"China has experienced double-digit growth for the last five years. Their economy is as strong as it's ever been. For them, the cost of providing these scholarships is not big. But for students like me, who will return home, bringing knowledge of China and knowledge of how to do business with China, the benefits are priceless." Antoine Lokongo, a PhD student from the democratic republic of Congo.
More students from Africa choose mainland universities, Todd Balazovic reports in Beijing.
Rewina Berhe admits that when he left his family in Ethiopia to study in China in 2009, he knew nothing about the country.
Seeking a head start in Ethiopia's competitive business world, the high-school graduate signed up for a bachelor's degree at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. He arrived with no Chinese language skills and only the vaguest notion of what the next four years would bring.
"I came here blindfolded. When I got on the plane, I only knew two things about China - the Olympics and the Great Wall," the 24-year-old said.
"I was going to go into business, so it made sense that I studied in the country that has dominated our business and commerce industry during the last few years."
After he graduates with a degree in economics, Berhe will return home in July to work in the family construction business helping to secure contracts with Chinese companies operating in Ethiopia.
Berhe is part of the first big wave of Africans to study in China following the efforts of the Forum on China and Africa Cooperation in 2006 to encourage a surge in educational and cultural exchanges between the two economies.
"One of the main objectives of the forum is to bridge the gap for Africans to come and get educated for the enhancement of both Africa and China," he said.
During the past five years, the number of Africans studying in China has risen by more than 20 percent every year. In 2003 the number was 1,793, and last year it was 30,000, according to statistics from the Ministry of Education.
Although China lags behind Europe and the United States in attracting students, it is catching the eyes of scholars and the children of influential Africans who see the continent's future as inexorably tied to China. Meanwhile, as China overtakes Europe and the US as the continent's largest trading partner, Africans are now arriving to gain business insights.
For Sebastian Collins, who is just finishing a five-year international trade degree in Beijing, taking the road less traveled was a major factor in his decision to enroll at a Chinese university.
"I didn't want to follow the conventional style of my family and friends - everybody wanted to go to the US and the UK. I wanted to see another part of the world," the 27-year-old Liberian said.
"I've always been interested in business. With China's business and economic prosperity, I thought maybe I could try to learn one or two lessons."
During a trip home two years ago, Collins was offered two jobs, one translating and one working with Chinese customers at a bank, but he preferred to finish his studies instead.
Compared with other African nations Liberia conducts only a small amount of trade with China, mostly in resources, Collins said. Capitalizing on his knowledge of Chinese consumers, he plans to use his degree to set up an agricultural export business, something he sees as a large future market, when he returns home.
"(The Chinese) are still trying to enter the Liberian market," he said.
"So, with my knowledge of China and with the connections I've made here over the past few years, I'm thinking that instead of continuing to import stuff why don't we try to take something back to Liberia and export it to the rest of the world, including China?"
Business-related degrees are the most popular among African students in Beijing, with 40 percent pursuing an education in economics, according to a 2012 survey conducted by the Center for Chinese Studies.
The survey found those studying science accounted for the second-highest percentage, 39 percent, followed by politics and social studies at 19 percent.
Surprisingly, students traveling to China to concentrate solely on learning the language accounted for only 2 percent of those surveyed.
That's a far cry from more than a decade ago when many Africans studying in China focused on culture and language, said Maurice Gountin, who gained his PhD from Renmin University of China in 2008.
Gountin, who traveled from Benin to study for a bachelor's degree in Chinese language and culture at Beijing Language and Culture University in 1998, said the draw of having a specialized language skill first attracted him to China.
"I was just curious about Chinese civilization, but also wanted to study something specialized like Chinese language," he said.
Following his language studies, Gountin completed a master's in international politics, before enrolling for his PhD in contemporary Chinese diplomacy. He returned to Benin in 2009 and now works as a public affairs officer, language instructor and translator at a Chinese cultural center. Africans with Chinese language skills are in high demand, he said. "China is playing an important role in international issues, and its relations with Africa are more strategic, making China specialists important resources."
Self-financing students are helping to swell the ranks of African students, as are the scholarships the Chinese government provides to African countries, and more universities offering courses in English.
During his visit to Tanzania in March 2013, President Xi Jinping outlined a plan to provide more than 18,000 government scholarships to African students looking to study in China between 2013 and 2015.
During the 2012-13 academic year, China spent more than 1.5 billion yuan ($241.2 million) to help fund about 23,000 international students.
In 2010, 25.5 percent of Chinese government scholarships for international students went to Africans, according to the annual report of the Chinese Scholarship Council Annual in 2010.
"More Chinese government scholarships are being offered every year. So the chances of getting one are also rising," said He Wenping, director and professor of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Antoine Lokongo, 45, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who has spent the past five years studying for a PhD in international relations at Peking University, said the benefits of such scholarships far outweigh the government's financial outlay.
"China has experienced double-digit growth for the last five years. Their economy is as strong as it's ever been. For them, the cost of providing these scholarships is not big. But for students like me, who will return home with knowledge of China and how to do business in the country, the benefits are priceless."
He said he has already seen the benefits of students returning to work in their home countries.
One former classmate returned home to find a job with the Chinese technology giant Huawei, and now helps to train locals for the company's West African operations.
"This is an example where the benefits go both ways. Africans need training and China needs people with knowledge of how they do business," Lokongo said.
Paying their own way
And while scholarships provided by the Chinese government have contributed to the rise in the number of Africans, the big growth is in students willing to pay their own way.
"What China has brought is an overseas education that Africa's middle-class can afford." Norbert Haguma, CEO of the young African professionals and students organization. Provided to China Daily
Out of the 8,000 African students who studied in China in 2008, around 5,000 had scholarships.
Last year, out of the estimated 30,000 African students in China, only about 7,000 received scholarships, meaning 23,000 were privately funded.
"It used to be that only those with political connections or who were rich could study abroad," said Norbert Haguma, CEO of the Young African Professionals and Students Organization, and Kiziga, an online platform designed to connect Africans with Chinese universities and jobs.
"What China has brought is an overseas education that Africa's middle-class can afford."
A year's study for a Bachelor of Science at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, one of South Africa's most prestigious institutions, costs about $3,400, compared with $4,800 for a comparable program at Tsinghua University.
The average cost of studying for a four-year degree at a public university in the US is $23,000 a year.
"Relatively speaking, the tuition fees for learning in China are much lower than in Western countries, even for the self-funded students," said He from CASS.
Berhe said he chose to pay his own way because of the moneymaking potential bestowed by an education in China when he returns home. Outside of Africa, however, things may be different.
"If you're coming back to Africa with a Chinese degree, any company that deals with Chinese clients is going to see it as a huge plus ... but if I took the degree to Europe I don't think it would be very beneficial."
For Gountin of Benin, the salary available back in Africa was the biggest draw.
"I considered staying in China, but the job I had didn't guarantee my everyday living expenses, so I decided to leave and return home," he said. "I have no regrets coming back, although I miss the food!"
The wide range of English programs now available is also fueling the rise in the number of African students studying in China. As Chinese universities offer more courses in English, a lack of Mandarin is no longer a barrier for international students.
Scrolling through the offerings on the Chinese university and college admission systems website reveals hundreds of courses taught in English, with topics ranging from E-commerce law to medicine.
The efforts to attract more international students are part of a soft power push to increase global understanding of China, rather than to make money from tuition fees, said Yang Rui, professor of Education at Hong Kong University.
"Institutions have been trying very hard to recruit more international students. But they all stress international understanding far more than the income generated. This is partly due to the fact that for too long China has not been understood by others. China is keen to be understood better. It's also in line with China's current international situation. It's obvious that China needs a peaceful and even friendly environment in which to develop itself," he said.
Provincial universities that would otherwise be unknown outside China have been pushing particularly hard to attract international students, he said.
A 'daunting' process
Berhe, who was directed to the UIBE program by an uncle who was already in Beijing, said that without someone in the country to help, finding and applying for a suitable program can be daunting.
"Africa is now where China was 30 years ago, so people who didn't invest in China 30 years ago are now scratching their heads." Rewina Berhe, a 24-year-old student from Ethiopia. Wang Zhuangfei / China Daily
"The application process was quite hard," he said. "For example, if you wanted to apply for a university from Ethiopia, the online payment was quite difficult. We don't have much access to credit cards and so on, so in the past you would definitely have to have someone here to help you out."
This is changing as student networks established by graduates make it easier for those without pre-existing connections in China to get help.
Young African Professionals and Students, which provides support and information for prospective students, started in 2009 and now has 3,000 members.
Meanwhile, Kiziga has connected with 186 universities actively seeking African students. Now, as more students graduate, the company has turned its focus to helping to find jobs, said Haguma, the CEO.
"One problem is that there are not many internships here in China, but we're trying to create them," he said.
Last year, Kiziga managed to place 20 students in internships in China. This year, the company aims to place 100 students.
Part of the problem is the dearth of multinational African companies in China. While many Chinese companies are setting up operations in Africa, students who wish to remain in China often have difficulty finding employment.
"In general, the job market in China is very competitive, so it's very difficult for Africans to find jobs in the country," Berhe said.
"A few South African companies are involved in various industries in China, but other countries lack MNCs that have invested in China."
Still, as the future of China and Africa become increasingly interlinked, the newest generation of Africans who have honed their skills in China will be leading the development charge.
"Africa is now where China was 30 years ago, so people who didn't invest in China 30 years ago are now scratching their heads," Berhe said.