Global Times: Young Chinese engineer committed to industrial transformation in Africa as BRI dedicated to continent’s development

PRNewswire October 26, 2023

BEIJING, Oct. 26, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — When Cao Fengze received a phone call from the Global Times reporters, he was on site at the bustling and dusty construction site by the Kafue River, the longest river located entirely within the African nation measuring an impressive 1,576 kilometers. About 90 kilometers south of Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, along the Kafue River, Cao is stationed at the Kafue Gorge Lower (KGL) hydroelectric power station, which is considered Zambia’s Three Gorges Project and the first large-scale hydroelectric power station developed in the country in the last 40 years.

With steely determination, a hard hat and safety gear to boot, one would be hard pressed to imagine that Cao is indeed a graduate from China’s prestigious Tsinghua University with a doctorate degree. His working environment is a marked departure from that chosen by his former classmates.

Witnessing and participating in a country’s industrial transition and modernization efforts has reaffirmed Cao’s faith in choosing an extraordinary path. As millennial, he did not get a chance to see China’s transformation into an industrialized powerhouse, but thanks to Belt and Road projects in Africa, he has a front row seat to the transformational process in the continent. 

BRI projects across Africa have wide-reaching effects for common citizens and entire countries alike. As the assistant director at the African branch of Power China’s subsidiary Sinohydro Bureau 11 Co, he has witnessed not only how a Chinese-funded hydropower plant has benefited a small merchant, a village, but also how China empowers African countries with robust and sustainable development systems by providing them with accessible and affordable public goods.

Escape development dilemma

The story of a small trader in the Zambian capital of Lusaka highlight’s Cao’s own journey along with the BRI in Africa. Thompson, the owner of a grocery store in Lusaka, makes a living by producing and selling grain products and condiments like peanut butter and hazelnut spread. Before the completion of the KGL hydroelectric power station, exorbitant electricity prices and an unstable voltage coupled with frequent power outages meant that small business owners like Thomson suffered greatly.  

Apart from the high cost of electricity being passed on to his customers therefore limiting his sales, small businesses like Thomson’s would often be disconnected from the power grid, as they were believed to not have an emergent need for electricity. In March this year, however, things changed for the better after the completion of the KGL hydroelectric power station, which, at full capacity, increased Zambia’s overall power generation by 38 percent. The increase means that nearly four out of every 10 people now have access to electricity thanks to the KGL station, and power outages in the capital are increasingly rare.

Cheap and stable electricity has reduced Thompson’s overhead costs, which means cheaper product prices, increased sales, and a fuller wallet. Thompson regularly donates his food to needy children in Lusaka. The donated cereal is pre-cooked and specially crushed into fine powder, which can be brewed and consumed by adding clean water, considering that even a kettle is a luxury for the needy children in Zambia.

Thompson believes that food donation cannot fundamentally solve the root problem in his country because the local food production will likely never catch up with the rate of population growth – a typical manifestation of the Malthusian trap. 

Thompson’s story strengthened Cao’s resolve to devote himself to breaking the Malthusian trap in Africa. “You could say Malthusianism is outdated in Western countries, but it is still an obvious problem in most African countries. Their population growth outpaces agricultural production and economic development, causing poverty and depopulation,” Cao told the Global Times.

“The fertility rate in some major African countries is above 5, and a lack of female empowerment. If the effects of Malthusianism spill over, developed countries in the world could even be profoundly affected by this massive population change,” Cao warned.

“The underlying logic of what we are fighting for here is to support their economic development to outpace the population growth, and we hope to accelerate this process. We can achieve this by supporting basic infrastructure development. As we all know, electricity is the cornerstone of modern life, as it is essential for the development of industries and communication services. Only then can private enterprises, local entrepreneurs, and traders come alive and fully contribute to a revitalized economy. Otherwise, the chances of breaking the cycle of poverty are very slim,” Cao explained.

Zambia is far from the only African country faced with a power supply deficit. Cao recalled witnessing power outages in the East African country of Tanzania while working on another hydroelectric project. Comically, Cao was midway through a shower when the power went out, turning off the water, leaving the engineer lathered confusion. Though this is a funny personal memory, the experience encapsulates the challenges faced by ordinary people across the continent. 

Currently, the total installed capacity of the KGL station project is 750 megawatts.  According to an evaluation by Zambia’s state-owned electricity company, ZESCO Limited, which commissioned the construction of the plant, the station can support Zambia’s industrial development for the next 70, 80, or even 100 years. The construction of the plant, the station can support Zambia’s industrial development for the next 70, 80, or even 100 years.

Providing more opportunities

In Zambia, highly skilled technicians and workers are in extreme short supply. To cultivate qualified personnel to support the projects, the Chinese contractor has established a government-approved training school in Zambia. Students can receive free education and accommodation complete with a living allowance. The school offers six sorted professional training courses such as civil engineering, mechanical maintenance, welding, and surveying. At least 300 skilled talents in the field of infrastructure construction have successfully graduated from training center, and a large number of them chose to join Chinese-built hydroelectric power stations.

“If we truly bring tangible benefits to the local people and empower them in development, why would they be in opposition?” Cao questioned when he was asked about his take on baseless accusations made by some foreign media sources about local people protesting against Chinese BRI projects.

He noted that Chinese contractors also build schools, hospitals, and training centers near and around the projects to fulfill their social responsibilities as contractually agreed upon.

“But it’s not like we are building charity or aid projects as many people image. On the contrary, these are standard profit-making projects based on the principle of mutual benefit and win-win cooperation,” Cao stressed.

He believes the so-called claims of the Chinese debt trap and neocolonialism are “ridiculous,” because “there are no creditors who don’t want their debts to be paid on time.”

Devoted in a foreign land

Engineer’s passion and zeal were evident when he mentioned the progress that he has made each day. He said he felt a great sense of fulfillment when he knew his expertise was contributing to the development of a faraway land. But “extraordinary romance often implies extraordinary hardships,” as he said. While working in remote locations is particularly challenging for his counterparts, the strict control of engineering quality is often the most challenging for him.

Along with major work-related concerns come more trivial administrative concerns for a senior engineer like Cao, including cleanliness in the warehouse, dealing with blocked drainage pipes, reprimanding a drunken night-shift driver, and week-long debates on matters as small yet important as the thickness of a concrete reinforcement cover. In the face of the completed dam and the future promise it holds, Cao often thinks back to his hometown, Northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, the industrial cradle of new China. 

Decades ago, the vast black soil in northeast China turned into the “granary of the north” because of countless idealistic young people who migrated there to reclaim the northern wilderness. Cao, who grew up there, understands that industrialization is a difficult process, and what is most needed in this process is people with steely determination. 

“I hope I am also one of these people with determination and resilience,” Cao said.

As African people in countries like Tanzania and Zambia enjoy clean energy, many may never know of the devotion of one young Chinese engineer, whose goal was to help in the revolutionary transformation of the continent. However, hydropower projects across Africa, while heralding the new era of growth and development of the continent, will stand as mute testament to the resilience of those who worked tirelessly to actualize their construction.

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SOURCE Global Times

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