Each sparkly green television motherboard that rolls off the Hisense Co. factory line here moves China a tiny step toward a new global manufacturing base.
The line's eight South African technicians monitor the assembly process by computer and have incentives to work quickly. In less than a year of operation, they are producing at the same clip of 70 seconds per board as their Chinese counterparts.
But there's a hitch: Hisense factories in China use half as many workers to make the same product. In South Africa, one technician monitors one machine. In China, the company's technicians monitor two machines apiece.
'Step-by-step,' says Jerry Liu, general manager for the Middle East and Africa unit of the home-appliance maker. 'We'll get there.'
Faced with rising labor costs at home and negative perceptions about their employment practices in Africa, Chinese companies are setting up new factories on the continent and hiring more Africans. The companies efforts will test whether the masters of low-cost manufacturing can be as productive in Africa as they are in China.
Many bet they can be.
'China is a resilient investor,' says Martyn Davies, chief executive of Frontier Advisory, a consulting firm that does business in China and Africa. 'You see it in Ethiopia at the bottom end and in South Africa in the higher-end stuff.'
Auto maker China FAW Group Corp. is building a new factory in the South African industrial hub of Port Elizabeth to produce trucks and light commercial vehicles. Huajian Group, a Chinese shoemaker, plans to invest as much as $2 billion in Ethiopia over the next decade to make the country a base for exports to Europe and North America. Chinese factories also produce steel pipe and textiles in Uganda.
Mounting labor costs in China are part of what makes Africa so attractive. The average monthly wage for a low-skilled Ethiopian factory worker, for example, is about 25% of the pay for a comparable Chinese worker, according to the World Bank. As the wage gap widens between unskilled Chinese workers and their counterparts elsewhere in Asia and in Africa, as many as 85 million factory jobs could leave China in the coming years, according to former World Bank chief economist Justin Yifu Lin.
In addition to its pool of low-cost labor, Africa represents an enticing market for Chinese products manufactured on the continent. Africa is now home to six of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies, according to the International Monetary Fund, and many African countries are reducing their dependence on extracting resources, such as oil, metals and gems.
Africa's poor infrastructure and uneven distribution of skills erode its cost advantages, however. The World Bank study estimated that a Chinese worker making shirts, for example, could produce about twice as many per shift as an Ethiopian worker.
The common Chinese response to such productivity gaps has been to send more Chinese workers. China says it dispatched 214,534 workers to Africa last year, about one-fourth of all workers the country sent abroad. That was 18% more than in 2011, according to China's Commerce Ministry, which didn't provide 2012 figures or a breakdown by industry. Analysts suspect the official figures vastly understate the numbers because they don't include entrepreneurs and traders doing business in Africa.
China's expanding African footprint has caused friction, however. A survey from the Ethics Institute of South Africa, a research and training organization based in Pretoria, reported in February that 46% of respondents in Africa had a negative impression of Chinese employment practices, while 19% were positive. Another 55% agreed with the statement that Chinese companies in Africa use only Chinese employees.
Such perceptions are rooted in reality. In Angola and Zimbabwe, Chinese companies bring workers from China for the most basic tasks, such as laying bricks and driving trucks. In Ethiopia, road crews have complained that Chinese supervisors cut their shovels in half so they will use them only for digging, and not for leaning to rest or gossip. In Zambia, Chinese mine bosses have tossed cold water on dozing employees, according to interviews with miners.
Chinese officials, eager to erase China's image as what critics call the continent's 'new colonialist,' have urged its biggest companies to put their best foot forward in Africa. Chinese Premier Li Keqianq visited several African countries this month and promised to ramp up assistance to various projects. Tian Xuejun, China's ambassador to South Africa, says he holds regular meetings with Chinese executives to encourage local hiring, partly to help spur the continent's industrial development.
'We have some experience in this area, and we're willing to share it,' Ambassador Tian says. 'We're teaching people how to fish rather than giving them fish.'
Sinosteel Corp. didn't want culture clashes permeating its workplace, so all but a handful of the nearly 3,000 employees for its mining, manufacturing and trading arms are hired locally, according to Wei Zhong, a deputy general manager in South Africa. 'If you bring so many Chinese workers over, it's going to create conflicts,' he says.
Importing Chinese workers wasn't an option for Hisense, says Africa general manager Mr. Li. Chinese workers would need to be fed and housed, he says, creating a whole Chinese support structure that wouldn't be commercially viable.
Still, Hisense faces a skills gap. The home-appliance maker, which employs about 10,000 engineers world-wide, estimates that there are only about 35,000 engineers among South Africa's roughly 50 million people. The challenge was how to hire technicians and engineers in a country--and on a continent--where there aren't many to go around.
Hisense ultimately decided to set up on the factory grounds of a South African television maker that had gone out of business years before and hired many of the company's former workers. Hisense also established training programs inside the factory to bring workers up to speed on its manufacturing process, which includes the computer-aided assembly of motherboards.
'South Africa doesn't have an unemployment problem. It has an unemployable problem,' says Ebrahim Khan, the company's Cape Town factory manager.
The Chinese company, which is based in Qingdao, offered about $580 a month for entry-level technicians, much less than the average of $800 at its nearly 20 factories in China, Mr. Li says.
The Chinese government-backed China Africa Development Fund took a minority stake in the factory on the condition that Hisense hired its factory workers locally. Today, 95% of the factory's 600 employees are South African.
On a recent morning at the plant, South African workers installed refrigerator doors, assembled flat-screen television sets and conducted final tests before the products were loaded on trucks. The only factory employees standing around were the Chinese line supervisors.
To encourage efficiency, Hisense allows shifts that hit their weekly production targets early to take the rest of the day off, meaning Friday's workday often ends early. When Chinese executives raise production goals, factory workers grumble but pick up the pace. Going out of business isn't something anyone wants to consider.
'You just do your work, do your part,' says Valerie Jacobs, who came to Hisense last year after losing her job at the failed television maker. 'No standing around.'
Charlie Shoemaker for The Wall Street Journal海信支付给南非开普敦电视机工厂工人的工资低于中国工厂水平。
咨询公司Frontier Advisory的首席执行长戴维斯(Martyn Davies)表示，中国是一个适应性很强的投资者，既能在埃塞俄比亚进行最低端的生产，也能在南非从事较高端的生产。Frontier Advisory在中国和非洲开展业务。
汽车生产商中国第一汽车集团公司(China FAW Group co.)正在南非伊丽莎白港(Port Elizabeth)工业中心新建一家卡车和轻型商用车生产厂。中国制鞋企业华坚集团(Huajian Group)也计划未来10年向埃塞俄比亚投资多达20亿美元，使该国成为华坚集团向欧洲和北美出口产品的基地。中国工厂也在乌干达生产钢管和纺织品。
Charlie Shoemaker for The Wall Street Journal海信称，开普敦工厂600名员工中95%都是南非本地人。
除了拥有大量低成本劳动力外，非洲也能为在当地制造的中国产品提供诱人的巨大市场。国际货币基金组织(International Monetary Fund)的数据显示，全球增长最快的10个经济体中有六个在非洲，此外，许多非洲国家也在降低自身对石油、金属和宝石等资源进行开采的依赖。
但中国企业在非洲的扩张之路引发了摩擦。总部位于比勒陀利亚的研究和培训组织南非伦理研究所(Ethics Institute of South Africa) 2月份发布的调查报告称，非洲46%的受访者对中国的招聘活动持负面印象，同时19%的受访者持正面印象，另外55%的人则认为建在非洲的中国企业只使用中国雇员。
中国政府背景的中非发展基金(China Africa Development Fund)与海信共同投资建立了该工厂，持有少数股权，当时提出的条件是海信聘用当地员工。如今，该工厂600名员工中95%都是南非本地人。