November 2023- Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to the present, there has been an abundance of reporting on a slowdown in Chinese lending to Africa and projections of this into the future. But with a closer examination of the data, it is obvious that both due to demand and supply factors, Chinese lending to Africa has been rising but uneven for decades, which makes it extremely difficult for any experts to predict the direction and future of Chinese lending to Africa. Our latest infographic delves into the numbers!
While our general house view is that it will, in fact, increase, we know there could be barriers. But why do we stay optimistic? Here are our six key reasons.
First, the overall number that African countries took over $170 billion worth of loans between 2000-2022 is very familiar. The graph that shows this trend is also familiar, especially for the peak it shows in 2016, and then an apparently sharp decline to less than US$1 billion in 2022. However, a closer look at that graph shows that from 2000-2007, Chinese loans to Africa grew at a slow, steady pace, before falling sharply in 2008, while 2009-2013 saw the fastest rate of growth of Chinese lending with another slowing between 2014-2015. Moreover, for the 2016 peak, one loan to Angola skews the data so much that when this outlier is excluded, the decline in Chinese lending to Africa- especially pre-pandemic – is not inconsistent with historical trends. It is entirely possible that based on historical trends, an increase could be seen again.
Second, not all African countries borrow from China at the same rate, if at all. Analysis often focuses on the supply of loans by China, ignoring the demand for loans by African countries to fund development: creating a false impression that all African countries borrow from China, all the time.
In fact, many African countries have not borrowed from China in quite some time. For instance, Algeria, Africa’s fourth largest economy, has not borrowed from China since 2004. Botswana and Tunisia have not borrowed from China since 2010, while Niger, Tanzania, Seychelles and Togo have not taken a loan from China since 2017.
Six African countries did not take any loans from China between 2000-2022 including Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Somalia, Eswatini, and Sao Tome and Principe – for various reasons ranging from the status of diplomatic relations over that period (e.g., Eswatini) to ongoing multilateral debt relief negotiations (e.g., Somalia), although most were recipients of Chinese aid projects. In addition, of the 48 African countries that have borrowed from China, 15 countries have borrowed less than US$500 million from China during this period.
On the other hand, the top African borrowers from China during this period – Angola, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt and Zambia – collectively account for just over 51% of Chinese lending to Africa.
Third, Chinese lending to Africa has been uneven at a regional level over the past two decades. Between 2000-2022, Southern Africa was the region that by far received the most amount of loans (64%), both in terms of number and absolute value, with North Africa receiving the least (4%).
Fourth, the pace of Chinese lending to Africa has been uneven over the past few years, with 2016 again being a highly anomalous year. The typical explanation for this is a slowdown in Chinese appetite for lending, however, we also note that from January 2017 onwards, when Mozambique defaulted on a payment, concerns began to be raised by international civil society organisations and international organisations about a potential “debt crisis”. Such concerns – whether real or not – would no doubt have been noted within China and many African countries themselves began to slow down in their demand for new loans – instead starting to speak of public-private partnerships, which would not have an impact on balance sheets.
The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic of course have exacerbated these issues. China’s prolonged global travel restrictions due to the pandemic made it hard for business trips and due diligence to be performed for lending to happen, hence the slowdown in loans. Furthermore, to address challenges brought on by the COVID-19, African countries turned to traditional Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) who tend to provide financing for sectors such as healthcare that were most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, as Chinese lending to Africa reduced during this period, African borrowing from the World Bank spiked. Between 2016-2021, World Bank lending to Africa rose from US$52 billion to US$ 90 billion per year, during the pandemic.
Fifth, Chinese lending has shifted in terms of sectors targeted. Between 2000-2004, the top three sectors for Chinese lending to Africa were Industry, Trade & Services, ICT and Water/Sanitation. This changed between 2018-2019, during which the top three sectors were ICT, Transport and Energy. Each sector will often require different project sizes and volumes of finance.
Last but not least, and as many others have said, these loans do not mean that the African continent is stuck in a “debt trap”. African countries have taken out Chinese loans to fund growing development needs. Rather than impede economic growth, borrowing to fund infrastructure promotes economic growth. Indeed, Development Reimagined’s analysis of the IMF’s recent projections shows that Africa’s economic growth rate continues to outpace the global average – with six African countries featuring in the IMF’s list of the ten fastest growing economies in the world.
Whilst China has become an important creditor to many African countries, accounting for approximately 20% of Africa’s total external debt, it is important to keep in mind that the continent only accounts for a fraction (11%) of low and middle-income country debt. Moreover, because of the six trends identified above, Chinese debt is comparable to other creditors. Even the top five African borrowers from China still owe a larger proportion of their debt to other creditors than to China. According to the data, 90% of African countries owe 39% of their debt to multilateral institutions and 35% to private creditors.
So, what’s the future of China’s loans to Africa?
The fact, is no-one can be sure, even Chinese banks. For China, there is no doubt that expanding overseas investment in infrastructure — particularly in Africa to support manufacturing — remains key to China’s long-term economic vision. And since Africa’s development needs remain significant, especially in infrastructure, we anticipate that Chinese lending will likely rebound to pre-pandemic levels moving forward.
However, what is crucial to avoid in any forecasting is an undertone that African countries have spent badly, are too “indebted” to creditors, in particular, China, or that they are ‘risky’ investment destinations. It is also crucial to avoid oversimplified, generalized analysis that underplays African agency and legitimate needs for debt for development, and ignores the continent’s strong growth prospects compared to the global average.
Whatever happens, and with new interest by other development partners in African infrastructure and resources, this space will be a fascinating one to both watch and be part of
To find out how Development Reimagined can support you, your organisation, or Government, please email the team at email@example.com.
Special thanks go to Jade Scarfe, Christy Un, Rugare Mukanganga, Trevor Lwere and Meghna Goyal for their work on the graphics and for collecting/analysing the underlying data and this accompanying article.
The data was collated primarily from a range of sources, including the Chinese Loans to Africa Database, IMF, and World Bank data.
If you spot any gaps or have any enquiries, please send your feedback to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will aim to respond ASAP.