This article was first published in the February 2016 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Art is The Tribute Giraffe with Attendant, a colourful painting by Shen Du depicting the first giraffe ever seen in China. Shipped by the explorer Zheng He from Malindi, Kenya, it arrived intact on 20 September 1414 and was walked down the streets amongst the Chinese public, causing great excitement in the land.

For millennia, and certainly well before the first Europeans set eyes on sub-Saharan Africa, visitors from Asia had already been travelling regularly to and from the continent in their seafaring dhows bringing spices and silks and carrying away exotic cargo.

In the 1800s when the British arrived they brought many Indians to help them build a new railway in East Africa. A large number of these Indians (who were familiar with the opportunities that arose when the British opened up India by rail), chose to stay in Africa and became shopkeepers.

Many descendants of these Indians still operate businesses, engage in politics and work in the professions. Many, like me, have not been back to India for over three generations.

Today the Chinese are putting up new roads, bridges, dams and railways across the continent, including a high-speed rail link in East Africa – on the same route, between Nairobi and Mombasa, that was built by the British and Indians in the 1900s.

This unprecedented wave of activity has attracted a new wave of Asian migrants from China, seeking a better life in Africa. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) the number of Chinese people in Africa has grown tenfold from around 100,000 in 1996 to over a million in 2012, and the numbers are rising even faster now.

Most of these Chinese people are migrant workers who have a lot in common with Africans seeking a better life in Europe. For many of them, Africa seems a lot less crowded than China, and offers more opportunity, less competition, less pollution and perhaps greater freedom.

However Africans are not quite sure where to place the Chinese and hence they occupy a space between expatriates and migrants – both in terms of social standing and duration of stay.

The locals also hold the Chinese in Africa responsible for the increased levels of poaching of endangered species such as rhino and elephant, as well as dumping substandard goods and engaging in unfair competition with the locals.

Reports of Chinese nationals caught while shipping ivory tusks continue to occur.

In most cases the Chinese are able to navigate the corrupted corridors of justice and get away with it. For a while Chinese hawkers also joined locals on the streets of the major capital cities of Nairobi, Lagos and Addis Ababa selling cheap items made in China, until the locals protested and stopped the Chinese migrants from physically hawking the goods themselves. The Chinese goods are still available, but they are now sold only by local hawkers.

As China rises in the world, the two regions will continue to engage. It seems likely that many Chinese people will remain in Africa for generations, just as the Indians have.

But there is a very real danger that Africa will sacrifice its valuable resources, as well as wildlife, in the pursuit of profit by individual Africans and Chinese.
This can and must be prevented by better cooperation between Chinese and African governments to capture and punish offenders in both regions.

Alnoor Amlani FCCA is an independent consultant based in East Africa