Forum Interview | He Liehui: I'm Building Special Economic Zones in Africa
17 Sep, 2021  |  Source:chinese BRI network   |  Hits:1400
"It was a coincidence that we went down this trade path with China. Twenty years ago, my dream in life was not to go into business, but to be a judge, to uphold human justice. But I feel honored and happy to have been able to contribute to China-Africa trade and friendship over the past 20 years." He Liehui, chairman of the Dazhilu Group, said in an interview with China's Belt and Road Network at the 4th "One Belt And One Road" and Global Governance International Forum held by Fudan University.

The Chinese sheikh in Nigeria

He Liehui was awarded the title of Chief by the Nigerian government in 2004, the second Chinese to do so.

Chiefdoms are common in sub-Saharan Africa, where they are powerful in vast rural areas. In modern times, most African countries devoted their central bands to the need for stability and political stability in rural areas.

Many people imagine the sheikh, whose face seems to be painted with oil, wearing ornate traditional dress and a feathered hat. "In fact, many of them are just legends, and for me there is no real change. To give a foreigner the title of chieftain is just an honorary title." "I see Chieftain more as recognition and encouragement from the local government," he said. I was given this title because I helped to promote mutual understanding and cooperation between some Nigerian and Chinese enterprises."

Over the past 20 years, He Liehui has helped hundreds of Chinese enterprises to invest and do business in African countries, and hundreds of African enterprises to do business in China. He has brought thousands of African customers to China for investigation. "I used to receive over a hundred African customers a year. Later, I thought that since Chinese and African companies wanted to understand each other's market, why not hold a conference to bring them together?" He Liehui said, "In the beginning, I was a peer-to-peer matchmaking agent for Chinese and African companies, but by holding the Africa Investment Summit Forum, the efficiency is higher and the effect is better. The purpose is to encourage more communication, exchanges and mutual understanding between Chinese and African companies. The more you communicate, the more you collaborate."

But 20 years ago, when He Liehui first set foot on the African continent, his entire fortune was only $700. How did he grow so fast in Africa?

In 1999, after graduating from Shanghai Maritime University with a degree in law, He Liehui quit his job in the court and set foot in Africa. "My father was in business in Botswana, Africa, but he didn't speak English and wanted me to help him. Unfortunately, he was in a country where I could not go due to visa reasons, so I had to go to Ghana in West Africa alone."

At the end of 2000, He Liehui moved to Nigeria. "When we first arrived in Africa, the country was encouraging foreign investment, but there were not many Chinese companies in Africa. In the process of starting a business, there are some difficulties that you must go through." He LieHui said, "When I first arrived in Africa, money was very scarce and there were cultural differences. The supply chain in Africa was also very weak at the time. There were problems with raw materials, some of the infrastructure, but we were able to adapt and overcome that."

What helped Ho Liehui to open up the African market was his faithfulness and loyalty. "Even though there may be cultural differences, I think the most fundamental thing when interacting with people is to treat each other with empathy and respect." In 2001, Mr. He landed his first big order in Nigeria -- a $700,000 order for fabrics. But he didn't know much about fabrics, and by the time he found out there were some quality problems with the fabric exported to Nigeria, the customer had already asked for compensation.

Mr Ho took on a huge amount of compensation, but also got clients to recognise his commitment and responsibility. Since then, the client has introduced him to a steady stream of customers. His reputation through word of mouth has laid the foundation for his business in Africa. Starting in Nigeria, he has expanded his business to many African countries, and through all kinds of trials, He Liehui's business has gradually grown.

Creating "Special Economic Zones" in Africa

On January 27, 2014, in the presence of the President of the Republic of Djibouti, He Liehui and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Djibouti signed a memorandum of understanding authorized by the government of the Republic of Djibouti to set up a "Special Economic Zone" in Djibouti.

On January 27, 2014, Mr. He Liehui and the Prime Minister of Djibouti signed a memorandum of understanding on the establishment of the Special Economic Zone in the presence of President Guelleh. (Credit: interviewees)

Djibouti is located on the west coast of the Gulf of Aden in northeast Africa. On June 27, 1977, Djibouti officially declared its independence and established itself as the Republic of Djibouti. Although it has few poor people, its geographical location is particularly important. Djibouti is located in the Middle East, "a land of three continents and five seas". At such a crossroads, it guards the Gulf of Aden, locks the exit of the Suez Canal, and faces the Persian Gulf far away.

"Djibouti has had the idea of a special economic zone since 2012. At that time, President Djibouti visited China and I had the honor to meet him. He invited us to set up a special economic zone in Djibouti. It is hoped that Djibouti can draw on the mature ideas and successful experience of China's Shenzhen and Shanghai's Pudong in economic development and build itself into an African Shenzhen, Singapore, Hong Kong or Dubai." He Liehui said.

Djibouti Special Economic Zone is the first special economic zone authorized by Chinese private enterprises in an African country. As agreed in the Memorandum and subsequent documents, Da Zhi Lu Group has the right to lease the land related to the Special Economic Zone for a period ranging from 90 to 99 years. The government of Djibouti has granted the right to build an airport, a seaport, a ship repair center, and a financial, telecommunications and medical center in the special economic zone. The construction of the SEZ does not require the approval of the Djibouti government, but is decided by Dazhilu Group on its own in accordance with Chinese standards and norms. This also determines that this special economic zone is actually a city, and da zhi lu group is not only an investor, but also the manager and operator of the special economic zone.

For more than 20 years, He Liehui has worked as a bridgehead for enterprises in China and Africa, devoting himself to promoting economic and trade development between China and Africa. In addition to entrepreneurs, many political leaders of African countries have also gained a deeper understanding of China through He Liehui.

During the epidemic in 2020, Dazilu Group donated a batch of face masks and some rapid detection reagents to the governments of Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Botswana, as well as donated money to Tanzanian students studying in China to help Africa fight the epidemic.

Chinese companies should do their homework before setting foot on Africa

"Africa is a very promising place, with more than 1.3 billion people, 54 countries, with very different development conditions in each country. And the development of the imbalance and difference is a very big business opportunities, we can fill the industry, industry gaps. There are a lot of opportunities for Chinese companies, but there are also some risks in Africa that we need to consider." He Liehui said.

"For example, some countries have relatively high political risks, so we should be cautious about entering these markets. Public security in some countries is not very good, and personal safety and other risks need to be considered. Some countries have tighter exchange controls and need to consider commercial and policy risks."

"So my advice is that before Chinese companies invest in a country, they should make several field trips and experience them before they invest in it. I also suggest that investment should be made step by step from small to large. Trade should be the first step and industry should follow up.

"In addition, when you are in the local area, you need to be as local as possible to create local jobs. Chinese companies can set up joint ventures with local companies, cooperate more in business, integrate into the local society as much as possible, and combine the development of their own enterprises with the development of the local economy, so that they can go further." He Liehui said.

"There are all kinds of different paths to be taken, and there are all kinds of difficulties and challenges to be faced. Looking back, I feel very happy and I have learned a lot from my modest contribution to China-Africa trade. I will continue on this path."