Now countries like Kenya are pinning their hopes on achieving a great leap forward in development by following China's model.
Big Chinese loans have enabled them to forge ahead with massive infrastructure projects.
More money is expected - African heads of state meet Chinese President Xi Jinping at a big summit in Johannesburg on Friday where billions of dollars in extra assistance are on the table.
And construction is already under way in Nairobi on the biggest shopping mall in sub-Saharan Africa, another Chinese venture. see video: BBC's Karen Allen visited the site of the new mall.