Grow Your Business in Year of Fire Monkey

China’s economy is slowing down. Financial reports raise concerns that for 5 consecutive months the manufacturing sector shrunk in December 2015. On the other hand the Chinese government has just committed $60 billion to Africa after the FOCAC summit in 2015. State owned enterprises (SOE) companies continue to benefit from high level government introductions. President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang meet with their counterparts and usually sign billions of USD worth of trade agreements and more and more loans are signed.

How does this benefit the small to medium enterprises (SME) company in China? How does it help the family business in Asia to grow and prosper? What is the tangible benefit of the New Silk Road or “One Belt, One Road” initiative for entrepreneurs?

China One Belt, One Road infographic
INFOGRAPHIC One Belt, One Road. Sources: Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics), IMF, World Bank, International Monetary Institute, Renmin University of China, Rhodium Group, HSBC, Daiwa Capital Markets, Geography Cement,

None. There is no direct, tangible benefit gained from these unless you are a State-owned in China because these companies are first to be included in the planning and execution of such major projects.

The Monkey year begins on February 8, 2016. Chinese New Year’s Eve is the second new Moon after Winter Solstice.

The Way of the Monkey

2016 Fire Monkey YearThe year of the Monkey is ideal for 10x growth in sales for small businesses in China and Africa. This is the time to shake things up, create change, and innovate a new path. The Monkey’s enthusiast energy allows him to take bold risks that are rewarded and anything can happen. Even the most ambitious plans can succeed this year. There will be more than enough action and opportunity to keep your team busy. In the Monkey year, it’s okay to just make it up as you go along. Just don’t be gullible and trust the wrong people, or wily Monkey will take all the peanuts and leave you only shells.

Since 2013 I interviewed about 50 Chinese business owners in Ningbo, Hangzhou and Shanghai about their customers, their growth and their goals. Most of them are focussed on this business model developed over the last 10-20 years:

  1. Manufacture products
  2. Export them to the US and Europe
  3. Rely on Alibaba and similar “Made in China” B2B websites for new sales

New emerging shifts are taking place

  1. OEM manufacturers are starting to create their own brands
  2. Some are looking towards BRICs countries like Brazil and all Russian-speaking countries, which include Central Asia, which is in the direct path of the new Silk Road.
  3. Some are looking to import products for the growing domestic consumption

Even with all the turmoil of the Shanghai stock market in 2015, the domestic consumer market is indeed growing if we are to believe Alibaba founder, Jack Ma. At the FutureChina Forum in Singapore, former Worldbank Chief economist, Justin Yify Lin, said it’s necessary for China to move from investment led growth to consumption led growth.

The African Opportunity

According to Bloomberg the free-trade agreement that was signed in June 2015 between the East African Communities (EAC), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the South African Development Community (SADC) offers market access to 600 million consumers.

Kenya’s impressive technological and scientific achievements recently attracted significant investments from venture capitalists and some of the world’s leading multinational corporations, including Google, IBM, Facebook, Chase Bank and General Electric. In the past three years, General Electric’s revenue from Africa doubled to more than $3 billion.

Among the fastest growing economies worldwide in 2015 were Kenya and Nigeria. Even though South Africa continues to be on the brink of recession, it remains the first choice for Chinese companies to set-up their African operations.

BRICS Sales Workshop for Chinese Company in Guangdong, China

Recently I conducted an impromptu workshop with DongGuan RiKang Industrial, a manufacturer of plastic packaging machinery between Shenzhen and Guangzhou. The sales team is almost entirely made up of graduates, and so I decided to introduce the BRICS countries as a sales pipeline outside North America/Europe. In the end I focussed on introducing the high growth countries in East and Southern Africa, as well as using LinkedIn as a tool to do sales prospecting.

Sales Workshop for Chinese Company to expand in South Africa

This seminar is available to any Chinese company in English and Mandarin.


My 10 Reasons to Study Abroad in China

There are many good reasons to obtain a degree after high school. This article is for high school students and parents who want to give their children a unique advantage in the 21st century – to study abroad in China. It’s based on my own experience after completing two degrees in South Africa and now my MBA in China since 2013. Throughout this article I will use RMB = Chinese Yuan Renminbi, the official currency of the People’s Republic of China.

The exchange rate is 1 RMB = 2 ZAR = 0.17 USD.

1. It’s Cheap

Living China is cheap compared to most places on earth. While a can of Coke is more than double in South Africa, that’s the difference in economics of scale. My MBA tuition fee is 20,000 RMB per year and in South Africa it’s at least 50,000 RMB or about ZAR 100,000 per annum.

Indian students told me it’s much cheaper to study Medicine in China because they don’t have to bribe anyone as they do in their own country. It may also be easier to get your degree due to differences in the levels of education. This always depends on the quality of your university.

Ningbo University 2013 opening ceremony
Ningbo University students receiving award from Chinese government

2. Scholarships Are Plenty

As some who received the Chinese Government Scholarship, I live a comfortable student life. This scholarship covers my tuition, text books, accommodation, medical insurance and a monthly allowance that was doubled in 2015 to 3,000 RMB per month.

Besides this comprehensive scholarship there are many offered by colleges, universities, local and provincial governments to attract more and more foreign students. The Chinese government promised to increase scholarships to African countries in 20112.

3. Learning Chinese language

To make your life easier in China it’s important to first study Chinese language full time. Since my MBA is taught in English, I only received 1-2 classes per week during the first two semesters. This is hardly enough to get by in daily life. Students with no work experience receive jobs offers constantly when they have advanced Chinese language ability like my friend Mahadi from Bangladesh.

Most scholarships will include a one year full-time Chinese language course if you request it. This means your total study for Bachelors will be 5 years i.e. one year for Chinese language, and a 4 year degree. In China there is no “Honours” degrees like in the USA, so afterwards you go directly onto Masters.

4. Understanding Chinese Culture

You can watch all the Kungfu movies ever made by Bruce Lee and Jet Li, and it won’t give you a real sense of Chinese culture. You can read about China and it will only scratch the surface of this ancient civilization. I read several translations of Tao Te Ching and other ancient texts. It gave me some appreciation for the culture.

However, it’s only when I travelled by myself around China where I experience the humility of the people from the Middle Kingdom. Each one of my Chinese friends taught me something valuable about where they come from in China.

5. Travel Cheap

The transportation system in China is beyond my wildest expectations. The local buses operate from after 5am to after 11pm in some cases. It cost only 2 RMB and drops even further to 0.6 RMB for students with a bus card. China now has the largest high speed railway network in the world.

So instead of flying you take the train, which is a first class experience and half the cost of the flight. The convenience impressed me after two years living China. Even the local taxi is relatively cheap and you can easily call a can and pay for it with your mobile phone. Traveling to nearby countries like Malaysia, Thailand and so on is cheap and easy.

6. Make New Friends

My friend Tony from Ghana has been in China about much longer. He’s a confident and funny African guy and a real ladies man. Foreigners stand out in China, and we are in short supply when it comes to making friends with Chinese. I am guessing for 100 Chinese who want to make friends there is only one of us. Sometimes it’s out of curiosity, sometimes because they want to improve English.

My best friend Terry Jiang helped me buy books online, book train tickets in the early days, given me great travel advice, and also explained some Chinese culture nuances in plain English. There are many reasons to have friends, mostly I believe it’s the fastest way to overcome your culture shock when you first arrive in China.

7. Experience Economic Growth

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” is probably a what Chinese kids tell each other when they see a new skyscraper being built. Everywhere I’ve been from Ningbo to Nanjing to Shanghai, there is constant construction taking place. New buildings cannot be built fast enough as more Chinese people migrate from the rural areas into the cities.

Roads are upgraded and new subways built at a rate I cannot begin to describe. Infrastructure spending is how the Central government stimulates the economy. Exports continue to grow although slower than the last 20 years. Consumer spending is on the rise as the Chinese middle class becomes the biggest in the world. It took me almost six months to spot the first beggar in China.

8. Minimal Crime Rates

Walking around late at night with my smartphone in my hands, I feel safe unlike Johannesburg. Even carrying a 1000 RMB in my pocket, I do not fear being robbed in China. Yes, I avoid places I don’t know. And once I missed my train back from Shanghai to Ningbo. So I decided to go to a bar and have fun. After walking around and being propositioned by a prostitute I met some German girls and partied with them until it was time to go to train station around 5am.

Drug mules are routinely executed in China. Terrorists receive a similarly harsh and quick sentences. Several times I left something valuable and upon returning to the restaurant it was given back to me by the manager. There is a co-operation between the people and the police I am not familiar with. In South Africa it always felt like the police wants bribes and will blackmail you into submission.

9. Family Values

In African philosophy we have concept called Ubuntu – “I am, because we are…” and Nelson Mandela was a major proponent of this. In China they don’t talk about it, they actually live it. The family unit is indispensable and so is the community. Grandparents help rear children. Parents spend extraordinary amount of money and time educating children on weekends, and even during the holidays there is no rest.

When you see a father, mother and baby on an e-bike, you see a little bit of the real China. Even though divorce is increasing in China, I do believe it’s negligible compared to the West where it’s over 60% in some countries.

10. Government Without Democracy

This is the opposite of what most people in the West believe true. In my opinion Chinese people get on with living their lives instead of worrying about who to vote for every 4-5 years. They focus on what’s important to themselves and let the government get on with it’s work.

Author Martin Jacques described the relationship between the Government (State) and Chinese families as thousands of years old. And so far the best reasons why the Chinese Communist party remains in power after the spectacular failure in Russia is by Eric X. Li’s TED Talk. A famous writer visiting American once said that in democracy the people get the government they deserve.

11. Sample Asian food

This is more an honourable mention. Trying new food may or may not be important to you. However, it’s important to every Chinese person I’ve met. There is a pride in Chinese people which comes through in eating together. In China, a popular greeting is “?????” Ni Chi Le Ma. It means “have you eaten already?”

Each one of my friends from different provinces has helped me to sample their local cuisine. Much of its shockingly tasty unless you have some hang-up with pork or sea foods. Luckily for me I do eat everything and the variety is almost overwhelming. The best way to impress your new Chinese friends is to use chopsticks to eat noodles 😉


Why I Study in China not America

In September 2013 I arrived in Beijing, China on route to Ningbo University. It’s been two years since I moved to China, and this is the best decision I’ve ever made. So why did I choose this radical move from South Africa to China. Well it’s not because of BRICS, the group of developing countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa all form part of. Why did I move to the country with the biggest population, and maybe the worst pollution on the planet?


RT Thomas with Chinese model in Ningbo Fashion Fair 2013China is not America, and the Chinese dream is not the American dream. Everyone who’s ever watched a Hollywood movie probably dreams of living in America. Not me! My journey to China started more than 10 years ago when I first read a book, Real Power: Business Lessons from the Tao Te Ching. This book is a beautiful synthesis of businessman James Autry’s servant leadership interspersed with quotes from the Tao Te Ching ??? translated by Stephen Mitchell. There was something beautiful and yet profound about the wisdom from ancient China and it’s only now I’m able to better appreciate it.

The rise of China is undeniable over the last 30 years, when nobody was looking. According to the Worldbank, the number of Chinese living in dire poverty fell by 662 million between 1980 and 2008. To add another black eye to America, in 2014 China over took the US as the world’s largest economy according the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Of course I may continue to quote number after number of China’s rapid growth until pigs learn to fly but that alone will not make my argument more convincing.

On a more personal note I wanted to start over. After more than five years of being self employed, I didn’t achieve some of my goals for income, romantic relationships and so on. In 2012 I ended a very difficult relationship with a woman whom I had been living with in Johannesburg. I sold my house and decided to take a year off to figure out what the hell I wanted to do with the rest of my life. This is called getting perspective and not beating yourself up for mistakes.

A few years earlier I was seriously looking at teaching English in Thailand. However, after reading about some of the race issues non-white i.e. non-European male teachers faced, I caned this idea. Now after a trip to Phuket in Jan 2014, I know Thailand is much more fun for holidays than working.

Anyway, after applying for the Chinese Government scholarship in early 2013, I finally received my admission letter from Ningbo University around July. This means I had only two months to wrap up my business and prepare for a move to the Middle Kingdom.

Even though there was so many reasons to stay in South Africa, like family, friends, good food, weather, the whole situation was all too familiar and I wanted to go as far away as possible. Previously I had lived and worked in London, England and Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. So I’ve always considered myself a risk taker because I had no children to hold me back.

So on Sunday, 1 September 2013 I boarded my flight to China via Dubai on Emirates Airlines. I arrived in the Chinese capital, Beijing, on Monday, after 10pm and basically two days of flying.

Here’s the top 5 reasons I choose China over America:

  1. China is the land of opportunities (certainly for the next 100 years).
  2. Chinese people are don’t care about religion and politics.
  3. Chinese Taoist philosophy (Yin / Yang) places harmony and balance above all else.
  4. China has the best high speed rail network in the world, and public transport is cheap & reliable.
  5. Chinese girls are soft and feminine.

As China continues to rise, there’s opportunities abound. Chinese people are hungry to learn more about the outside world and I’ve become the defacto South African business expert in Ningbo. Even though China has a Communist party, religion is not banned as it may have been in Communist Russia. I’ve been to church several times and was pleasantly surprised how easy it was. In fact some Chinese are curious about religion, and ask good questions about Christianity and so on. For the majority of people, they only go to temples on very important days of celebration like Spring Festival.

Real Power: Business Lessons from Tao Te Ching by James AutryAs a Tai Chi Chuan practitioner since 2002 I’ve come to appreciate the Taoism / Daoism and the Tao Te Ching even more since moving to China. It may not be quoted widely but people certainly act accordingly. I’ve now been to Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou and some smaller cities using the high speed train. Since I’m not able to book and buy my tickets it’s even easier to travel around China. Finally what can I say about Chinese girls that haven’t been said before. They are like a dream compared to the Westernised, materialistic feminists women.

If you want to join me in China, here’s some basic information and Scholarship Conditions before applying on the China Scholarship Council website. The Chinese Government provides the following:

  • Registration and tuition,
  • Shared accommodation in the international dormitory on campus,
  • Living allowance:
    • Undergraduates and Chinese language students: CNY 1,400
    • Master’s degree students: CNY 1,700
    • Doctoral degree students: CNY 2,000
  • Once-off settlement subsidy provided to new students after registration
    CNY 1,000 for new students who will study in China for less than one academic year.
    CNY 1,500 for new students who will study in China for one academic year or more.
    – Medical insurance
    – Once-off economy train ticket from airport to institution (for first time arrival in China and final

Africa is Rising in Ningbo, China

Ningbo has eight twin sister cities around the world. It’s a uncanny that Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage), South Africa, my home town was selected in recent years for this honour. So this first column serves as an introduction to the South Africa, the windy city, and to yours truly.

Mr Hong Jia Xiang, Vice Mayor of the Ningbo Municipal People’s Government, visited Nelson Mandela Bay in April 2013. He said the purpose of the visit by the high powered delegation led by him, was to enhance the relationship and the cooperation with Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality.

South Africa is known as the “rainbow nation” because of it’s diversity, and ?? in Chinese language. On 5 December, my world came to a stand still when I turned on CCTV, to discover our former president Nelson Mandela had passed away. The outpouring of grief and condolences was overwhelming from the Chinese people and the world.

Like the eponymous, Nelson Mandela, I’m from Eastern Cape province, often considered the poorest in South Africa. And yet it is one of the most naturally diverse and beautiful places in Africa, untouched by urbanisation. The coastal city of Port Elizabeth and nearby town, Uitenhage, was merged into the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality in 2001. The new metropolitan are was named after our former president in his honour.

Ningbo Rivers Panorama ChinaThere are no known companies from South Africa operating in Ningbo but some products may be available if one looks hard enough like Rooibos tea ??? at some supermarkets. In recent years, Ningbo companies have looked to South Africa for opportunities.

“I came here before and brought along very powerful companies from Ningbo. The exchange and cooperation between our two cities is progressing well and as a result I am satisfied with the progress,” Vice Mayor Hong added after his most recent visit.

Engineering News reports that over 600 million RMB worth of products have been exported to Ningbo from Eastern Cape, South Africa. The products include African-style honey-based wine, iQhilika; mohair products; pickled cherry peppers for Seea Seafood Restaurant, which is owned by a large franchising group with market capacity in over ten major provinces in China.

So because of Ningbo, Africa is rising. And because of Africa, Ningbo is rising. A mutually beneficial relationship is a trade mark of both Chinese and African business culture.

For more on African opportunities please visit our website Africa Is Rising in association with Bruce Mubayiwa.


China Toastmasters and My First Speech Competition

Toastmasters International logoIn September I moved to China to do my MBA degree at Ningbo University. Before I left South Africa I wanted to make sure there is an active China Toastmasters community. I was not disappointed after participating in my first Speech competition last Sunday.


Toastmasters International is a worldwide organisations that teaches communication and leadership in weekly group meetings. The environment allows people to become comfortable with public speaking as well as leading group activities. You can find a Toastmasters club in most big cities in the world by searching online.

Anyway after being a member of two clubs in South Africa, CIS Toastmasters in Houghton, Johannesburg and uSpeak Toastmasters in Port Elizabeth, I found only one club in Ningbo: Ningbo Nr. 1 Toastmasters, which holds it’s meetings at Nottingham University in Ningbo.


After attending only one club meeting I was invited to the Area Speech Competition in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province in Eastern China. I was in for a big surprise on the morning of the competition when I discovered it was the humours speech competition. My speech title was “Passport to Mars” and I prepared a persuasive speech, to inspire and convince the audience, we should go to Mars in the 21st century.

After some quick thinking and thanks to Evernote, I adapted my speech into a tirade on Hollywood Alien-invasion movies, and how they mostly designed to scare people. Whenever you watch a movie about aliens, or going to another planet, unless it was E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, you would walk away with a sense of trepidation.

My second challenge was how to adapt my South African humour for a Chinese audience. In the end, this was the most difficult. My only cancellation was the warm reception from some individual Chinese people before and especially after my speech. In one day I met two Chinese people who visited South Africa, so I was very optimistic about the next two years on mainland China.