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Diversity in Guangzhou’s ‘Little Africa’: Observations about a place of affordability & entrepreneurship

The PhD “flex” room in the Institute of Housing Studies, Erasmus University in Rotterdam is as good a place as any to reflect on the Xiaobei, or Little Africa, a settlement in Guangzhou we visited last month. Why? Because many of the students at IHS, in the Masters and PhD programs, are from African countries and the question of China in Africa is foremost on their minds. While here, I heard Rachel Keeton, PhD candidate at TU Delft, speak about her research on the planning of New Towns in Africa. In her narrative, the Chinese footprint on the creation of new urban spaces in Africa is formidable. Next to me, a PhD colleague worries about the influence of China on the planning and governance of transit systems in cities like Lagos and Addis Ababa.

In Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD), we saw the other side. African entrepreneurs have been coming to China for decades, trading, running small businesses, moving back and forth between Africa, Europe and China in what Gordon Mathews and his co-authors have called “low-end globalization” in their book The World in Guangzhou. The epicentre of their activities is the PRD, which has been a trading hotspot for thousands of years and has arguably the most open outlook in all of China. The Dengfeng/Xiaobei locality in Guangzhou, I had heard from colleagues and friends, was the place to experience this phenomenon and so we decided to spend an afternoon exploring its alleys and streets.

The African presence in the neighbourhood is unmistakable with traders from Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Guinea, Senegal, and Angola living here. Yet we noticed that many of the shops on the mainstreet were owned and operated by those with Chinese ethnicity. A number of the shops at the edge of settlement were selling readymade garments and cheap electronics, perhaps the sort of counterfeit or low-cost items that the Africans have been known to trade in. However, as we ventured further inside, the majority of the stores seemed to cater to the daily needs of this bustling neighborhood. We saw grocery stores, outlets for fresh fruits and vegetables, chemist shops, restaurants and food outlets, hair dressers, and tailoring shops. The area had an international feel to it. I could see Turkish bakeries, French baguettes and Asian spices in grocery stores, and African and Indian clothes in the garment stores. The large number of food outlets with halal signs and Arabic signage indicated a sizeable Islamic population and indeed, Dengfeng is just as Middle Eastern today as it is African, with residents from Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and even Iran. In fact, we learned that many Chinese Muslim families also chose to live here.

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Among the Africans, we could see many single men and some couples, even a few families with young children. I understand that most of the Africans come on short-term visas and do not stay for very long; yet there are many instances of African and Chinese inter-marriages. I’m not certain about the citizenship of those Africans who marry Chinese women and seek to integrate, but the struggle of Chinese society to accept children of mixed parentage, particularly African-Chinese kids in Guangzhou, has been a subject of some discussion in the media. Overstaying visas used to be rather common, but I believe a crackdown since 2012 has scared away the more transient traders and those who remain definitely face discrimination.

Overall, the African presence was not as dominant as I had expected.  Rather, we found a thriving multi-ethnic entrepreneurial space with plenty of affordable rental housing. In fact, the Chinese researcher who guided us through pointed out two buildings where he had rented before, as a student. To me, the visit raised questions about the particular characteristics of places that permit, indeed invite, diversity. Places that are “arrival cities“, as Saunders puts it in his eponymous book, for immigrants from across and within national boundaries. What are the processes, ranging from the use of social networks to the negotiation of rent agreements, that make these places what they are? As article after article, including this one, offer visually and anecdotally rich material as evidence that diversity is indeed something to celebrate and praise, I suspect more detailed investigations of the processes that create diversity might offer a more balanced and perhaps less flattering perspective.

References:

  1. https://africansinchina.net/: Robert Castillo’s blog has a veritable treasure of facts and observations about the community. He is a lecturer at the Hong Kong University’s African Studies Programme
  2. http://permanentwalkabout.com/blog/2016/7/5/little-xiaobei-chinas-africa-town
  3. https://qz.com/1081203/china-in-africa-guangzhou-is-a-global-city-for-african-entrepreneurs/
  4. https://www.thenational.ae/world/asia/young-arabs-get-down-to-business-in-china-1.404155

 

 

 

 

 

 

Informed and inspired by the SSA Workshop on Urban Poverty in Mumbai

Of the 40-odd people who attended this workshop on the 11th of December in Mumbai, most came in not knowing what to expect. Urban poverty is a term that confuses and confounds many, even among those of us who work in the development sector. Lina Sonne from Intellecap, which brings out the Searchlight South Asia newsletter for the Rockefeller Foundation and had organized the event, pointed out that there is still an overwhelming focus on rural poverty and a need to move away from thinking of urban poverty as a problem that stems from a failure to address rural issues. Urbanization is clearly a force by itself, the urban poor face issues that are distinct and overwhelming, and there needs to be a focus on resolving these if cities are to truly be the engines of economic growth that India is pinning its hopes on.

The workshop was held at the Dutch Design Workspace, which is intimate, well located

The workshop was held at the Dutch Design Workspace, which is intimate, well located

As the first presenter, I struggled a little bit to gauge the mood, the interest areas and the expectations of the audience, which came from diverse backgrounds. Some were here to listen and learn, and there were others with a fire in their belly who were already doing really interesting things on the ground with poor communities as well as corporations that were striving to drive change through more sensitive leadership.

So I decided to focus on mHS’ vision for housing solutions that envisages a portfolio of housing options ranging from dormitories and shelters for the homeless and pavement dwellers, all the way up to ownership housing. The idea is that the urban poor are a heterogeneous bunch, every bit ambitious and enterprising as any other citizen if not more, and they should be able to self-select what sort of housing they want to live in. (Within this portfolio, mHS is currently focused on catalyzing self-construction in informal settlements through providing technical assistance in the form of engineering and architectural services to homeowners). To make this portfolio of housing possible, not only do we need policy changes and involvement from the government, but essentially there is a need to look at urban problems from an interdisciplinary perspective with the goal to make cities more inclusive and provide better opportunities for everyone.

All the sessions and discussion were captured by posters. This one sums up the mHS session

All the sessions and discussion were captured by posters. This one sums up the mHS session

The other presentations were also very interesting and a lot of the content was new to me. Abhishek Bhardwaj from Alternative Realities spoke eloquently about the homeless in Mumbai and his proposal for “housing in continuum” aligns closely with mHS’ vision. Baby Mohite and Vishnu from Swach in Pune presented the pioneering work that an association of 2200 wastepickers has done in association with Pune Municipal Corporation in being able to bring solid waste management to about 4 lakh households in the city.  This happens through door-to-door garbage collection. The wastepickers then segregate the waste, utilizing the ‘wet’ waste to produce manure and biogas and recyclable materials of all sorts are picked out of the ‘dry’ waste. The results are dramatic and the high level of innovation impressive, like the ST Dispo Bag that allows women to dispose sanitary napkins in a distinct bag so wastepickers don’t have to directly handle soiled napkins! They sell about 50,000 bags per month and all because the wastepicker women had conversations with the middle class women in the households they serve and connected on a woman-to-woman level.

I was quite touched by the presentation by young Shweta from Kranti, which is an NGO run by two spunky women to rehabilitate young girls who have grown up in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light district. Shweta, one of the ‘girls’, spoke in an endearing pseudo-accent and told us about how her confidence has grown, how she doesn’t care about what society thinks, how she is influencing her sisters to stand up for themselves back home in the red light district and how she wants to change the world. Shweta and other “krantikaris” (revolutionists) are actively involved in teaching and holding workshops with marginalized girls and children across India. Two other presentations discussed initiatives in education (Doorstep School) and health.

Looking at the posters before re-convening to discuss our takeaways from the workshop

Looking at the posters before re-convening to discuss our takeaways from the workshop

The presentations spun off some interesting discussions. One was the conflict between being innovative in addressing urban poverty through grant-funded initiatives and the need to go to scale and impact a larger number. The future of social enterprises was a concern and some felt acutely the need for social entrepreneurs to get real and find sustainable business models. Some exciting sparring happened on that one!

Another takeaway for many of us was the need for more interaction among those working in the development sector among the urban poor. There is considerable convergence in how different grassroots organizations are beginning to think about the huge problem of how to provide better quality of life for urban residents and much can be learned through sharing and collaborations.

An open ended education environment: Positive examples and the need to experiment- Sep 21, 2012

As if on cue, following yesterday’s post about the need to give students a more challenging and enriched learning environment, mHS had a visit from an enthusiastic young man called Brian today representing the University of Minnesota’s ACARA program. From what I understood, the program asks undergraduate and graduate students to prepare a business plan for an identified need in the development sector. The University partners with academic institutions in India and students work in mixed groups of Indian and American students. The business plans are then presented to a jury and a couple of winners selected, which then get helped in terms of mentoring, investor contacts or simply funding for feasibility studies, depending on the group’s intent.

Previously, the program specified a particular area of work, but in its new avatar, students are being put through a three week immersion exercise and will then decide on their own what sort of needs they want to address through their solutions. This change was made because they found previous graduates of the program have veered off their conventional career paths to opt for more socially aware jobs. Some have gone on to set up new organizations working in the development sector in different parts of the world.

Clearly, someone thinks allowing students to decide basis their interests and motivation brings out the best in them. And doing their best in turn inspires confidence, which is certainly the key to creating positive, motivated and solution-oriented professionals.

The change the program has undergone exemplifies the new thinking in education. A move from top-down to bottom-up, as those familiar with development-speak would see it! And that’s primarily what I wanted to highlight through today’s post. That even as we theorize about the changes we want to see, those are happening already, in India and elsewhere. Hope is alive as long as we continue to experiment.

 

 

Background shouldn’t matter for the brave and talented: Mohan’s inspirational story- May 3, 2012

I have met a few young people who came from impoverished backgrounds who have given me immense hope. Mohan, who came from his village in Orissa and then worked in Delhi and Gurgaon as a domestic help for 6-7 years (4 of them in our house; Udai is still terribly attached to him and at times spends time in his shop as sales boy….), decided to become an entrepreneur in Gurgaon. Its been four years and his business has grown, stabilized and he is able to financially support his aging parents back home in Orissa. How has he been able to do it?

A basic education, no English, but oodles and oodles of self-confidence, a willingness to take risk, learn from mistakes and not lose heart. He asks questions without hesitation, consults us and others before making investments or taking significant business decisions. He is scrupulously honest with money, taking care to return loans on or before time and building credibility and trust with his patrons (like us) and his customers (which we also sometimes are). In the beginning, he felt obliged to us for helping him out and being his general de facto family so far from home, there was a certain deference and distance. Stuff like refusing to take money for things we bought created some awkward moments.

Today, he no longer shies from taking his payments, shares a cup of tea with us when he visits as an equal; its a remarkable change. He hasn’t needed any English to achieve it, but he has needed trusted English speaking people to step in for him now and then to buy a vehicle, do bank work, etc. I do see him struggle with doctors though, a bunch of educated professionals who specialize in fleecing the poor (harsh, but true!).

The point I am making is that people like Mohan should be encouraged, not tied down. If we can create systems where language and background are not huge barriers, this country has immense potential because entrepreneurship and innovations are built into our DNA!

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