Recent news about Chinese and foreign investors and companies setting up shop in Africa has excited the continent. But not all is good news – the dark side of the coin reveals an influx of  hard nosed and dare I say it, ruthless businessmen who see the potential that lies in Africa are making millions while Africans lose their jobs, land and legacy.

Last night I watched a interesting BBC documentary hosted by Richard E Grant. The History of Safari examines Britain’s relationship to Africa and its wildlife, when the continent was ‘part wild west, part idyll and part colonial experiment – where life could be lived between the crack of rifles at dawn and the setting of the sun at cocktail hour, largely oblivious to the indigenous Africans themselves’.

What stood out to me was the brazen exploitation of Africans in the 1800s – who were conned out of their land, their animals and their birthright from under their noses leading to the Scramble for Africa and many of the lingering issues we see today as a result of colonialism.

We let them in, with friendly smiles and warm hearts. We exchanged ivory, gold and our precious land for cheap glasses and worthless, but shiny brass ornaments.

What’s eerie is how the same parallels are being repeating today – we’re exchanging our livelihoods, our jobs, our land for shiny highways and glass buildings. We’re excited by the image of a prosperous Africa doing international business and trade, but what we ought to be doing is asking the hard questions of those who wine, dine and charm our governments into handing over our legacy to foreigners.

Being African myself I understand the foundation of this. Africans can be relatively simple sometimes; we take things at face value and rarely look for the meaning behind what we see infront of us. It makes us great friends, but our naivete sometimes makes us poor political and business strategists who look after not just themselves, but after generations to come.

Our border protection is weak, our import regulation laws are non existent and as a result our local artisans, farmers and business people are being cheated of their legacy.

In Ngaye Mekhe, Senegal it has taken generations for cobblers in this village to perfect the pointy-toed slippers once favored by local kings, and now considered an indispensable fashion accessory of well-dressed Senegalese men.

But it only took months for the Chinese to copy and mass produce the local design, making them out of plastic instead of leather and selling them for a quarter of the price.

The Senegalese government has so far not regulated the import of Chinese-made replicas of local crafts, a fact that evident across the whole continent. African farmers, manufacturers, fishermen and processors who make unique and authentic products and goods are not being protected from the influx of cheap and low quality goods from overseas.

Trade between Africa and China hit a record $166 billion last year, a threefold increase since 2006, while direct investment is $14.7 billion, Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming said earlier in August 2012. In almost every nation on the continent, China has undertaken major public works projects from the presidential palace in Guinea, to a $100 million hydroelectric dam in Gabon, to paving close to 140 miles (220 kilometers) of roads in Congo.

But the investment usually comes with strings attached, with infrastructure traded for access to Africa’s vast mineral wealth as well as its marketplaces.

It’s been an especially raw deal for the continent’s dwindling artisans – not just its slipper makers but also the weavers of Ghana’s ceremonial kente cloth, as well as the dyers of the vibrant wax prints worn by West African women, which have been copied and sold for less by China.

Brothers Mactar and Moussa Gueye, whose grandfather made the slippers worn by the kings of the local Cayor kingdom, said their first encounter with China was at a trade fair in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, in 1998. A Chinese trader approached their stand and admired their shoes, returning several times to look though never buying anything, said Mactar Gueye.

Not long after, a group of Chinese buyers traveled to Ngaye Mekhe. The town, with a population of 25,000, is often called Senegal’s “shoe capital” because the shoemakers here display their slippers on racks on either side of National Highway No. 1.

“They told me they were interested in buying our product. They lied. By the end of the year, the market was flooded with my design – only made in plastic by the Chinese,” said 46-year-old Mactar Gueye.

If the slippers made in this Senegalese town sell for no less than $20, the Chinese replicas sell for $4. And if it takes a master craftsman here around a day to sew one of his creations, the Chinese can make them by the thousands in factories in Asia, sending them in containers to Senegal’s port.

“Our government should have protected us,” says the eldest of the three brothers, 53-year-old Moussa Gueye. “The knockoffs, they come in through the port, right? So why don’t our authorities control what comes in?

“What bothers me is these are people who never buy anything here, they only come to sell,” he says. Then he adds: “I take that back. They never buy anything that is above ground,” he said. “Only what is under our soil.”

In a speech on relations with Africa earlier this month, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun hit back at critics of China’s growing influence in Africa and denied that China is practicing a new form of colonialism, saying China’s economic backing is giving African countries options they never had under a Western-led world order.

At the HLM market in Dakar, women weave through the stalls displaying the latest African prints – except that almost none of them is made in Africa anymore.

Oumar Thiam, the accountant of a bustling store, has a Yahoo inbox dotted with emails from vendors whose names appear in Mandarin characters. His shop has only ever sold Chinese knockoffs of African waxprint fabrics.

“They are very similar to the original. If there’s a difference, it’s in the quality, but it’s so much cheaper,” he said.

Africa expert Peter Pham says that just in northern Nigeria, a quarter-of-a-million jobs have been lost in the textile industry.

“Certainly these cheaper products make it affordable for more people, but at the same time, it has eviscerated the manufacturing sector in Africa,” says Pham, who is the director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “They can’t beat the price of the Chinese knockoffs.”

Back in Ngaye Mekhel, the toll on the roughly 1,500 other shoemakers here has been hard to weather, and many artisans say they are struggling to pass on the craft to their sons, who no longer see a future in it. To help combat the attrition from slipper sales, they’ve diversified and are now also making sandals as well as loafers.

Africa needs to understand that a helping hand to local workers and our environment is fundamental to our survival as a people and a continent. I’m not saying let’s not let them in, I’m saying we let them in WISELY!

Let’s take the example of developed countries such as Australia, whose ‘Australian made’ campaign has lobbied government and local Australians alike to protect and promote locally made products. The campaign has been highly successful and their ‘kangaroo’ logo is now widely known and brands displaying it have had commercial success at the till.

Protecting Africa’s interest is not about being xenophobic. This is about our survival.

Sources:

‘In Senegalese shoe capital, Chinese not welcome” by Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal; Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo; and Yves Laurent Goma in Libreville, Gabon contributed this report. http://www.themeshreport.com, August 2, 2012

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