes many misunderstandings difficult to solve.

A lot of Chinese business people in Kenya don’t speak English well and tend to stay in the Chinese community. The distance further causes a mutual mistrust. Mr. Su mentioned Chinese business people are used to avoiding dangers from political unrest by giving money. Even though it’s a handy approach considering the language and cultural barriers, this could further lead to blackmailing to the Chinese business people and stereotyping from both sides. Take Chinese car drivers in hired in Kenya for example. If the local employers employ Chinese as their workers in their companies, the local people will view this in a negative way as they are willing to offer any type of low-education-requirement job positions to foreigners if the employment in local areas are low. That causes the suspicious thoughts and distrustful thoughts of the local people, which also brings negative effects.

Our research suggests building more people-to-people relationships between the Chinese in Kenya and Kenyans is needed. Chinese people need more communication and more tolerance so that they can understand local people’s perspectives.

We provide several suggestions to the previous concerns:  first, communicate more. Since communication is the most important skill when discussing international relationships. Communication dissolves misunderstandings. Second, build up labor policies. To conciliate conflicts, local authorities should set up policies to hiring more percentage of local people to lower the local unemployment rate.

China House is a social enterprise that brings young Chinese to the global south for research, conservation activities and development projects.

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