10/15/2015, 00.00
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Helen’s journey from China to Ethiopia, and hope for better future for Africa

by Giovanni M. Mazzacani
The businesswoman arrived in the African country in 2011 and in two years has hired about 3,500 local workers: "I want to show that Africa can become the manufacturing hub of the world." A success story that clashes with Beijing’s neo-colonialism on the Dark Continent.

Geneva (AsiaNews) - The story entrepreneur Helen Hai, who left a successful career in England to create jobs in Africa, is a commendable example of commitment to progress. China's behavior on the Dark Continent has not always been of the most uplifting. As many witnesses have confirmed, the Chinese projects often provoke protests - sometimes even violent - by the local people, who feel exploited and cast aside.

Between 2000 and 2011, Beijing invested more than $ 75 billion in Africa. Only 1.1 billion per year was officially declared as "a contribution to developing countries" within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The amount of American investments in the same period is estimated at $ 90 billion. Beijing works hard to keep the exact figure of its investments in Africa secret, defined by some analysts as "a new form of colonialism".

Researchers, basing their work on African and Western news sources, have identified 1,673 Chinese projects on the continent over the same period. Then there are the continents natural resources, which some experts say Beijing "demands" from African governments in exchange for new jobs.

The testimony of Helen Hai remains, however, a sign of courage and progress in our globalized world.

"I arrived in Ethiopia in 2011 and in the past two years I have employed 3500 local workers. I want to show that Africa can become the manufacturing hub of the world", says Helen Hai, 37, during the annual summit of the 2015 Young Global Leaders at the Geneva headquarters of the World Economic Forum.

Born in Changchun in Northern China, only 300 kilometers from North Korea, she had a distinguished financial career in London. But in 2011, there was an unexpected change: the president of Huajian, one of the largest Chinese shoe companies, asked her to take charge of the company's launch in Ethiopia, which has one of Africa’s fastest growing gross domestic product, with an annual average of 10% over the past 10 years.

Helen moved to Addis Ababa, and in three months opened the first factory. Exports of manufactured shoes for brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Clarkes, Guess, Naturalizere for the United States and Europe increased exponentially in numbers and with it the recruitment of local workers.

She was soon a familiar face in Ethiopia, so much so, that the Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn invited her to join him on his 2013 Beijing visit with the Chinese President Xi Jinping. "He told me on the plane: 'I admire the contribution that you are giving to Ethiopia but to really develop this country we need thousands of companies like Huajian'".

"The average wage in China’s manufacturing industry - says Helen – has reached 3,500 yuan (490 euro) per month. Here in Ethiopia we pay 10 times less. The consumption crisis in Europe and the United States is pushing global retailers to move their production from China to countries where labor costs are lower. Even Bangladesh and Thailand are now interested in moving to the Horn of Africa. That is why Ethiopia has taken the name of 'China's China'".

Helen points out that in her factory pays workers 10% more than the market average and a 70% increase as regards benefits: "I do not believe in the 'Bangladesh' model. Here our workers feel part of one big family. I send many to train in China for a few months. They are then grateful for life”.

Helen knows what it means to live in extreme poverty. Born into a poor China and then, riding the wave of the great reforms wanted by Deng Xiaoping since 1978, thanks to a scholarship from Beijing she arrived at the best universities in London which in turn opened up the possibilities of a brilliant career . "Now I have to do something for young Ethiopians. Their future depends on me. Leave a great job at the renowned Swiss Zurich insurance company in London? Yes, without any doubts".

What is most striking about Helen is her determination, sincerity and desire to have a positive impact in society. It is not lost on idealistic speeches. After launching Huajian in Ethiopia and having hired 3,500 people in two years she is now a strategic advisor of the Ethiopian government regarding the industrialization of the country and is also a Goodwill Ambassador for UNIDO, the UN agency that has the task of promoting an inclusive and sustainable industrial development. "Success breeds success! - she says with enthusiasm - and the success of Huajian is replicated in many African countries to give hope to many millions of people who still live in extreme poverty. Offering someone a job is life changing for them and for their children".

"China will export about 80 million jobs in the coming years. A great opportunity for Africa knowing that 60% of Africa's population is under 25 years and, by 2050, the entire population of the continent will double reaching 2.4 billion. That's why now I travel around the world to convince companies to move their production not only to Ethiopia but also in Ghana and Senegal".

Someone behind me calls. "Forgive me, but now I have to go. The next time we meet in Nairobi, Addis Ababa ... or Kigali? - I ask Helen - Recently, the President of Rwanda Paul Kagame asked me if I would help him to attract investors for a special economic zone near Kigali. How can I say no? This is how we will build a strong future for this magnificent continent".

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