Tecno Mobile in Africa: The Adventure of a Private Chinese Phone Manufacturer

The first two decades of the twentieth-first century has witnessed rapid growth of Chinese direct investments in Africa. Despite an overwhelmingly negative image portrayed by news media—which often emphasizes on China’s neo-colonialism agenda, the lack of local job opportunities created by the Chinese investments, and the racist face of the Chinese presence in Africa—these growing Chinese investments are considered, by many Chinese and some Africans, generous help that improved living standards of African people. This more positive view is sometimes echoed by academic studies by political scientists and economists, such as Deborah Brautigam and Justin Yifu Lin. What kind of role did Chinese businesses actually play in the African society? Would a historical study of a particular Chinese firm in Africa, especially one among the understudied private businesses, help us close the gap between the journalist accounts and the academic studies of the same story? Started with these questions, the paper chose to study the development of a private Chinese phone manufacturer, Tecno Mobile, since its foundation in 2006. Like many other Chinese businesses in post-reform era, Tecno’s short history is a story of legendary success. But unlike other successful businesses, Tecno targets exclusively the emerging markets outside China, especially Africa. In 2017, eleven years after the company was founded, Tecno replaced Sumsung to controll the biggest unit share of Africa’s smartphone market. The key to its success might be universal for businesses worldwide. But Tecno’s connection to Chinese family films, Chinese entrepreneurship, and Chinese corporate culture seems to suggest a Chinese business pattern that can be traced back to the early twentieth century China. Therefore, the second agenda of this paper is to put the first two decades of the twenty-first century back to the long history of Chinese modern firms.