China e-giant Alibaba searching for African gems

By Olivier Caslin

Posted on Monday, 9 September 2019 15:13
Jack Ma will leave his position as CEO to focus on his philanthropic work, particularly in Africa. HAMILTON/REA

Alibaba, the Chinese online retail giant, wants to build up Africa’s private sector using its new outward focus.

The company’s founder Jack Ma is driving a new phase of its development, with Africa at the heart of his ambitions.

This comes as Ma steps down from the company on his 55th birthday on September 10th this year.

  • The firm began operating in 1999.
  • The group launched their internationalisation policy in 2014, with its listing on the Wall Street Stock Exchange.

“The company now has few activities on the continent, and no facilities of its own,” warns William Shi, the company’s public relations consultant. But this cannot last, “given the opportunities that will inevitably arise [in Alibaba] once Africa is integrated into globalization [sic],” says Shi.

The founder of the “world’s largest bazaar”, a phrase coined by some in the media, wants to devote himself to philanthropic projects. Ma has since taken the lead in strengthening the private sector, especially on the African continent.

Since 2017, Alibaba has invited hundreds of young entrepreneurs from the continent to Hangzhou, the company’s historic headquarters, for training on cloud computing systems and e-commerce technologies.

Identifying Africa’s decision-makers of tomorrow

China’s richest man plans on spending $1m each year over ten years “to identify the African decision-makers of tomorrow,” according to Yu Bo, the group’s public affairs manager.

  • “The idea is to help Africa achieve its technological leap forward,” says Yu Bo.

Ma’s personal fortune is estimated at €35bn. 

Alibaba intends to rely on its network of SMEs to market its services across the continent.

In Rwanda, Alibaba’s first e-commerce project was launched in 2018, linking local coffee producers with Chinese consumers.

  • “Rwandans assure us of quality supplies, and we help them to maintain their brand image and certification of their products in order to improve their margin,” says Yu Bo.

The concept of online shopping is spreading to other African agricultural products, starting with peppercorns in the coming months.

Watching Nigeria & Rwanda

Alibaba officials are keeping an eye on Nigeria’s online platform, Jumia whose example is considered “very encouraging” in Hangzhou.”E-commerce practices are very different from one place to another and we still have a lot to learn about Africa,” says William Shi, the company’s public relations consultant.

In 2017, Jack Ma embarked on his first visit to the continent, preaching the gospel of e-commerce to young Kenyan and Rwandan entrepreneurs.

  • He befriended Rwandan President Paul Kagame, “whom he has met at least six times since,” says the communication consultant. Ma even considered setting up his first African offices in Kigali.

“We prefer to find the right partners on the spot,” says Yu Bo. 

They are also closely monitoring the progress of Beijing’s New Silk Roads around the world.

“We have a role to play, by building the e-roads that will supply the e-hubs established in Malaysia or Belgium,” enthuses Yu Bo, and perhaps tomorrow in Rwanda.

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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