I’d been in Africa for six months before I worked up the courage to tell my parents where I was. It was 2016, and I was less than a year out of college when the China-based, Africa-focused mobile phone company I was working for sent me on a three-month business trip to the continent. At first, I didn’t dare broach the topic with my family. Many Chinese consider Africa to be a remote and dangerous place — certainly no place for a young woman to start her career. My parents were no exception.
For that matter, neither was I. Prior to my trip, I was apprehensive. I’d heard all the usual stories: dangerous working conditions, laid-back or ineffective local hires, and hard adjustment periods. What I found, however, subverted my expectations. Over the past five years, the African smartphone market has changed rapidly; to keep pace, many Chinese firms have been forced to rethink their approaches. Powering this shift is a new generation of workers, many of them young Chinese female university graduates like myself, but also sharp, empowered local staff who are helping win over a rising generation of mobile phone users.
A decade or so ago, the few Chinese or Chinese-backed mobile phone manufacturers operating in Africa primarily focused on affordable phones suited to the local market. My company, for example, designed cell phones with dual SIM cards and long-lasting batteries. More recently, however, rising standards of living, increased internet penetration, and falling mobile data costs have fueled the growth of the continent’s entry to the high-end smartphone market, especially among younger users. The percentage of smartphone users in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to reach 67% by 2025, and per capita data consumption is set to multiply by 8.5 times within the same period. Many of these users are opting for higher quality handsets, with the market for phones priced between $100 and $200 growing by more than eight percentage points year-over-year in the first quarter of 2021.
Before my first trip to the continent, this market potential seemed remote. Almost everything I had heard was negative. Yet one of the first things I realized upon arriving in Nigeria was that the problem wasn’t the in-country staff. Our colleagues back in China developed marketing concepts and then acted surprised when they failed to resonate with consumers on the ground. My oft-disparaged local counterparts, on the other hand, had plenty of good ideas for improving our brand image within African markets. Over the next three months, which I spent working dawn to dusk with a team of local and Chinese staff to fine-tune a new marketing strategy, my perceptions of what working in the continent would be like were completely upended. When my marketing manager offered me a long-term position, I decided to stay.
Zhang Yaqiong (third from right) attends a Christmas party with her friends in Lagos, Nigeria, 2019. Courtesy of Zhang
As more young Africans embrace smartphones, most Chinese firms operating on the continent have realized they need to shift their focus and cultivate a more youthful brand image. Because a major part of my job is to help my company do just that, I engage in frequent interactions with young locals to gain a more in-depth understanding of their lifestyles and preferences. We regularly organize activities on local university campuses, and, keeping an eye out for potential partnerships, we are expected to stay abreast of local trends, rising stars, and new shows. For example, as social issues like gender equality and domestic violence have become increasingly prominent in Nigerian discourse, we’ve sought to ensure our company is perceived as engaged and socially conscious.
In the process, I’ve noticed that Chinese members of “Generation Z” working in Africa, whether at my firm or others, tend to have an easier time communicating with locals than our predecessors did. Looking back, some of the stereotypes on both sides of the China-Africa divide — in particular, that local staff are disengaged, while Chinese expats are haughty and imperious — may have resulted from the severe language barrier between locals and the previous generation of Chinese staff living and working on the continent.
Now, armed with better language skills, internet fluency, and increasingly globalized mindsets, both sides have become increasingly willing and able to communicate. My coworkers and I often talk about cultural and lifestyle topics, and they invite me to their weddings and other important moments in their lives. We’ve even set up a special group where Chinese and local colleagues get together to play mobile games. Finding common interests makes it easier to interact and accept our differences. In fact, the local people I have talked with have a relatively positive opinion of Chinese companies for having created jobs for locals, at least to an extent, and I’ve noticed that our new hires from China rarely come in with the same preconceptions about Africa or African people that I did.
Compared to 2016, we also have a lot more female employees. In the past, there were hardly any women in key positions, in part because company leaders assumed they would only work here for a year or two before returning home. But, in the last few years, more and more women — many of them members of Generation Z — have successfully taken on key positions in distribution channels, retail, and market research.
Not all changes have been for the best, at least for those of us within the industry. An influx of new Chinese brands entering the African market over the past two years has kicked off another round of competition. On one level, this has its advantages: If employees perform well at one company, they’re liable to be quickly poached by an offer of higher wages elsewhere.
At the same time, however, I’m seeing some of the same problems of “involution” that plague so many white-collar Chinese workers back home popping up in Nigeria. Our local Nigerian employees keep working harder and harder, while their commutes remain long, their rents high, and prices for everyday goods get even more expensive in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
These stressors are compounded by multinational enterprises’ high requirements for employment. Many local recruits come from affluent backgrounds and have either studied abroad or at some of Nigeria’s top schools. But as the competition between candidates has grown fiercer, some of our staff have even enrolled in online postgraduate courses at American or European universities as a way to stay ahead.
While young Chinese feel increasingly sang — burned out, tired, and only interested in lying flat — I’ve noticed how young adults in Africa remain optimistic and eager to turn obstacles into opportunities.
Many Chinese tech and internet companies have established strongholds on the continent. I’m excited for what this means for my industry, but I also hope that in the future, if or when I leave Africa, those employees who have worked so hard to make this happen get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. If I’ve learned anything over the past five years, it’s that all of us — Chinese expats and African locals — are in this together.
As told to Fu Danni.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A behind-the-scenes clip from Big Brother Nigeria, a reality show, Lagos, Nigeria, 2021. Courtesy of Zhang Yaqiong)