Join our network

August 22, 2023

Chinese companies’ corporate social responsibility in the eyes of local communities in Kenya: A public diplomacy approach

By Dr Cliff Mboya, Africa-China analyst and international relations practitioner. First Published in The African Governance Papers, Volume 1 | Issue 3 | June 2023 by Good Governance Africa

Abstract

This paper examines the role of Chinese companies’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives to assess their impacts and effectiveness in enhancing China’s public diplomacy in Kenya. It finds that Chinese companies in Kenya have become essential stakeholders in China’s public diplomacy. They actively engage in CSR activities to project a more favourable image and a better perception of China. The article argues that after years of extensive outreach through CSR, Chinese companies enjoy support from relatively large sections of local communities, and projects are being implemented with little resistance.

Introduction

Chinese companies first came to Kenya in the 1980s, and since then, their number has risen significantly. The influx of Chinese companies was most notable after the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was established in 2000 (Taylor, 2011). They have been responding to the growing opportunities brought about by intensified engagement and cooperation, particularly in African construction and infrastructure development (Bénazéraf, 2014). In Kenya, this influx coincided with President Mwai Kibaki’s administration in 2002, which adopted a “look east policy” that prioritised partnership with China as a new source of investments and infrastructure development (Lukoye, 2021; Gakuya, 2013). Most mega infrastructure projects in Kenya have been contracted to Chinese companies, and they have become an essential stakeholder in China-Kenya relations (Guyuyu, 2022; Eickhoff, 2022). They play a crucial role in China’s public diplomacy in Kenya since they represent China through their sheer numbers and the scale of the projects they conduct in the country (Chinese Embassy in Kenya, 2015).

Given their close ties with the state, Chinese companies were accustomed to winning government tenders and quickly implementing projects. However, they soon learned that they had to contend with local communities and that government backing was insufficient for project implementation. Local communities were very hostile to infrastructure projects carried out by Chinese companies in Kenya (Newcomb, 2020, p. 40-43, Eickhoff 2022). Kenyans who have worked for Chinese construction firms say they are highhanded, paying poorly, firing workers without due process, importing Chinese labour, and destroying the environment (Olander, 2017; Mbuthia, 2021; Mulinge, 2012). In one case in Narok County, Chinese workers were severely injured and hospitalised due to violent hostility from the
local community (Kuo, 2016).

Chinese companies adopted CSR as a viable risk mitigation strategy for their projects, but it required behavioural changes. The Chinese Embassy in Kenya has emphasised corporate social responsibility, actively mobilising Chinese enterprises to engage in proactive CSR programmes to nurture a positive image of China and its companies in Kenya and garner support for projects by local communities
(KCETA, 2017).

In February 2016, the Chinese embassy in Kenya, Chinese companies and expatriates in Kenya signed an agreement to promote their integration into local Kenyan communities. In the agreement, they committed to complying with local laws and regulations, enhancing harmonious working relations with local communities, and fulfilling social responsibilities. The deal involved the Kenya Overseas Chinese Association, Kenya China Economic and Trade Association, the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce in East Africa and the head office of the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR Project of the China Road and Bridge Company (China Daily, 2016). According to the Chinese ambassador, who attended the signing ceremony, “The initiative is signed to promote China’s image, deepen friendship between the countries and create a win-win situation” (China Daily, 2016).

Methodology

This article examines Chinese (both state-owned and private) companies’ CSR initiatives in Kenya through the lens of China’s public diplomacy and the perspective of local communities. The main aim is to assess how Chinese companies have utilised CSR in Kenya to achieve public diplomacy objectives. The study takes a qualitative approach, relying on primary and secondary data sources.

Preliminary data was collected through fieldwork between February and August 2022 in Nairobi’s Mathare informal settlements, Mihang’o location in Nairobi, and Kendu-Bay town in Homa-Bay County. Secondary sources include CSR reports from a consortium of more than 70 Chinese companies under the Kenya China Economic and Trade Association (KCETA), which are committed to CSR and aim to nurture a positive image of China and Chinese companies in Kenya. Other secondary sources are newspaper reports and the Chinese Embassy website.

Based on reviewer recommendations, further fieldwork was conducted at the China Centre and Chinatown shopping malls in Nairobi between February 27 and March 15, 2023. Forty-five respondents were interviewed directly through ethnographic interviews to allow them to describe their own experiences: 15 at Mathare slums, 11 at Mihang’o, five at the China Centre, two in Chinatown and 12 in Kendu-Bay. Questions were open-ended and conversational to avoid leading or influencing participants’ responses.

The paper begins with a brief background of China-Kenya relations in the context of Chinese companies’ entry to and growth in the country. The second section presents the methodology and conceptual framework. The third section discusses global perspectives of CSR, incorporating Chinese CSR perspectives, and motivations in Africa. The fourth section discusses the intersection between CSR and public diplomacy and how the two are mutually reinforcing in China’s public diplomacy context. The fifth section introduces Chinese CSR in Africa and assesses case studies in Kenya to show how Chinese companies have enhanced public diplomacy through CSR activities. The last section offers a conclusion and a recommendation for China’s public diplomacy through CSR.

Conceptual framework

CSR is an evolving concept with diverse conceptualisations and operationalisations. Since it does not have a universally accepted definition, it is often incorrectly conflated with other concepts, such as corporate accountability, corporate ethics, corporate citizenship, sustainability, corporate governance, social and environmental obligations, corporate social investment and responsible business (Cheruiyot & Onsando, 2016). Scholars have defined CSR in several different ways. Zadek (2000) argues that CSR is a firm’s strategy to build and manage a good reputation, integrate stakeholders into its strategies, understand and manage risks, and justify benefits over costs. Keinert (2008) sees it as promoting a healthy relationship between business and the larger society by assigning roles and responsibilities to private companies within a society.

While most scholars define CSR as “actions that appear to further some social good, beyond the interest of the firm and that which is required by law”, Godfrey and Hatch (2007) widen the scope. They argue that conceptions of CSR can range from an extreme economic position to a powerful moral position that incorporates shareholder capitalism, cause-related marketing, strategic philanthropy, stakeholder management and building business citizenships (Al Halbusia & Tehseen, 2017). The debate is now shifting to the extent to which corporations should be involved in social responsibility and whether CSR is a trend of the global North, and if companies in the global South can or should share the same CSR obligations (Uddin, M.B, Belal, H. and Tarique, K. (2008). Some scholars have called for a globalised CSR that includes global South perspectives based on empirical evidence from a local level (Dobers & Halme, 2009).

This paper adopts Caroll’s conceptualisation of CSR: a three-dimensional conceptual model of CSR that incorporates all the essential aspects by including corporate CSR’s economic, legal, ethical and philanthropic responsibilities (Caroll, 1979). Carroll contends that fulfilling the abovementioned responsibilities constitutes a business’s total social responsibility (Linh, 2011).

Global perspectives on CSR

CSR is a phenomenon that is rapidly spreading worldwide, including in Africa. Companies are under increasing pressure to operate responsibly for both their own benefit and the benefit of society. However, perspectives on CSR tend to vary according to the country and its policies, and CSR activities largely depend on the sociopolitical settings of a country (Massoud, 2010; Bvepfepfe, 2015). CSR policies may be explicitly anchored in legal institutions or prevail purely in practice. Nonetheless, they are operationalised based on domestic circumstances. In freemarket economies such as the USA and the United Kingdom, CSR is perceived to be a basis for greater competition between companies. In other capitalist economies such as France, South Korea, Germany and Japan, stakeholders work together coherently to implement CSR (Ullah & Sun, 2021).

According to Pimentel et al. (2016), CSR is explicit in the USA, and companies act voluntarily. Meanwhile, Europe has adopted an implicit approach where CSR is a reaction to the institutional environment. However, they argue that explicit CSR is rising in Europe as European companies increasingly assume the responsibility to fulfil stakeholder expectations and rely less on welfare state institutions. For example, in France, CSR is dominant and well-established in government-supported activities in a more centralised regulatory environment. In this sense, companies are perceived as the key to sustainable development (Goel & Rathee, 2022). Norway and most Nordic countries prefer partnerships through consensus and cooperative agreements between companies, other actors, and sectors in a shared welfare environment. In Italy, CSR is consultative and occurs between the government, companies and other stakeholders; initiatives are either business-driven or socially driven (Pimentel et al., 2016).

CSR is well-established in the global North, and the global South can gain much knowledge without reproducing northern hemisphere perspectives and colonial approaches that reinforce power differentials between regions (Vertigans, 2021). In developed countries, high consumer awareness and interest in the social behaviour of companies compel companies to incorporate CSR into their operations (Azmat & Ha, 2013). Consumers in developed countries have set high standards and value systems targeting companies and multinationals abroad. They are required not to buy from or support companies that exploit workers, use child labour, degrade the environment, or be involved in other activities that generate social ills. As a result, multinational companies from the global North tend to push their subsidiaries and suppliers in developing countries to integrate CSR (Thorslund, 2022).

Generally, CSR aims to increase companies’ accountability based on stakeholder needs and concerns. It may be inclined towards ethics, transparency and the community good, or be based on philanthropy (Wang & Pala, 2021). Still, while CSR in all countries centres on the environmental, social and economic dimensions of company operations, this occurs in the context of national history, policies, laws and people’s preferences. In contrast, political and cultural specificities influence the approach adopted (Goel & Rathee, 2022). For example, in Arab countries, Islam influences CSR, where 2.5% of wealth is shared with the poor, while in China, citizens are encouraged by state officials and state policies to consider other people and nature in their daily life (Ullah & Sun, 2021).

Despite cultural differences, some areas of convergence transcend the global differences between North and South. For example, India’s CSR is deeply rooted in its history and culture. There are many instances where Indian emperors donated for societal development and engaged in other societal activities like establishing temples, mosques and Dharmasalas (resting places for travellers) that act as essential reference points for CSR by large companies (Agarwal, 2008). Still, it includes elements such as self-interest, reputation building, management of stakeholders and competitive advantages, which are also important drivers of CSR in the global North (Thorslund, 2022). Moreover, CSR in India was largely philanthropic until 2003, when the government mandated specified companies to give back a percentage of their profits to the community (Aggarwal, 2021).

Still, there are crucial differences between CSR in the developed North and developing South countries. For instance, CSR disclosure in developed countries is heavily determined by concerns of specific stakeholders such as regulators, shareholders, creditors, investors, environmentalists and the media. Conversely, external forces and stakeholders heavily influence CSR disclosure in developing countries; these include international buyers, foreign investors, international media and regulatory bodies. Unlike in the developed North, firms in developing countries do not experience pressure for CSR disclosure from the public (Ali, Frynas and Mahmood 2017). Therefore, multinational companies from the global South are subjected to lower expectations than their counterparts from the global North (Orudzheva & Nolan, 2018). Moreover, customers in the global South value CSR differently from customers in the global North. Due to high poverty rates, they tend to be more concerned with the price than the company’s
approach to CSR (Arli & Lasmono, 2010). Lastly, indigenous firms in the global South perceive and practise CSR as corporate philanthropy, reflecting a localised, socially embedded construct that fits their socioeconomic context (Amaechi, Ogbechie and Amao, 2006).

Chinese CSR

CSR is still a relatively new concept in China. While it has emerged as an essential management issue within Chinese companies, many companies still consider it a Western idea, and it has mainly been passively accepted; its adoption has been driven primarily by exogenous factors, such as the necessity to compete in the global market (Tan-Mullins & Hofman, 2014). Aaronson and Zimmerman (2006) found that China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) was a key driver of CSR, with many industry analysts arguing that the presence of Western firms would improve the social responsibility of Mainland firms.

CSR in China involves similar dimensions to the Western model, such as economic, legal, environmental, consumer, employee issues, and social charity. Still, its operationalisation differs from the Western model. For example, the Western CSR system requires that shareholder profits are evaluated against CSR factors, such as the company’s efforts to ensure racial and gender equality and equal opportunities for underprivileged groups. These issues are of less concern to Chinese enterprises. Chinese firms are more concerned about fair prices and genuine goods perceived in terms of good faith and employment to provide more job opportunities. This means that they are more responsive to issues that have been of most significant concern to their consumers and Chinese society (Du, Xiao, Jiménez, and Jeoung, 2022). From a cultural point of view, Confucian businessmen promote tenets of “humanity, righteousness, harmony, loyalty, courtesy, honesty and cleanness” that are supposed to guide corporate relations (Zhu & Yao, 2008, p. 58-61).

The Chinese understanding of CSR prioritises responding to community expectations through local economic growth, compliance with local laws, caring for the environment and donating to schools and hospitals. Hence Chinese companies tend to focus more on philanthropy and charity than the transparency and accountability aspects of CSR (Hanlong, 2012). This is similar to CSR standards in African countries, where CSR initiatives can take the form of cash payments, food or other material donations to the community around them based on pure philanthropy rather than on long-term social perspectives (Cheruiyot & Onsando, 2016).

The need for Chinese multinational companies to respond to multiple stakeholders and be socially responsible to different host countries and communities poses significant challenges. Although CSR has gained ground in mainland China, Chinese companies abroad have often been accused of irresponsible business practices when operating abroad. In Africa, they have been accused of violating human rights, avoiding affirmative action laws, engaging in corruption and underpaying workers, among other things (Hanlon, 2013). For example, the massive use of Chinese expatriate workers in Angola in the early 2000s for non-skilled tasks was met with widespread disapproval from the public. Angolans working in Chinese companies complained of deplorable working conditions, leading to strikes and grassroots protests (Hanlon, 2013, p. 16). In 2010 in Zambia, Chinese managers were alleged to have fired live rounds at protesting workers demanding fair pay (Mfula, 2010). Chinese multinational companies were also accused of legitimising and arming despotic regimes like those in Sudan and Zimbabwe (Taylor, 2009). Concerns have been raised regarding Chinese companies’ takeover of local markets and their ability to outbid local companies, particularly in Africa (Alden & Davies, 2006, p. 89). Disputes have erupted over Chinese imports of manufactured goods such as textiles that threaten established industries in countries such as Kenya and Lesotho (Alden & Davies, 2006, p.93).

Additionally, the lack of corporate codes of conduct in international markets and failure to internalise and institutionalise regulations and expectations in host economies has generated adverse publicity for Chinese companies and the Chinese government (Alden & Davies, 2006, p. 89). How Chinese companies are perceived greatly influences how China is perceived abroad since the negative image of these companies is closely associated with locals’ perceptions of the country. Tang and Li (2011, p. 96) rightly quote Chrystia Freeland, the former US managing editor of the Financial Times and now Canada’s deputy prime minister, who said: “A country’s businessmen are its best ambassadors abroad.”

China is a developing country; most Chinese businesses are more concerned about profit maximisation and believe that government regulation should aim at mitigating irresponsible actions rather than interfering with their earned profits (Zhang, Morse, and Ma, 2019). Nonetheless, Chinese government officials increasingly believe that CSR is a crucial instrument for achieving the country’s goal of a “harmonious society” and have actively promoted CSR to both state-owned and privately owned enterprises (Geoffrey 2009, p.1); as a result, state support and pressure have stimulated Chinese companies’ widespread adoption of CSR in the mainland and abroad. Accordingly, Chinese companies interpret CSR as a question of abiding by relevant laws, protecting the rights of employees, protecting the environment and participating in social welfare and charity initiatives (Zhou, Qiang and Jiang 2012). Moreover, many corporate scandals in the last decade have heightened Chinese consumer awareness and concerns over perceptions that Chinese companies use CSR to deceive consumers for profit-making rather than a genuine desire to contribute to social welfare. Chinese consumers value CSR initiatives, but they remain suspicious of the intentions of Chinese companies (Zhou, Poon and Huang 2012).

Motivations behind Chinese CSR in Africa

While some observers hail the positive role of Chinese companies in Africa’s development, others have criticised them for environmental and ecological degradation (Gu, 2009). Generally, Chinese companies in Africa have a history of involvement in controversial business practices that have caused public relations crises and poor perceptions of China in African overseas markets (Tse & Hung, 2020). They have often been in the news for the wrong reasons, and public opinion has been primarily negative, with projects facing hostility from local communities (Zhong, Zhu and Zhou, 2020). Research conducted in 2014 found that 58% of 1,056 Africans from 15 African countries had a negative view of Chinese business (Geerts, Xinwa and Rossouw, 2014).

In response, the Chinese government has intervened and prioritised improving the quality of CSR by Chinese companies as a public diplomacy priority aimed at strengthening the country’s image and that of Chinese companies abroad (Hanlon, 2013). Researchers have found that most Chinese firms have taken up CSR, and the big state-owned companies perform much better than smaller, privately held companies (Zhan, 2008). Multinationals can improve their image in host markets by applying CSR, and this can also enhance the national reputation of the company’s home country (White, 2015).

However, incorporating CSR will not influence perceptions of a country’s reputation if the company does not ensure that the public perceives an association between the company and its home country. The more viable strategy is a public diplomacy approach whereby companies promote and represent their home country’s foreign policies and interests and their own commercial interests (Qu and Carpentier, 2021). Public diplomacy and Chinese companies’ CSR This paper applies the concept of public diplomacy, defined as a political instrument by states, state actors and non-state actors to build and manage relations (Gregory, 2008). Public diplomacy is primarily concerned with positively influencing a foreign country’s public to achieve foreign policy outcomes (Cowan & Cull 2008: p. 6). Nations have used it as a perception management tool (Von Eschen, 2005). Countries conduct public diplomacy at the very least to be noticed positively (Hartig, 2016: p. 34). They must conduct public diplomacy in partnership with state and non-state actors in the host country (Lee and Kadir, 2015. p. 59).

Corporate and public diplomacy as an approach to CSR is a practical approach for transnational and multinational companies with the capacity and resources to contribute to the foreign policy of their home country and the national interests of their host country (Ingenhoff and Marschlich, 2019). State and non state actors abroad are often perceived as the face and image of their home countries in their host countries. Their interaction with local communities through employment, physical project implementation and trade, among other activities, can create avenues for improving dialogue, understanding and trust across cultures. By acting responsibly, these companies influence how their home countries are understood and perceived abroad (Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, n.d).

According to Wang (2008), China realises that it cannot ignore global trends in public diplomacy due to the internationalisation of its companies and debates concerning their impacts abroad (Corkin, 2014). The trend emphasises socially responsible investment using the language of CSR (Hanlon, 2012). While CSR is conventionally understood as a voluntary, market-based corporate behaviour without direct government involvement, the development of CSR in China challenges conventional understanding due to the significant role of the Chinese government in promoting Chinese companies abroad and supporting their implementation of large infrastructure projects.

China’s CSR approach is state-centric and involves close institutional and bureaucratic ties between the state and the business community. This applies to state-owned and private companies based in mainland China and overseas (Liu, 2021). The domineering role of the Chinese government in implementing
CSR has prompted intellectuals to consider it a form of “government social responsibility” (Tan-Mullins & Hofman, 2014, p. 6). CSR by Chinese companies operating abroad has become the primary strategy for China’s public diplomacy efforts (Tang & Li, 2011; Lohse-Friedrich, 2019). Recent studies show that China’s public diplomacy has increasingly focused on increasing growing Chinese companies’ awareness of the importance of CSR and of adhering to local laws and customs (Hooghe, 2015). The Chinese government’s public diplomacy efforts and company practices are intricately related in Africa. The expansion of Chinese companies in the African market is widely attributed to the role and influence of the Chinese government’s diplomacy on the continent. Perceptions that Chinese companies are an extension of the Chinese government pose significant risks to China’s image, making it imperative for the Chinese government to encourage Chinese companies to adopt CSR policies abroad because it has implications for its foreign relations (Wekesa, 2013; Tang & Li, 2011). Ensuring Chinese companies adopt CSR practices has become an essential image-shaping strategy for China in Africa.

Chinese CSR in Africa

Close institutional, relational and bureaucratic ties between the state and business community are characteristic of Chinese CSR in Africa. Through its embassies abroad, the state facilitates and partners with state-owned and private companies in Africa to adopt CSR to project a favourable image of China in Africa (Liu, 2021). Research shows that Chinese companies in Africa rank highly on quality of work and respect for local laws and customs but very low on employee welfare and environmental protection. Seriki (2020) finds that Chinese contractors in Nigeria prioritised income-generating and image-building CSR activities over employee welfare activities like employee training and skills transfer. He argues that these CSR activities are yet to stem anti-Chinese rhetoric, particularly regarding the construction sector in Africa. This may be blamed on the lack of effective CSR communication and general suspicions about corporate communication; Africans generally believe that companies overstate their social behaviour (Tata & Prasad, 2015). According to Ngome (2007), Africans often believe that Chinese companies collude with corrupt African leaders for unfair deals.

Despite the suspicions, there is some evidence that Chinese CSR projects have had a positive effect on the communities around them, and their philanthropic activities are seen as a welcome development by communities. Their primary focus areas include public health programmes, sponsoring education, and providing access to clean water. For example, Chinese tech company Huawei has established long-term CSR strategies to bridge the skills gap in Africa’s telecommunications sector and nurture local talent (Mugwara & Yuliang, 2022). These CSR initiatives have generated some positive attitudes towards Chinese firms (Tang & Li, 2011). However, indifference, at best, regarding Chinese companies’ CSR initiatives in common with the general population suggests that these initiatives can be improved to better respond to community needs (Seriki, 2020). Challenges include the marginalisation of CSR departments, particularly in small and medium companies that do not have the same human and financial resources as big global companies like Huawei. Even with the big state-owned companies, initiatives that seek to involve local stakeholders, explore shared values and identify the need for practical action are limited (Roe, 2013).

Chinese CSR is a state-led endeavour, with the ultimate goal of image-building and profit-making. The state actively collaborates with Chinese companies to implement CSR. For example, China Aid, the Chinese government’s international aid agency, has teamed with the Chinese engineering and construction company, China Jiangxi Corporation, to drill 1,000 boreholes in six provinces across Zimbabwe (Mugwara & Yuliang, 2022). In Kenya, China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), the Chinese company contracted to build the first three berths of the Lamu Port, collaborated with the Kenyan government to sponsor 60 high school graduates to pursue further studies in Chinese universities (Tan-Mullins, 2020, p. 213). According to Tan-Mullins (2020, p. 215), despite Chinese companies’ efforts, various other factors, such as lack of transparency, human rights violations and miscommunication impede the quality of Chinese CSR and its ability to enhance the image of China and Chinese companies in Africa.

Chinese CSR in Kenya

Chinese companies in Kenya have become visible and influential due to the massive infrastructure projects they have been engaged in. They have constructed the most significant infrastructure projects in Kenya, including the $3.8 billion Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), the $1.5 billion Nairobi-Naivasha SGR, the $24 billion Lamu Port project, the $350 million Kipevu oil terminal, and the $668 million Nairobi expressway projects (Mboya, 2023). The impact of these projects on the economy and environment means that the companies involved attract political and public attention (Eickhoff, 2022).

Chinese companies have been accused of colluding with Kenyan officials to implement expensive and unviable projects that only serve the interests of China and the local elite, leaving the country with a heavy debt burden (Eickhoff, 2022).

They are thought to be not transparent in their dealings with the government, and many Kenyans believe that the secrecy surrounding many of these deals hides corrupt dealings (Eickhoff, 2022). Court rulings on the illegality of the projects, disregard for prevailing laws and maltreatment of Kenyan workers during implementation, have left a tainted image of China and its construction companies in Kenya (Okoth, 2018). Chinese companies in various sectors have also been accused of racism, bribery and environmental degradation (Wangui, 2021).

Chinese companies in Kenya are under intense pressure from the Chinesegovernment to use CSR to change the tide of negative publicity that has built up since their appearance in the country. Insofar as it does occur, Chinese CSR in Kenya is mainly characterised by voluntary initiatives of a primarily philanthropic nature, encouraged and sometimes coordinated by the Chinese government (Cheruiyot & Tarus, 2017). Nonetheless, Chinese CSR remains an essential first step towards engaging the local communities and presenting a better version of themselves and their home country. The following case studies elaborate on Chinese companies’ CSR initiatives in Kenya.

Case study 1: Kenya-China Economic & Trade Association (KCETA)

A consortium of 73 Chinese companies in Kenya and their subsidiaries has established the Kenya-China Economic & Trade Association (KCETA), which plays a significant role in China’s public diplomacy in Kenya. Its stated mission is to strengthen the cohesiveness and influence of Chinese businesses in Kenya by encouraging members to establish charitable and social responsibility initiatives that create closer ties with the community and help strengthen the reputation of Chinese companies and businesses in the country (KCETA, 2017). Members of the association represent a range of sectors, including engineering, contracting, trade, real estate, logistics, scientific and technological services, and manufacturing. According to its first-ever report, the association intends to work closely with the Chinese Embassy and Kenyan government on CSR initiatives to assist local communities and thus build friendly relations with them (KCETA, 2017).

According to the report, Chinese companies in Kenya are expected to go beyond profit objectives and do more by remembering their role as corporate citizens and engaging with local communities to promote harmony and development in the Kenyan economy and society (KCETA, 2017: pp. 8-52). According to the Chinese ambassador in the report’s preface, KCETA members aspire to “adhere to the principles of sincerity, practical results, affinity and good faith, uphold the values of friendship, justice and shared interest emphasised by President Xi Jinping” (KCETA, 2017, p.1). Members are expected to comply with local laws and regulations, be proactive in identifying social responsibility activities, and integrate sustainable development goals into their business operations (KCETA 2017). This suggests that the companies are in touch with their government’s public diplomacy goals and are actively supporting it through their activities in Kenya.

According to the latest KCETA report, membership has reached about 400 Chinese companies. Its members have created over 50,000 jobs for Kenyans, with some companies’ localisation rates as high as 95%. It claims that CSR initiatives have built community roads, set up water points and upgraded learning institutions by donating and renovating classrooms and providing learning materials (Adhere, 2021). A close reading of the report indicates that CSR is not the only, or perhaps even the main reason Chinese companies in Kenya have for joining the association. Efficiency, rather than an interest in CSR, was the main reason indicated by a Chinese manager at a KCETA member company: “We don’t really believe in CSR, and we should not be forced to do it. But because it helps us implement projects faster and efficiently, I think it’s a good idea to join,” the manager is quoted as saying. An independent Chinese businessperson, who wished to remain anonymous, commented: “It is in our own interest to implement CSR and have a good relationship with local communities because we cannot do business in Kenya if Chinese and Kenyan people are not friends. Big Chinese companies should do a lot of CSR to make China look good and boost business.”

In the Mihang’o constituency on the outskirts of Nairobi city, the Chinese embassy and KCETA helped construct classrooms at Mihang’o Primary School in 2010 (Chinese Embassy in Kenya, 2010). The school was in 2018 selected to be a recipient of China’s access to satellite TV for the 10,000 African villages project as part of the Chinese company’s StarTimes CSR initiative. The project equipped the school with satellite TV to aid in education and provide entertainment and Chinese content to the students and members of the surrounding community (Mutethya, 2019).

Peter Mwangi, a resident of Mihang’o, explained how he became familiar with Chinese development and culture after watching several Chinese movies and promotional videos from the Mihang’o Primary School satellite TV project. “I never realised how beautiful and developed China was until I saw Chinese movies and videos. I hope they will help our country develop to the same standards I saw in China,” he said. When asked about China’s development record in Kenya, he was quick to warn that “Without corruption and racism, China can do much more than Europeans have done in Kenya.” Chinese contractor China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), a member of KCETA, has a base office and equipment site close to Mihang’o, and residents are familiar with the company. It was contracted by the representative Member of the County Assembly (MCA) to build community roads in Mihang’o in 2022. In an interview with the secretary to the MCA, Caroline Nyakundi, she lauded CRBC for working efficiently and going beyond what is required. She said: “The Chinese have been good to the people of Mihang’o; they are competent, fair and kind. Look at how fast they did these roads and finished just in time before the elections in August. They not only do the road but also go further and pave the entrance to people’s homes at no extra charge.”

Florence, a resident of Mihang’o who has worked as an employee of CRBC on three road projects in the area, argues that CRBC has been a blessing for the town’s residents because of their employment policies and work ethics. She explained: “CRBC employed a record number of women during the construction of these roads, they used their equipment to pull trucks and personal vehicles stuck in the mud before the streets were completed, and they don’t care which tribe you come from during employment. I think Kenyan contractors have to learn from them.”

While many residents of the Mihang’o constituency are not familiar with KCETA, they generally hold a positive view of Chinese companies due to projects implemented within their community, and it is clear that some of the positive sentiments come from CSR initiatives.

Elsewhere in Homa Bay County, in August 2022, a Chinese company, Sinohydro Corporation, completed the Kimira-Oluch irrigation project and several classrooms as part of its CSR initiatives there. Mary Atieno, a university student from Kendu Bay in Homa Bay County, supports the Chinese companies and their actions. “If I were the governor, I would give all the projects to the Chinese. They are cheap, fast and deliver quality projects on time because they engage and cooperate with locals,” she said (Atieno, 2022). Sinohydro used local employees and community leaders to engage with the community and respond to some of their immediate needs. It is through such consultative meetings that Migingo Primary School in Kendu Bay received several additional classrooms as part of the company’s CSR initiative.

A resident of Kendu Bay town, Job Midii, approved of Sinohydro’s CSR activities in the area but was concerned about the purpose of these initiatives. “How are they able to do all these CSR initiatives, yet they cost money? We are told that Chinese companies win bids because they are the lowest bidders and deliver high-quality projects, but they must be genuinely concerned about our welfare,” he said. “They
can pretend all they want; this is bribery and corruption. These projects are meant
to cover the corruption between them and the county government.”

Case study 2: MCEDO Beijing School

MCEDO Beijing School is a community-based school at the heart of Mathare slums, an informal settlement in the heart of Nairobi City. It adopted the name Beijing School after receiving donations from the Chinese Embassy in 2007 (Achieng, 2022). Like other community schools in the area, it relies heavily on donor support; the informal settlement does not figure in official government planning and needs many social amenities such as schools and hospitals. In 2012, KCETA, with the cooperation of the Chinese embassy, contributed to rehabilitating existing classrooms and building additional ones, which helped to increase, enrolment. KCETA and the Chinese embassy have institutionalised their CSR programmes in the slum and continue to support the school by donating textbooks, stationery, sporting kits and snacks (Agency, 2017).

The Chinese embassy is not just a stakeholder in KCETA but a leading partner, and the two collaborate to implement CSR projects together. In May 2017, the embassy and the association again mobilised members to donate books, teaching materials and other school supplies to the school. Top diplomats from the embassy often visit the school, bring gifts, encourage, and cheer on the kids from impoverished backgrounds (KCETA, p. 39). These activities are often publicised by Chinese media, the embassy and company websites, and are portrayed as a symbol of true friendship between the Chinese and Kenyan people (Opali, 2021).

Interviews with respondents in the communities affected suggest that Chinese CSR initiatives positively affect local communities’ perceptions. For instance, Joel Omondi, a parent who has seen the learning facility’s evolution from a makeshift structure to a modern-day facility, says the classrooms were sub standard when his first child attended the school. Today, two of his children have studied at the MCEDO Beijing School, and the third is still at the institution thanks to the generosity of the Chinese companies. The financial and material support has enabled his children to study without interruption and without the fear of being sent home for lack of school fees. “I thought the Chinese were just here to benefit themselves. I cannot believe what they have done for my community and me. The modernisation of the school made my firstborn daughter enjoy going to school. Her excellence in her studies and football club helped her secure a government scholarship that now funds her university education. I am sure she will elevate our family from poverty,” Omondi said.

With the support of Chinese companies, the MCEDO Beijing School has established a girls’ soccer team known as the Beijing Raiders. The initiative promotes education and sporting talent and has further supported the enrolment of girls from the community and supported the retention of others already at the school. The school’s headmaster, Benedict Kiage, hailed the Chinese companies for their contribution to transforming the lives of many underprivileged children who live in the Mathare slums and beyond.

Jentrix, a resident of Mathare, commended the Chinese for standing in solidarity with the school for many years but urged them to consider other community sectors. “I came here in 2015, and one thing I can say about the Chinese is that they are inconsistent with their support. When building the Thika superhighway, they discriminated against youth from the Mathare community. Those who got opportunities were paid peanuts because they came from poor backgrounds. The Chinese bosses were racist and talked ill about us,” she commented.

The findings are close enough to survey data on Kenyans’ general perceptions of China in Kenya. An Afrobarometer survey shows that 54% of Kenyans feel China has had a positive economic and political influence in Kenya (Otele, 2022). While views vary within different sections of Kenyan society, previous research corroborates these findings (Olander, 2016; Otele & Folashade, 2023). The interviewees in the areas visited share the attitudes and perceptions of a slight majority of Kenyans more generally, and it is evident that Chinese companies enjoy some support from residents there. As a result, Chinese projects in the area are being implemented with little resistance. For example, the smooth implementation of the Outering road, which passes through the Mathare slums, was notable despite occasional delays
owing to the need to respond to community concerns about safety when crossing the expanded highway, bicycle lanes and pedestrian footpaths (Anyanzwa, 2017). Considering that one of the main goals of Chinese CSR is to create a favourable environment for Chinese companies, the strategy may be effective. Most negative comments (35 out of 45 responses) arise not from personal experience but from news reports and online content about Chinese racism and the mistreatment of Kenyan and African workers. People also believe the Chinese are corrupt because of the opaque nature of their deals with corrupt leaders and a lack of transparency.

Conclusion

This paper has explored the role of Chinese companies’ CSR initiatives in Kenya and their impact from the perspective of local communities. It has been shown that CSR plays a critical role in the efforts of Chinese companies in Kenya to support China’s public diplomacy. Chinese companies have collaborated in many CSR activities revolving around corporate social responsibility, emphasising enhancing the positive image of China and Chinese companies in Kenya. As discussed in the paper, CSR has the power to build and foster friendly relations with the public and enhance public diplomacy efforts. To some extent, the institutionalisation of CSR as a core function of Chinese enterprises has positively affected China’s public diplomacy objectives. Communities appreciate Chinese CSR efforts but remain suspicious and concerned over issues with transparency and accountability. Therefore, focused CSR initiatives that respond to the nagging trust deficit, as well as avoidance of incidents and acts that propagate such beliefs, must become the priority of Chinese companies to consolidate the gains made so far.

(please see original paper for footnotes and full references)

Biographical Details

Dr Cliff Mboya is an Africa-China analyst and international relations practitioner, specialising in Chinese diplomacy in Africa. He is a research fellow at the Afro-Sino-Centre of International Relations and a research associate at the African Centre for the Study of the United States. He has worked as the Africa editor and consultant for the China-Africa project and as a public affairs officer at the Chinese embassy in Kenya. His most recent academic works include the journal article Kenya’s digital diplomacy amid COVID19: New tools in an old toolbox? in the South African Journal of International Affairs and a book chapter, Connecting and Disconnecting Africa: The Maritime Silk Road Initiative’s Conflicting Effects on Eastern Africa in China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative, Africa, and the Middle East: Feats, Freezes and Failures.

More research supported by the Africa-China Reporting Project, published in the TAGP research journal:

© 2024 Africa-China Reporting Project. All rights reserved. 
Terms & Conditions. 
Privacy Policy.
crossmenu