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Solar dealers eye Africa after EU boycott

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China's solar panel firms, struggling under the US and Europe's latest anti-dumping measures, have begun to look for business opportunities in the African market, though many remain cautious about economic and political uncertainties on a continent that boasts abundant sunshine and strong demand for electricity.

Leaders from around 20 domestic major solar companies, officials from 16 African embassies in China, and some experts from the solar energy sector gathered together in Beijing Thursday to talk about investment opportunities in Africa.

The African countries welcome Chinese solar firms' investment, and will provide supportive policies, ambassadors said at the summit.

We have released policies subsidizing the usage of new energy," Gogu Alfred A. Saame, Ghana's ambassador to China said.

However, Chinese businessmen are cautious about making any real investment plans, as many admit they are not familiar with Africa but have been forced to consider alternative markets after the US and the EU authorities took action to keep Chinese solar panels from dominating their markets.

"We came here for opportunities, but still have not fixed our plans, it's not easy," Yang Jun, president and chairman of Jiangsu Geolite PV and Beijing Chiner New Energy Technology, told the Global Times at the Photovoltaic (PV) Summit 2012 Africa Thursday in Beijing.

Yang said he was not very familiar with the continent, and had just heard "the sunshine is rich, power supply has serious shortages, but the political and economic situation is not stable."

And the most worrying thing is, "can they afford the cost of solar power which is much higher than that of other polluting energy sources?" Yang asked.

Yang's expectations and concerns about Africa are similar to those of other businessmen at the summit.

"The solar firms who are experiencing a difficult time currently also lack capital, which is another challenge," Li Peipei, sales manager at the Linuo Power Group, a Shandong-based solar firm that has already sold a few solar power generation products to South Africa, told the Global Times at the summit.

"It is also difficult to maintain the PV plants after construction is completed because there is a shortage of professional workers in the local area," Li said.

Most of China's domestic solar energy enterprises stopped production and around 80 percent of their employees lost their jobs or suspended work after the US and EU anti-dumpling and anti-subsidies actions in the past few months, industry insiders complained.

Around 80 percent of China's solar products were exported to the EU, Zeng Shaojun, secretary-general of the China New Energy Chamber of Commerce, told the Global Times in a previous interview in October.

Zhao Changhui, chief country risk analyst at the Export-Import Bank of China, one of three institutional banks in the country which is chartered to provide loans and services for foreign investments, told the Global Times at the summit that it was not a wise move for the Chinese enterprises to "flood into" the US and European markets nearly one decade ago, when some experts suggested the firms expand their business in Africa.

Unlike developed markets, most African countries are seeing their traditional power develop from earlier stages of development, "which brings a big opportunity for the solar industry," Zhao said.

But Zhao warns that Chinese enterprises need a long-term investment perspective to tap the African market, which has huge growth potential for solar energy.

Currently only a few Chinese solar firms with stronger capital strength like Yingli Solar have businesses in Africa.

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