China and the expansion of Luanda

“With the arrival of the Chinese, the cost of (building) material is much lower,” says my informant, a pedreiro, or house-builder. Since the first oil-backed credit line was signed between the Angolan government and China’s Eximbank in March 2004, China has been a prominent player in Angola’s reconstruction. However, the rise of the Chinese presence in Luanda has not only been marked by large state projects, but also by changes in the informal sector. In the eyes of many Angolans, the Chinese presence has caused the prices of construction materials to fall over the last six years. This means that the growth of Luanda needs to be understood not simply through government projects, but via the possibilities that Chinese enterprise has opened for residents eager to build and renovate their houses.

The formal outlines of China’s role in reshaping the country are fairly well-known. Under the terms of oil-backed credit lines, China has contributed money, labour and expertise. Projects in Luanda include the redevelopment of urban zones such as Cazenga and Sambizanga, the construction of new sewerage systems for the city, the contract for the new Luanda International Airport, and various housing projects. However, the state’s building efforts are not the only ones to be reshaping the city.

Luanda’s immense expansion is also due to individual effort. In the eyes of residents, the Chinese entry into the informal construction market has lowered building costs for ordinary Angolans. One example of how this has worked is in the market for bricks/cement blocks. Prior to the entry of the Chinese, cement blocks were generally manually produced, and prices could be high, contingent on the cost of cement at the time. For the majority of Luanda’s residents who could not afford to buy in bulk, the costs increased even further as purchasing in small amounts was more expensive. The Chinese, however, changed the market. Firstly, they set up small factories to produce cement blocks so that prices fell and quality went up. Secondly, they offered free transport between warehouse and building site. While this caused tensions, which sometimes broke into violence between Angolan and Chinese traders, the clients were satisfied.

Artisanal cement block production still continues, but only in new neighbourhoods that are far from Chinese-run brick warehouses, or among people so poor that it is still preferable for them to make their own blocks with the assistance of a pedreiro and/or family. The less studied and understood story of the Chinese in Luanda then, seems to be the capacity of these foreign businesses to enable the expansion of the informal city.

Claudia Gastrow is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago. She is currently finalising her thesis, “Negotiated Settlements: Housing and Citizenship in Luanda, Angola”


This article is part of UrbanAfrica’s reporting project

image credit: from Tingoshi


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