China’s African Blueprint

A growing number of Chinese-built football stadia have popped up across Africa over the last decade, as a result of strong diplomatic and trade relations between the two regions. But are they just simply a new breed of white elephants? Elisha Chauhan investigates.

Sino-African relations date back as early as 700 AD, but under a Chinese ‘stadium diplomacy initiative’, constructors from the country are building new and renovating old national stadia across Africa. In return for these partially or fully-funded facilities, Africa mainly trades natural resources.

Differing from region to region, these products include crude oil – mostly found in Nigeria and Angola, both of which export more barrels per day than Qatar – and minerals that make up almost 80 per cent of African exports to China. It’s a partnership that was worth an estimated $166 billion last year.

Perhaps the most famous fruit of the agreement is the Ombaka National Stadium in Benguela, Angola, which has a capacity of 35,000 and was completed in 2010. It hosted matches at the Africa Cup of Nations the same year. The Mandela National Stadium in Uganda and Moi International Sports Centre in Kenya have also both been built and renovated using Chinese grants.

However, many African football league clubs who have moved into these stadia have been struggling to afford rental fees and filling them with supporters. One of many cases throughout Africa that illustrates this point is Tanzania’s national stadium. Built in 2007 by Beijing Construction Engineering Company Limited, the Benjamin Mkapa National Stadium holds 60,000 spectators and is home to Tanzania Premier League’s Simba and Young Africans football clubs.

“The national stadium is not being used enough,” Tanzania sports minister Fenella Mukangara told SportBusiness International. “The only big football teams we have are Simba and Young Africans, the rest have minimum funds.”

In Uganda, where Chinese firm CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Corporation) has helped construct an oil refinery and where a $36-million Chinese grant funded the
Mandela National Stadium, match attendance is also a problem for the top-tier Ugandan Super League teams.

There are currently four football clubs that use the venue as their home ground: the Super League’s Victoria University and Kira Young and the second Uganda Big League division’s Hope Doves and The Saints.

“The domestic league is still picking up in popularity so the attendance is very low compared to the 45,000 seats of the venue. It’s only around a few hundred spectators per game,” Jamil Sewanyana, Mandela National Stadium’s managing director, told SportBusiness International. “The atmosphere in the stadium is badly affected by its large size, but it is only because the football clubs are very small.”

Future Proofing

African stadia continue to be built using Chinese money, with Kenya one of the main countries looking for funding for infrastructure improvements ahead of its recently-awarded 2018 African Nations Championship.

However, Mukangara believes that large stadia now are being built with a much clearer vision of how their uses will be maximised in the long-term.

“Tanzania is big and the demand is there, not necessarily to host sports events, but to build facilities that will help develop sport in communities,” she says. “Also, one of the areas we are focusing on is developing local tournaments and leagues by improving regional engagement, so I think it is justified to build new stadia that will eventually be used effectively.”

In Tanzania, dedicated sports channels through pay-TV broadcaster Azam TV were also launched at the end of last year to televise the Tanzania Premier League in a bid to promote domestic football.

Sewanyana believes that the situation in Uganda is similar, adding that Ugandan people are being encouraged to use the Mandela National Stadium facilities for a variety of sports, including football, athletics, volleyball, netball, basketball and tennis.

“With new stadia and when major sporting events come to a developing country like Uganda, people start playing more sports, especially if they are introduced to new sports,” he says. “But if the facilities are just limited to football, then the usage is limited. In our stadium, we’re trying in every way to get people to use the venue.”

Creating a sporting tradition does not happen overnight, though, and in the meantime, Sewanyana says that a possible quick-fix could be to encourage local marketing campaigns around domestic football teams.

“I think the national stadium’s attendance figures could be improved if the local teams were able to get more sponsors,” he says.

“This means they would have more finance to become more organised and professional, and then they could afford to use a stadium like the Mandela. Most of the teams currently think the rental price of the national stadium is too high.”

The rental price for the Mandela National Stadium is around $150 per football match, which is only a small premium in comparison to Uganda’s lower-capacity stadia that cost around $80-$100 to rent per event, according
to Sewanyana.

Another possible solution is to use the oversized venues for events outside of sports, or at least other than football.

“I do think the Tanzania national stadium is underutilised, but we are trying to develop some other means of using it, We can use it for festivals, boxing matches, and maybe to host other countries’ events when they’re in Tanzania.”

Catch 22

Hosting major events, such as the Africa Cup of Nations and the African Nations Championship, will undoubtedly fill these large national stadia and also attract new audiences. However, in order to be in with a chance of winning a bid, developing regions like Tanzania and Uganda will have to build or renovate more stadia.

“Unless we share [hosting rights] with Kenya, Uganda does not have the capacity to host the African Nations Championship,” says Sewanyana.

“In 2012 we hosted [the oldest football tournament in Africa] the CECAFA (Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations) Cup only using the Mandela National Stadium. So yes, we can host a big event, but that would mean some investment in two or three stadia.”

Mukangara also believes that a culture needs to be developed in Tanzania that recognises the benefits – both financial and social – of hosting major sports events.

“Tanzania hasn’t hosted a major sports event before because of the lack of infrastructure, the lack of commercial businesses needed to host an event, and we also need to adopt into our culture the fact that it is a big business and industry. It’s an area we are still working on,” she says.

Overall it seems that Africa has put supply before demand in creating huge stadia, and only time will tell whether the continent has been forward-thinking or “a bit too ambitious”, as Mukangara thinks.

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