Entrepreneurial Chinese Migrants and Petty African Entrepreneurs: Local Impacts of Interaction in Urban West Africa (Ghana and Senegal)

Dr. Karsten Giese
Dr. Laurence Marfaing
2011 - 2013
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)

Project partners within the Priority Programme 1448: “Adaption and Creativity in Africa”

University of Dakar and IFAN (Dakar)

University of Ghana, Legon



Research Questions

  • Where do Chinese migrant entrepreneurs come from and why do they migrate?
  • Where do they settle, and how do they organize their economic and social activities?
  • How are they perceived by local and migrant African entrepreneurs in their host country?
  • Does this perception correspond to the discourse of cooperation propagated by the Chinese and African governments?
  • How does the Chinese presence influence the development of African host societies?

Contribution to International Research
This comparative study on the Chinese migration into two West African countries explores the economic and political processes triggered by the Chinese migration. It analyses the interactions of the local population with the Chinese migrant entrepreneurs as well as the former’s innovative reactions toward the strategies and practices of the latter. The combination of the different regional research capacities at the GIGA within one research team allows us to address this multidimensional research problem with adequate regional and multidisciplinary competences and research strategies.

Research Design and Methods
Our research field is characterized by high degrees of informality, especially regarding migratory paths, residence status, economic activities, social organization and the political action of all actors involved. In view of this, existing quantitative data on the micro- and meso-levels could not be taken as a reliable basis for our analyses. Moreover, the economic interests that characterize our field had the effect of reduced acceptance on the part of our informants of standardized instruments such as questionnaires. For these reasons, our research concentrates on coordinated qualitative comparative case studies within and across Ghana and Senegal in order to produce reliable research findings. In accordance with our research questions, qualitative data collection was conducted on a micro-level, drawing on the method of actor-centred participant observation and its adaptations in narrative interviews. Additional semi-structured interviews were conducted to ensure comparability across cases. In addition, visual ethnographic methods were applied (photo essays, network-mapping) as a basis for joint interpretation in the overarching research context.

Preliminary Results
We had assumed that networks formed the dominant model of social organization for both the African and the Chinese actors and groups we studied, and that networks were the key factors to understanding the interaction between these two groups. In the field, however, we were unable to establish any empirical evidence that the Chinese individual economic sojourners (or small groups forming family-owned businesses), whose business models tend to be highly speculative, are engaging in any form of meaningful social and economic interaction with their African counterparts beyond primarily functional and opportunistic buyer–seller or employer–employee relationships. African traders also did not reveal any stronger motivation to open their networks to their Chinese counterparts. Based on our observations, we conclude that a wide range of African actors engages in innovative practices not through social exchange and mutually beneficial cooperation with the Chinese newcomers but by creatively appropriating the unintended opportunities that Chinese actors provide in the local African settings through their distinct social and economic practices.

However, the significations that are inscribed into the diverse Chinese social and economic practices and the stimuli they represent are contested between diverse African actors, since their social and economic positioning, their interests and interpretations, and their capacities for adaptation differ greatly. The Chinese business strategy of large-scale wholesale trading in combination with the low cost of the commodities they sell has facilitated the engagement of larger social strata with limited financial means in trading activities. These changes in market access, not least, have had a profound impact on Senegalese and Ghanaian market orders. Not surprisingly, many of the new traders whose access to this profession has directly benefited from the Chinese presence also closely observe the latter’s business strategies. All interviewed Chinese traders, for instance, unanimously employed the logic of high turnovers at small profit rates, aspiring to maximize incomes through sheer volume. Once the African traders have realized that trading in Chinese goods provides solid opportunities for capital accumulation and growth, they have turned their gaze toward China as source for their commodities.