Edward Yin’s first ever visit to Africa came in September 2006. It was a business trip he undertook as part of a delegation of 20 people from the Chinese city of Shenzhen.
The trip was in reciprocation of an earlier visit, in April that year, by the then president of the Senate (now the minister of education), Dr Vincent Biruta to Shenzhen city.
As part of the Africa trip, Yin and group visited Kenya, Egypt and Rwanda in that order—scouting for business prospects and investment opportunities.
“Out of the 20 people, I am the only one who eventually settled down,” says Yin. He added: “When I came, I only knew Rwanda for its history of [the 1994] Genocide. Most Chinese think of Africa in terms of a big desert, mass poverty and hunger. When I came, it was not entirely what I had imagined. The weather was not very hot or cold, and there was green growth everywhere.”
Setting up shop
As an expert in information technology (IT) with close to ten years experience working in China’s highly competitive mobile phone industry, this was the perfect opportunity for Yin to break out and extend his expertise to a virgin market.
“I signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the then Rwanda Information Technology Authority to set up a mobile phone assembling plant here. After several months of preparations in China, I came back in January 2007 and registered the company, Alink Technologies Ltd. I went back to China after registering the company. Two months later, I returned with a telecom engineer and we started work at our premises on Telecom House.”
The company sourced its spare parts from Shenzhen, the biggest mobile phone manufacturing hub in the world. “More than one million people are employed in the mobile phone industry in Shenzhen alone,” says Yin, adding: “I had been doing business in this sector for ten years before I came to Rwanda.”
The company went beyond just assembling phones, venturing into developing of mobile applications like the Kinyarwanda platform, which allows users to access their mobile phone settings in Kinyarwanda.
The company employed 50 workers, and “business was good,” according to Yin.
However he hastens to add: “We didn’t get sufficient profits. Assembling costs were so high. What you would have assembled at half a dollar in China, you would do it at 5 dollars here because of the high overhead costs. We later realised that importing finished phones was cheaper, and in 2009, two years after opening, we closed the phone assembling plant and instead went into importation of phones for whole sale and retail, which we still do to this day.”
After the closure of the phone assembling plant, Yin knew that he needed two things before he could even think of starting all over again; “where to eat and sleep.” A couple of friends suggested I start a big place and do it professionally. However, I was a little reluctant because I am not knowledgeable about the hospitality industry, so I went to China and got a partner who got me a cook, furniture, and other unique things from China, and we started business.”
That business is what today is known as the Alink Chinese Restaurant, down the cobbled stone road that skirts the Lemigo Hotel in Kimihurura. And with it, Yin soon found himself selling food and drink, not just the mobile phones that are his calling.
Alink largely prides itself in meats—pork, chicken, lamb, beef, and sea food—all prepared the Chinese way. The clientele is Chinese and Asian for the most part, while locals and Westerners make up the other half.
“Many Rwandan businessmen travel frequently to China, so they know the cuisine. Some even speak perfect Chinese after living there for many years. So they come and take out their families, the next time they bring their friends, and the trend continues,” notes Yin.
But more than just a restaurant, Alink also bears some of the markings of a social club. Walking into the lobby, one finds a huge selection of Chinese literature neatly stashed away, for the reading pleasure of anyone with interest in Chinese language, culture and philosophy.
The décor is distinctly Chinese, with rich oil paintings on canvass, furniture, and trademark red embroidery and bulb holders.
The upper floor of the building is exclusively taken by private meeting rooms, which vary in size, with some designed for small family outings, while others are huge enough for a mini concert.
Actually, one of the main attractions here is the karaoke, conducted in one of the larger private rooms. The karaoke here differs from the one at the bars in that one person just gets up and entertains their own group as they wine and dine. There are two sets; one for Chinese, and the other for English music, with a set for local music coming up.
This is complimented by the popular Chinese game of Majiang.
More than just a restaurant, Alink is indeed a social venture, at least to the Chinese community that forms the bulk of its clientele. As chairman of the Rwanda-Chinese Association, an organization that brings together all Chinese living and working in Rwanda, Yin indeed needed such a base from which to propagate the association’s ideals.
“The association already has 130 registered members, and any Chinese in Rwanda can be a member. But we are thinking of engaging some local consultants to help with our community projects.”
“We help people from China who want to do business here. We give them the necessary contacts and information, and we also try to help Rwandans who want to do business in China. Last year I travelled to China four times, and realised that many Chinese people want to invest in new markets especially in Africa, because the home market is saturated. They need information on the kind of projects they can do here, and the available opportunities.”
“We host parties, exchange programs, get-togethers, as well welcome new members of the Chinese community to Rwanda. We take them through the basics of how to communicate with local authorities, and brainstorm on how we can do something for the locals.”
The desire to give back to communities is growing.
“Next month, we are meeting to brainstorm on this. We want to participate in Umuganda, because we realize the need for foreigners to cultivate harmony with locals. We live here, so why not take some responsibility?
“We plan to boost our book collection with about 3000 books in Chinese this year, to make a small library for anyone with interest in Chinese culture and language. We are also in the process of opening the Alink Training Center, which is already registered. I’m partnering in this with a professor in China, and one local. The center will have two parts: Culture and Language training, and ICT.
“We want to teach mobile phone repair. Rwanda now has over 4 million mobile phone subscribers, but there is a critical shortage of skilled technicians in the country. Such a huge number of subscribers could generate self-employment for as many as 20,000 local technicians after acquiring skills.”
The one laptop per child project is another area Yin has his eyes on: “We have already prepared a Memorandum of Understanding with the ministry of Youth and ICT for a tablet project. We want to give free iPads to teachers, complete with applications like textbooks and teaching materials. There are 80,000 teachers in the country, according to the Rwanda Education Board. We can’t just supply only hardware, without the other support.”
“We are setting up a mobile assembly plant in Bujumbura that will be complete in July/August. It will be much bigger than the one we had here…. The Netherlands government extended us support, and the potential is big.”
I ask Yin for his impressions about the country, and his response is: “I stayed here for the first four years, then brought over my entire family (two children, wife, and mother) in the fifth year. Every year I invite partners and friends and relatives to visit. I have a small farm in Kibagabaga where I grow vegetables for home consumption, and supply some to members of the association.”
He adds: “China has been developing very fast in the past few years, so people are just running on and on in an endless race, but sometimes you need to pause and think; We have more money, food, technology, but all this came at a cost. We need to sit and ask what is right and what is wrong. For me, not working day and night is an achievement in itself. Maybe at my age it’s time to think about life, family, future, not just work.”
Word to fellow investors
“We need to think, and have more character like a farmer. A farmer has a fixed place from which he has to make things work, while a fisherman just moves away if there is no catch. You have to stick to something and make it work.”