China’s educational offensive in African markets

As the United States looks to strengthen its commercial competitive stance vis a vis China in African markets, policy makers should look to one area of competition that has been absent from the debate —higher education. While the United States is home to most of the world’s best universities and a historical legacy of educating African political and business elite, Beijing has actively wooed the next generation of African leaders by broadening educational opportunities in China.

China is chipping away at an area of U.S. competitiveness in African markets and laying the groundwork for future market dominance. Considering 60 percent of Africa’s population of 1.2 billion is below 35 years old, the country that provides higher education options for the next generation of African leaders will have access, shared cultural ties, commercial networks and common business values. 

While Washington is recalibrating its stance in regards to China globally, the United States should launch a new program of scholarships for Africans deliberately to cultivate deeper ties with Africa’s youth.

Growing Sino-African educational ties

The United States has a rich history of educational ties with African countries. The leaders of Ghana’s and Nigeria’s independence movements, Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikwe, respectfully, studied in the United States in the 1930s. In the early 1960s, then Senator John F Kennedy and the State Department began financing air travel for the African scholarship recipients. The “Kennedy Airlifts” brought over 750 East Africans to North American universities, including President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump touts 'friendly' conversation with Biden Biden hosts potential VP pick Gretchen Whitmer on podcast History's lessons for Donald Trump MORE’s father. Many returned home upon completion of their studies to take up leadership positions in new governments and created the access and familiarity that many U.S. companies enjoy today in African markets.


While the US continues to welcome large numbers of African students, in 2014, China became the most popular destination for English-speaking African students, surpassing both the United States and United Kingdom. The rate at which China has increased the number of Africans studying within its borders is staggering: between 2000 and 2015, the figure grew from 2,000 to over 50,000. Chinese media recently reported this number to have increased to 60,000 in 2018.

Beijing achieved this remarkable surge in African students via high-level government commitments at summits such as the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). At the most recent FOCAC in September, China committed to offering 50,000 scholarships and 50,000 training opportunities for Africans over the next three years. African students, who often lack access to quality universities in their home countries or the means to attend, rapidly seize these opportunities. These students return home as part of a new crop of academics and elites with a more positive perception of China and Beijing’s actions on the world stage and a network of contacts in China.

Research indicates that China’s attempt to expand its soft power in the region is working. A 2016 report by Afrobarometer found that 63 percent of respondents from 36 countries held a positive view of China’s economic and political influence in their country. While part of China’s improving reception in Africa is likely a result of its large-scale infrastructure financing, greater educational opportunities is surely a factor.

US comparative advantage: Higher education

In the same Afrobarometer report, however, China ranked 2nd to the United States as the preferred model of national development. The U.S. still holds considerable soft power sway in African capitals and in the hearts and minds of the continent’s people.


Due to political and institutional constraints, Washington simply cannot match Beijing dollar-for-dollar in terms of financing infrastructure investment across the region. As the U.S. policymaking community calibrates its response to China’s increasing presence in Africa, it should focus on the American economy’s comparative advantages. Tertiary education is one of the clearest examples. Of the ten highest ranking universities in the world, eight are located in the United States. Students from around the globe continue to seek degrees from America’s prestigious higher education institutions. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping’s daughter attended an Ivy League university for her undergraduate studies.

And Africans deeply value education. Nigerians are one of the most-educated diaspora communities in the United States. A 2015 Migration Policy Institute study found that 37 percent of Nigerian immigrants in the U.S. have bachelor’s degrees, compared to 20 percent for the U.S. general population. Moreover, 29 percent of Nigerians in the U.S. have an advanced degree, in contrast to 11 percent of the general population.  

There is incredible proven demand for American education and the U.S. should double down on the value of its tertiary education system and leverage it to cultivate stronger ties with Africa’s youth.

While policymakers are in the process of rolling out Washington’s overarching strategy for how to counter Beijing’s growing international influence, a new push on increasing African enrollment in U.S. educational institutions would nicely complement the recently established U.S. Development Finance Corporation.  By building networks and shared values through educational access, Washington could help shape the worldview of tomorrow’s generation of African business and policy elites. It is a relatively low-cost investment that will likely pay significant dividends for decades to come.

Aubrey Hruby is co-founder of the Africa Expert Network and Senior Fellow at the Africa Center of the Atlantic Council.