A self-made man

Zweli Mokgata

Zweli Mokgata

South Africans should expect an influx of Chinese businesses and visitors if businessman Li Jinyuan has his way.

The Chinese billionaire president of the Tiens Group was in the country last week to attend the launch of The Banner Store in Randburg.

"We chose to start off in South Africa because it is the most developed African country and has full (regulatory) compliance," Li said.

The Banner Store, which was launched on Friday, is a franchise retail store which will sell health and nutritional products.

Constantly surrounded by his loyal staff and monitored by a pair of hefty South African bodyguards, Li relaxes in his fireplace-lit Melrose Arch Hotel suite overlooking Johannesburg's northern suburbs.

Speaking through an interpreter, he explains his vision for Africa and his view of world economics. His tone may border slightly on the overambitious side but his credentials cannot be scoffed at - he is one of the richest people in mainland China.

Li is keen to see the relationship between China and Africa solidify, but feels that inefficiencies were a hindrance to doing business. He wants to see an improvement of African trade policies and a more efficient business environment.

He says: "First of all there needs to be improvements in social security. Visa applications and work permits also need to be made easier so that more Chinese people can come here to invest.

"We need to have a win-win situation between China and Africa. Efficiency is a challenge in the 21st century. When we go to other countries (outside Africa), we have good levels of efficiency, but in African countries we meet a lot of delays," he said.

He said that in its effort to smooth Afro-Asian relations, China wrote off a massive $100billion debt that Africa was running with the Asian country.

Li was born in one of the surrounding villages of Cangzhou City in 1958. He dropped out of school at 14 to work in an oil field for two years.

At 16 he made his first venture into the business world. He noticed that garments and recorders in the South and grain in the North were cheap while fetching higher prices on opposite sides of the country.

Li accumulated his first wealth through profits made from the price differences. He later launched a printing company, a flour mill and a fodder factory, bringing in huge profits.

In 1993, he left his home town on his way to Tianjin to chase more millions. After trying his hand at property, he turned his attention to a technology-intensive project producing all-natural high absorption calcium.

The project, however, ran into major setbacks resulting in a huge failure. The scheme cost him more than 20million yuan, which included money borrowed from relatives and friends.

In an attempt to end his life, he jumped into a lake, but the water had a different effect and he pulled himself together.

In 1995 he set up the Tiens Group, raising 4,8million yuan. The company began producing nutritional products, and by 1996 was marketing across China.