While Chinese officials are making headlines by signing oil deals and promising to fund new stadiums and buildings across West Africa, ordinary Chinese are also hard at work in the region. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from Abidjan, with additional reporting by Efam Dovi in Accra, Ghana.
This is the kitchen in one of many new Chinese restaurants in Abidjan. There is a civil war going on here, but Chinese entrepreneurs do not seem to mind.
One of the Chinese staff, Lou, explains that he came to divided Ivory Coast to learn French, but that since his aunt opened a fancy restaurant in Abidjan at about the same time, he has been learning on the job.
He says Ivorians love the no-nonsense Chinese way of doing business and their affordable prices, even if few Chinese know how to speak French or any other local language.
Lou says one Ivorian client comes to the restaurant every Monday, while he says government ministers also like their fish in Chinese sauce, along with rolls and a bowl of soup. He says Chinese are everywhere now, including in popular markets. There, they sell shoes, suitcases, herbal medicine.
Other popular items are cheap Chinese alcohol and sandals that give electronic massages.
Massage parlors with Chinese inscriptions on the outside and Chinese girls inside seem to be springing up faster than the restaurants.
Lou prefers not to answer specific questions about the Chinese community or himself.
This is Makola Market in Ghana's capital, Accra, where a block of shops has recently opened under the inscription Chinese Wholesale Market.
Ji Pengfei, known locally as Jacky, came two years ago after receiving his bachelor's degree in China.
The 25-year-old started as an assistant in a Chinese import-export company. He is now part owner of another company importing suitcases.
He says he was astounded at the needs here, and says there is plenty of room for his business to grow.
"When we [came] to Ghana, the industry, even the middle and the heavy industry in Ghana, [was] at a surprisingly low level," he said. "I never expected that. So what we plan for the future is we will bring the full range of machines for making our own suitcases close by."
Kevin Ma and his partners own several shops within the Chinese block. Ma, who is 25, arrived from northern China just three months ago.
He sells shoes but says there is already too much competition.
"Indians, Lebanese, Chinese, some Koreans and Japanese, they all come here," he said. "Ghana is open but at the same time, it brings a lot of competition to our company as well. So it is getting harder, but we are trying to change our company's direction, and to adapt to this changing environment."
Ma is preparing a trade fair his company is about to host for other Chinese businesses. This is a prelude to his plan to work more in the services industry.
Ma says West Africa is like a final frontier.
"For Chinese, we do a lot of trade to Americans, to Europe, even to southern Asia," he said. "Africa, especially West Africa, is like the last of the last for us to invest. That is why I chose here, to come to find more opportunity. How long do I want to stay here? If the business is doing well, maybe I can stay here more than 10 years. It is nice to stay here."
Most West Africans seem to enjoy the Chinese presence, especially the cheap prices and fast service they offer. But competitors, like local vendors, restaurant owners, and pharmacists, believe they should get more help from their governments to defend themselves against Chinese entrepreneurs.
They accuse the Chinese of doing everything for a profit, while ignoring rules and regulations. When asked about the allegations, those interviewed preferred not to respond.