What exactly is China building in Africa?

Mikhael Simmonds | 7/27/2017, 9:55 a.m.

What exactly is China building in Africa?

This month, China opened its first military base abroad in Djibouti, a small country on the Horn of Africa. This operation comes months after co-launching a new, sleek, multi-billion-dollar railway system that carves into the landscape from that country’s coast to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. These multi-billion dollar investments are just two of the many projects on the continent funded by an influx of Chinese loans and partnerships. This activity has some locals ecstatic about potential opportunity for growth and trade, whereas others remain fearful of a new type of colonization.

Whether you see Chinese business investment as an opportunity for African countries to improve their infrastructure or just another colonial power using the continent’s resources, what is undeniable is that the sheer size of investments is literally changing the landscape of the region. From Angola to Zambia, Chinese money has made the country one of the largest foreign investors in the continent with $36.1 billion in foreign direct investment in just 2016, according to Ernest & Young. China’s increase in investments happened as U.S. and U.K. firms decreased theirs.

But what does China’s impact look like on the ground? Here’s a summary of the effects in three major sectors.

Cities and economic zones

Roughly 50 Special Economic Zones, areas in a given country with different economic rules to foster investment, are scheduled to be developed across the continent. Along with those zones, several Chinese-funded cities are popping up, including Angola’s 8.8 square kilometer Nova Cidade de Kilamba. South Africa also has its own Modderfontein New City project funded by Shanghai Zendai Group. This 16 square kilometer, $8 billion city is billing itself as the “New York of Africa.” It’s a long-term project spanning 15 to 20 years, but luxury apartments have already gone on sale. Schools, hospitals and other facilities are all integrated into the plan. The company claims that it would bring 100,000 jobs.

Trains everywhere

Chinese money has been pouring into railway systems across sub-Sahara Africa on a massive scale. The Ethiopia to Djibouti line, which is 756 kilometers long, was launched late last year and was predominantly financed by China Exim Bank. This past May, Kenya launched its own $3.8 billion China-funded train line linking Nairobi to Mombasa. And these projects are just in Eastern Africa. Nigeria has entered into a $11.97 billion deal with China Railway Construction Corporation Ltd. to build a coastal railway line from Lagos to Calabar, a 1,400 kilometer distance. That same company also built a $1.3 billion line in Angola and has also recently signed multi-billion dollar deals to construct train lines from Senegal to Mali.

Hydroelectric dams

In the past decade and a half, Chinese companies have been investing in and constructing dams as an electrical power source across the region. Construction on the world’s largest dam based in the DR Congo will begin later this year, partially funded and constructed by a consortium of Chinese builders at an eventual cost of $100 billion. Zambia has its own $600 million Lower Kafue Gorge Dam situated on the Kafue River. In Ethiopia, several dams have also been constructed, such as the Tekeze hydroelectric dam, the Gibe III Dam and the Amerti-Neshe Dam. There’s also the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to be constructed along the Nile, also built with Chinese financial help. Gabon, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria all have Chinese funded or partly funded dams either completed or in the works.

With billions pouring into the continent for business and not aid, the Africa-China relation defers much from that of the West. But, as China’s footprint on the continent increases with investments in roads, ports and military installations as well, a whiff of Western-styled colonization is still in the air.