Alumna Lina Ayenew is connecting the dots between Africa and China

When Lina Ayenew ’10 B.A., ’11 M.P.H. first attended an information session on fellowships by the Yale-China Association as a graduate student, she wasn’t sure if she was a good fit. Born in Ethiopia, Ayenew took language classes in French and Spanish — not Mandarin — and had not studied the country or culture. But the association, which has been sending Yale students to China to teach English since 1909, encouraged her to apply, and she soon found herself in Hunan province through the Medical English fellowship teaching a public health course. The program also included an intensive Mandarin course and a crash course in teaching in Hong Kong.

“I was teaching medical students about the non-clinical aspects of health that I did for my degree,” says Ayenew, who is now a member of the Yale-China Association’s board. That experience led her to live in Beijing following the end of the fellowship, where she worked for a public relations firm supporting health care clients. “As the only African person in the office, people would ask me about the connections between Africa and China, but I didn’t have a good answer.”

Ayenew returned to Ethiopia, and began to explore these connections, and to recognize the Chinese influence in her home country. “When I was growing up in Ethiopia, I rarely saw Chinese people,” she says. “Now, I’ve seen the expansion of Chinese language and culture, and parents who want their kids to learn Chinese.”

Ayenew turned these connections into her life’s work, and recently published “The Complete Beginner’s Guide to China-Africa Relations.” The guide explores topics like the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to strengthen economic ties between China and its trading partners, as well as the influence of politics and the tech boom on China-Africa relations. “The need I’m filling is for people who have no idea where to start,” Ayenew says. “What I hope I bring is an African voice. A lot of times if you see a narrative in this space, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, it’s as though other countries are simply caught up in the whirlwind and have no agency. But there are a lot of savvy Africans doing business in China today.”

As an entrepreneur currently living in Beijing with her husband, fellow Sinophile and Yalie Nathan Stoner ’99 B.A., ‘10 M.B.A., and their daughter, Maya, and traveling often between the two worlds, Ayenew is helping to strengthen these connections, particularly through Africa’s young people. She runs Education for Ethiopia, which increases access to digital education for Ethiopian students, and wrote the first book teaching introductory Mandarin to speakers of Amharic, the official working language of Ethiopia.

“Whether we’re talking about tech or manufacturing, what’s most important at the end of the day is human capital,” Ayenew says. “We need to bring more training and education to Africa. There are so many young people on the continent and no other country is opening up their admissions doors at the rate that China is.”

She notes that Yale is also playing a pivotal role in understanding and strengthening Africa-China relations, through efforts like the Yale Africa-China Conference, which brings together thought leaders on how to further investment and sustainable growth between the two economies, and the Yale Africa Initiative, which promotes African scholarship, contemporary discourse, and research at Yale and in Africa. This year’s conference will be held May 15-17 in Nairobi, Kenya. “Yale is evolving in the China-Africa space,” Ayenew says. “But more needs to be done because the space is developing faster than ever before.”

A panel discussion called “My Africa: Reimagining Chinese Development” will be held April 3, 7-9 p.m. as part of Startup Yale. Yale School of Management, 165 Whitney Ave., Room 4400. Registration is here.