Botswana, a landlocked country in Southern Africa, is often characterised as a major success story on the continent. Consistent economic growth, effective democratic institutions and strong planning contribute to the country’s overall reputation as a developmental state. Infrastructure development is always at the core of the national government’s long-term programme, which makes Botswana an attractive destination for foreign investment. To support Botswana’s nation-building endeavours, China has provided Botswana with a certain amount of financial assistance including grant and preferential loans, with which 26 projects have been completed. On the list are the renovations of the Botswana railway, low-cost housing, land survey and planning, road construction, health facilities, agricultural technology, human resources development and so on.
Even though the Chinese are making an enormous contribution to Botswana’s infrastructure development, there is still a pervasive misperception that Chinese-built roads, bridges and other construction projects are of poor quality — ‘quality from Fong Kong’ are the words Botswana people use to describe the substandard of Chinese products or Chinese work. There are indeed many complaints regarding the quality standard of Chinese work/products. For example, a resident in a house built by the Chinese for the Botswana Housing Corporation (BHC) complained that the Chinese contractor used stainless steel pipes instead of the normal brass pipes to save money. When there are problems with the stainless steel pipes, the residents cannot find replacements in the local market, as they are not a standardized item.
Other complaints, in particular, the Francistown Stadium, the Shakawe Senior Secondary School, the Sir Seretse Khama International (SSKI) Airport and the failure of Morupule B power plant. These projects have had problems of quality, delays and cost over-runs, which in some cases have led to the termination of contracts. Although the problem is essentially economic, the failed constructions projects have had significant political ramifications, especially affecting views within the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which did comparatively poorly in the 2014 elections.
It is, however, a pity that many complaints on quality are informal and have not been properly documented or investigated.
Complaints like this need further investigation as to who should take responsibility for these problems, i.e. whether or not the developer — in this case, the BHC — clearly specified the technical standards to be met in the tender document. If it did, it has the right of recourse with the Chinese contractor. It is, however, a pity that many complaints on quality are informal and have not been properly documented or investigated. A major issue contributing to this problem or, at the very least, the perception of problems is the fact that no proper evaluation or assessment has been done of project delivery by these particular Chinese firms.
With the case of Mouruple B power plant which was constructed by China National Electric Equipment Corporation (CNEEC), Chinese ambassador admitted that CNEEC faced some challenges in constructing the Morupule B Power Plant and they have promised to rectify the problems. “As a sign of their commitment, CNEEC sent some experts to investigate why the plant had some technical problems and after the findings will rectify it,” said former Chinese ambassador to Botswana Zheng Zhuqiang.
There are fewer quality complaints in road construction, according to the chief engineer of the Department of Road Works, and the same quality rules apply to everyone. He said that the percentage of rejects is not high when comparing Chinese work with that of other contractors. In general, the Chinese companies keep a good working relationship with the department, and they are willing to take advice and instruction from the government. The China Railway Seventh Group (CRSG) Botswana (Pty) Ltd has successfully constructed the first “spaghetti road” which started in 2015, as part of a 30-km dual road project, at the cost of 100 million U.S. dollars. This road will help expand the capacity of major and secondary roads that bisects Francistown’s CBD and to initiate rapid traffic transit systems.
New research, though, demonstrates that the misperception about China and Chinese companies do not reflect the reality of the quality and reliability of Chinese construction work in Africa. The study by Jamie Farrell of John Hopkins University in the United States is the first attempt to quantify the quality of Chinese contractors as compared to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country contractors. It sought to analyse the validity of the perception that the workmanship of the former routinely produces low quality work. 
Moreover, the Botswana Chinese General Chamber of Commerce has fought back against these charges. One of the points that Bing Liu, the Chamber’s chairperson, has made is that it is unfair to tar all Chinese contractors with the same brush. That is indeed the point that John Hopkins makes. Its study found that 77 percent of all Chinese contracts analysed were completed by only seven large state-owned companies, four of which had been sanctioned by the World Bank. The latter had the effect of tainting the reputation of all Chinese engineering firms. Conversely, the composition of OECD contracts was much less concentrated in a few companies.
The article was originally published in taklchinesediplomacy.
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