BOOK REVIEW: The Next Factory of the World: How Chinese Investment Is Reshaping Africa

BOOK REVIEW: The Next Factory of the World: How Chinese Investment Is Reshaping Africa

Does the future of Africa lie in industrialization?

Chinese investment gives rise to a tantalizing possibility: that Africa can industrialize in the coming generation. “

China is now the biggest foreign player in Africa. It’s Africa’s largest trade partner, the largest infrastructure financier, and the fastest-growing source of foreign direct investment.

“The fact that China sees Africa not for its poverty but for its potential wealth is a striking departure from the attitude of the West, particularly that of the United States. Despite fifty years of Western aid programs, Africa still has more people living in extreme poverty than any other region in the world. Those who are serious about raising living standards across the continent know that another strategy is needed.” – Irene Yuan Sun

Irene Sun in her book The Next Factory of the World, makes an interesting proposition – that industrialization, specifically large-scale manufacturing in factories, could be the key to Africa’s future development.

Her book, although perhaps best described as an economic analysis proposition, gives very pertinent perspectives on globalization, modernization, and development. In particular, she addresses the Bretton Woods and Washington models for economic development, which although shunned by China, did not hamper its record advance to global economic powerhouse.

In the beginning of the book, Sun describes her childhood in the early 1990’s in China, a country at the time without cars, clingfilm, or the soft drink Sprite. She vividly remembers the first time she sat in a car.

“I am only 30 but I remember a time when China’s car-clogged streets were full of bicycles,” Sun says. “Such has been the rapidity of China’s transformation, sparked by the rise of Factory China…In the quarter of the century, since I first sat in that car, China has gone from producing 2 percent of global manufacturing output to 25 percent.”

Sun also adds that over that time China’s GDP grew 30-fold and 750 million people were lifted out of poverty – “the most ever achieved in a single period in the history of the world.”

She cites some of her favorite outward signs of  “real” development in China – the small everyday occurrences that can delight only those who have known life without them” – such as Sprite and toilet roll in store bathrooms, “and no one thinks it’s special to ride in a car anymore.”

Fast forward several years during which Sun schools in the US, studies at Harvard, then finds herself in Africa, in a remote village in Namibia. One day when she needs to run an errand and asks  her class if anyone will accompany her in her car, they all scramble to go.

“I knew this longing to sit in a car,” she says…”cars and sprite and toilet paper may sound like materialistic ways of defining development but people who have these things tend to forget how much they are markers of modernity to those who don’t…the appearance of such material goods in society, heralds the possibility that people can adopt new selves, new ways of being in the world: as producers and consumers in the modern global economy.” (pg 84)

Her stay in Namibia and encounter with Chinese factory owners leads Sun to subsequently spend years studying Chinese investment in Africa. She the returns and after months of research into Chinese businesses comes to the premise which is the title of her book: that factories (especially Chinese), in Africa, have the potential to repeat and improve the sort of industrialization in China that has made such a dramatic and speedy difference.

Sun points out many similarities between Africa’s challenges and China’s economic development as well as the reason Chinese investors find it “easy” to come to Africa. “(they) believe that Africa is in the same position China itself was a few short decades ago..there are no pilot projects, no NGO’s, no theorizing about paths to development – only the blunt attempt to recreate what China built for itself over the past three decades.”

Ultimately, Sun’s book offers interesting new perspectives about the possibilities of manufacturing and factories in the development of Africa: industrialization (factories) could potentially eliminate unemployment, boost livelihoods and dramatically alter socio-economic norms. It is an interesting addition to the debate on globalization, development, and poverty.




  1. Albin

    This was a great review! I will also read this book. I, along with many, surely take a lot of things we have for granted, and it good to be reminded that the world looks different.

    The Chinese investment in Africa is very interesting, and I am sure there is much to analyze within that field.

    However, I am curious to what you think about the authors perspective? Do you think she is correct in the assessment that Africa can repeat what China has done? And should they follow the same path?

    Moreover, I believe that one of the reasons for China’s development was that they were one country, and they have a hierarchical party structure which forced people to follow order. For good or for worse, I believe this was important in their development, and one has to remember that the development of China has cost many lives. Africa consists of many countries and they have to deal with a lot of politicians and practitioners from different countries, which to me make it different, and there won’t be a clear line of hierarchy. Maybe Sun has an answer for this, and I look forward to reading to find out!

    1. Amba Mpoke-Bigg

      Thanks for visiting and leaving your comments. Irene Sun’s proposition in the book is in my view one which raises tantalizing possibilities, but also questions. Certainly one cannot deny the fact that China is culturally, politically and economically so different. How then do we achieve the same results? Sun makes this point in her book though, and suggests that Africa learn the lessons and adapt the method ( industrialization through manufacturing) to its own socio-political realities. It’ll be interesting to see how practical that is in reality.

  2. stamatis

    This book and the review are very pertinent. We are witnessing this transformation live. Local reaches are now, however, the only interest, but geopolitics at large. Similar actions, but maybe not at that level, were in South America e.g. Venezuela. With respect to China and its ongoing investment in Africa, I found the points raised in this video to be interesting [How Africa is Becoming China’s China]

    1. Amba Mpoke-Bigg

      Thanks so much Stamatis for your comment. Africa’s relationship with China is perhaps one of the most significant realities of this decade. Thanks for the link too.

  3. Elle

    Sounds like an interesting book, Amba. I live in Botswana, where there are a lot of Chinese companies particularly doing construction (esp. large infrastructure projects). Interestingly a lot of people here say that the investment isn’t sustainable – that it doesn’t boost the local economy because the profit gets sent back to China. I have no idea if this is true or just rumours- but people say all the construction companies are owned by the Chinese government, who only hire Chinese people, only ship in Chinese supplies and maintain a sort of separate economy here. I wonder if Sun addresses these issues/ rumours in the book?

    1. Amba Mpoke-Bigg

      Thanks Elle ,
      I appreciate the visit and comment. You should def try to read the book.
      Yes, Sun does somehwat – although she skirts the issue and argues that her research was more focused on Chinese manufacturing, rather than other industries. One of her main contentions is that the technology can be learned, adapted and copied, which is what China did, essentially.
      However, her book leaves unanswered questions.

  4. Thanks for this great review Amba! I have not read this book (yet) but it surely raises many interesting thoughts. Especially about how Chinese investors find it easy to come to Africa because Africa are in a similar situation a few decades ago. But I can’t help but think that this is different though, since China built their own country, not investing in another. China will aslo benefit from Africas development or rise. And does that have any negative effects on Africa? Do you remember if the book mention anything about this?
    Thanks once again for a wonderful book review!

    1. Amba Mpoke-Bigg

      Thanks, Zandra.
      Sun makes the point that one reason why Chinese investors in Africa often appear less risk-averse than westerners is that many Chinese business people, within the past 30 years have themselves experienced the kind of deprivation and tough conditions that they witness when undertaking pioneer like businesses. (She interviews them up-close in the book).
      However, she does say as you point out that Africa will experience industrialization in a different way as the two places are economically, politically and socially so different. She also admits that there’s an ugly side to industrilaization and to some Chinese investors.

      Her main point though is that “industrialization has the ability to “unleash powerful new forces for harm as well as for good,” (pg 156), because “when factories arrive en masse, prosperity follows” (pg 149)

  5. Pingback: Post-colonial reflections on "The New Scramble For Africa" (The Economist) - DEVELOPMENT ACROSS BORDERS

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