Page last updated at 12:10 GMT, Saturday, 5 February 2011

Chinese chicken farmers ruffle Zambian feathers

By Justin Rowlatt
BBC News, Lusaka

For many Chinese entrepreneurs, Africa is seen as a continent of opportunity. Now even small businessmen are arriving in force - and some local traders in Zambia just cannot compete.

Lusaka market
Traders sell almost everything in Lusaka's city market

If you want to get an idea of how China is reshaping the world economy just try to buy a chicken in the Zambian capital, Lusaka.

The city's main market is hot, humid and very, very busy.

As you push your way through the crowds, the hawkers and traders will shout and cajole, offering you almost every product imaginable.

You will probably not see a single non-African there. Until, that is, you get to where the chickens are sold.

Here you will see a row of trucks piled high with cages, each packed with plump white chickens all fussing and squawking.

The African shoppers will be weighing the birds in their hands and looking their prospective purchases in the eye.

In the background you might spot the owners of the trucks - Chinese men and women holding wads of money and making sure things go smoothly.

These people are chicken farmers.

Mr Pan feels business opportunities are better in Lusaka than back home

It sounds extraordinary but these Chinese businessmen and women spotted an opportunity to make a bit of money raising chickens on small farms in Zambia. They upped sticks and travelled 11,000km (7,000miles) from their homes to do just that.

I got talking to one of the farmers, Pan Wei Zhi, a small, friendly man in his early 60s.

Mr Pan invited me to visit the smallholding he and his wife run on the outskirts of Lusaka.

As we sat together outside the tiny two-room house they share with their teenage son, I asked why the family had made this epic journey.

"Simple," Mr Pan told me with a gentle smile, "because it is so much easier to make money here in Africa than back home in China."

He said it cost $40,000 (£25,000) to set up their farm and within a couple of months they were already making a profit. Two years on and they are selling 2,000 birds a week.

"At my age in China I can't do any serious work," Mr Pan said. "Here I don't feel old, I can still do something."

Mr Pan may feel liberated by his African enterprise, but push your way a bit deeper into the market and you hear another side to the story, because the Chinese are not the only people who farm and sell chickens in Zambia.

'Left destitute'

Right in the centre of the market, down one of the unmarked narrow alleyways you will find the Zambian chicken traders.

Some chicken traders are struggling to compete with their Chinese rivals

You will know immediately if you are in the right place because there is a miasma of dust and feathers in the air and a terrible sour stench from the chickens.

The chicken traders will probably be laughing and chatting in the shaft of bright sun that lights the alley, or in among their birds in the dark pens on either side, waiting for customers to push their way in.

There are fewer of those than before, the traders claim, thanks to the arrival of Chinese chicken farmers.

They say they are lucky to sell 50-100 birds each a week these days, and that it barely covers their costs.

Justin Rowlatt has been on a global journey to explore the effects of China's policy of "going out" into the world to secure the energy and raw materials its rapidly growing economy needs
Episode one will be broadcast on Tuesday, 8 February, 2011 at 2100 GMT. Or catch up afterwards on BBC iPlayer

"They are going to drive us out of business," wails Mildred when I ask how she has been affected. "We'll be left destitute unless something is done."

What she cannot understand is why anyone would want to travel halfway around the world to set-up a chicken farm.

"If they want to have small, small businesses," says Mildred, exasperated, "let them go back to China and do those small, small businesses in China, not here."

But Chinese migrants are now setting up small businesses across Africa. The latest estimates suggest there are more than a million Chinese people living and doing business on the continent. Most have arrived within the last 10 years.

In the West it is the big infrastructure projects and huge mineral deals that set the terms of the debate about China's role in the world, this staggering migration tends to get less attention.

But, in the long run, it may well be that the vast and growing diaspora of Chinese entrepreneurs like the Pans that will have the greatest impact.

That is certainly what the Zambian chicken traders think.

They may have been a bit complacent about their businesses, hidden away down their dark alleyway, but their growing anger at this new competition is very real.

Mr Pan says he is not worried.

"A few Zambian chicken farmers will probably go out of business," he concedes, "but that is what happens in a competitive market."

He believes very passionately that his business is good for Zambia. "Our chickens are cheaper," he says, "and that means more people can afford them."

I ask him whether he thinks more Chinese people will, like him and his wife, go out into the world to set-up businesses.

"Chinese people have a bit more money now and China has become a powerful country," he tells me. "We will not get bullied and pushed around any more."

There is no hint of threat in his voice. This is a statement of fact.

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