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Chinese entrepreneur's 'vision and courage' lead to success in Uganda

By Xiao Xiangyi and David Blair in Kampala | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2018-09-14 08:49

Businessman's dream is to see African nation achieve industrialization

"My dream is to help Uganda realize its industrialization in my lifetime," says Zhang Zhigang, a Chinese entrepreneur who built the Tian Tang group in Uganda, starting with $8,000. He's now famous for receiving a 100-year visa from the Ugandan government.

Zhang, now in his mid-40s, started his own business, a small packaging factory in Tangshan, Hebei province, in 1997. But he soon grew tired of the business environment in China at that time, "I don't like going to business dinners every day. People get drunk, and go to sing karaoke. What I want is pure business."

 Chinese entrepreneur's 'vision and courage' lead to success in Uganda

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (with hat) and Zhang Zhigang (third from left), chairman of Tian Tang Group, and Zhang Zhichun (first on the left), CEO of the group, inaugurate the Sino-Uganda Mbale Industrial Park in Mbale Municipality in March. Photos Provided to China Daily

 Chinese entrepreneur's 'vision and courage' lead to success in Uganda

A Ugandan worker works at the steel products factory in Tian Tang Industrial Park in Mukono.

He learned from a friend in 2000 that Africa is an untapped land where people are friendly and kind, and it's easy to make money there. Zhang bought a ticket to Tanzania at once. After two years of trading in Tanzania, he went to Uganda and decided to stay, since he found the environment to be exactly what he needed.

The group started to build its first industrial base in 2009, when Zhang bought more than 35 acres of wasteland in Mukono district of central Uganda. Within a few years, four big factories were founded in the area, producing steel products, foam mattresses and plywood. The base gradually became the Tian Tang Industrial Park.

"When (Ugandan) President Yoweri Museveni visited our factories in Mukono in 2014, he complimented it as a successful model for intelligent investment and encouraged other investors to learn from us," says Zhang Zhichun, CEO of the group and the younger sister of Zhang Zhigang.

The park now has more than 1,500 local employees, with an annual output of tens of millions of dollars and 15 percent year-on-year growth.

After the success in operating the Tian Tang Industrial Park, its first in the country, the group is working on designing and building a national project - the Sino-Uganda Mbale Industrial Park.

Proposed by President Museveni and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the Mbale industrial park is seen as a priority among national projects to accelerate Uganda's industrialization, according to Zhang Zhichun. When completed, it will have an area of 2.51 square kilometers.

Located in the third-largest Ugandan city, Mbale, the Sino-Uganda Mbale Industrial Park site is 220 kilometers from Kampala and 65 km from the border with Kenya. It is along the only inland transportation route from Uganda to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

More local employees have realized the importance of working hard and learning skills "because they have tasted what it is like to be rich and stable", says Zhang Zhigang. "Since a few Chinese companies invested there, Mbale has been turned from a place with frequent violence to a town known for its good safety and order."

Zhang says many managers in his enterprise are local employees. "They are very clever people. They can do whatever Chinese staff can do. I kept that in mind from the very beginning."

The Ugandan government gives the Mbale industrial park preferential policies, such as 10 years tax free, duty-free exports and a one-stop service that unifies customs, registration and commodity inspection for enterprises located in the park.

Chinese entrepreneur's 'vision and courage' lead to success in Uganda

In the first phase of construction, an area of 1 square kilometer has nearly been finished, and the group is inviting investors to the park. More than 30 enterprises are expected to enter the park by 2022, focusing on processing of agriculture products, manufacturing of machinery and production of daily necessities, as well as telecommunications, all of which are greatly needed in the country. When completed, the industrial park will provide 12,000 jobs.

Since Uganda does not have a single vehicle manufacturer, Zhang is talking with Chinese automobile manufacturers and inviting them to invest in the Mbale industrial park. "China's Chery Automobile Co says they are interested in it. I love to do the business that nobody does. Filling the blanks is my game," he says.

Tian Tang Group also supports social programs in Uganda, mostly those involving education and public medical care, Zhang says.

"We have also donated thousands of spring mattresses to villagers in poverty. Those elderly in their 80s had been lying on the grass all their lifetime, and for the first time they now know what it feels like to lie on a mattress. Some even teared up," he says.

"I was mocked as a fool by many peers when I first came to Africa. Now they appreciate my vision and courage," he says. Zhang attributes his success in Uganda to its pleasant climate, political stability and friendly people. Uganda is a business center of Eastern Africa, easily connecting with the five other countries of the African Great Lakes region.

"Due to many preferential policies like duty-free access to one another, doing business in the East African community is as easy as doing business from one province to another in China," he says.

In China, nearly every village has at least one factory, especially in East China, but in Uganda, there are few villages with factories, says Zhang.

"Many Chinese dare not come to Africa due to a lack of information. They misunderstand Africa as a place of wars, poverty, plague and famine. But as you can see, it is such a different place from people's stereotype," he adds.

Zhang says the Chinese government has sent a signal with this year's FOCAC summit. "More Chinese investors will enter Africa, especially East Africa, which is a golden place to invest in. Manufacturing is the cornerstone for industry development. And East Africa will be a central region for Africa to export goods to the US and Europe."

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(China Daily European Weekly 09/14/2018 page9)

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