Five months ago Ibrahim and his wife, Choi Zoung-mai — renamed Maryam Barry after converting to Islam — opened their first factory, hiring 43 Chinese workers. With this latest investment they hope to secure a bright future for their four-year-old son, who speaks fluent Mandarin, French, English and Fula.
While there are several success stories, not all African entrepreneurs make it in China — for some, the rising costs and intense competition make it difficult to stay afloat. However, the Guangzhou migrant community, which began forming in the 1990s, has built a network to support each other.
This is vividly apparent in the handful of African Pentecostal churches that have sprung up across the city. Tucked away in a building behind the Guangzhou railway station, 150 worshipers crowd into Royal Victory Church.
“Our prayer is that you will prosper,” the pastor preaches to cries of agreement from a mostly male congregation from Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana.
The African entrepreneurs who are flourishing in Guangzhou are succeeding where many other foreigners fail. Not only are they navigating the notorious Chinese bureaucracy, but sometimes overt racism, in a country where prejudices can run high.
This can range from mild snubs from taxi drivers who refuse to pick up black customers to more serious accusations of traders being unfairly targeted by police when they conduct raids for illegal immigrants.
Even so, others report good relations with the Chinese.
“Many [African] traders feel much more comfortable working in China than they do in Europe,” said Roberto Castillo, a Lingnan University researcher in Guangzhou.
Ojukwu Emma, president of the local Nigerian community, said the main problem for Africans trading in China is the increasing clampdown on visas. He said it is getting harder for African residents in the city to renew visas, or for those traveling back and forth to gain re-entry.
“You cannot allow foreigners to come in and not give the foreigner confidence to stay. Once you are out to the world, you must be open,” Emma said.
However, for now, booming Sino-African trade continues to draw new waves of African entrepreneurs to Guangzhou in search of the Chinese dream.