Except for identifying the source in one, I’ve intentionally excluded detailed captions to the three photographs that immediately follow below. Scrutinize and compare them them before reading further. Can you tell where each one was taken – city, country, or continent? The only clue that I’d give here is that they’re all wholesale trade or shopping centers.
Did you guess that one photograph was taken in Asia and two in Africa? Or, did you do better, recognizing that the first was taken in China, second in Kenya, and three in Nigeria? Perhaps you’re a well-traveled or global entrepreneur, who immediately recognized that the market in the first photograph is located in Guangzhou, two in Nairobi, and three in Lagos?
After a couple of invitations from a Somali woman trader to visit her, I traveled to Nairobi, Kenya in 2014. It wasn’t my first visit. I was there in 2011 for a meeting of African research institutions and think-tanks on Africa-China Relations. Except for an excusion to a restaurant one evening for dinner (that consisted of alligator meat), for two days, I stayed at the Sarova Panafric Hotel along with others attending the meeting. Needless to say, I didn’t see much of the country or city.
On my second trip to Kenya, I stayed with two different families, one Somali living in Nairobi and the other Kikuyu (Kenyan) living in Eldoret. I met both women in Guangzhou. For this blog, I’ll just focus on one of them. The Somali has been a small trader or entrepreneur for some years now. Before learning about the wholesale trade centers or markets in Guangzhou, she traveled to Dubai, Thailand, and Hong Kong to purchase goods, mainly women’s clothes. Because she could bring garment samples to Guangzhou to have them made for and purchase ready-to-wear clothes at a cheaper price, she primarily travels to Guangzhou to source goods. It was through her shipping agent that I met her (and I met him through another fellow researcher based in Hong Kong).
Whenever the Somali woman would be in Guangzhou, I would be her shadow for a day or two. She had kindly agreed to let me observe how she conducts her business in Guangzhou. Without any knowledge of Mandarin, she’s learned the bus routes that would take her from her hotel to different markets, where she’d browse for new fashion designs or make new orders for the items that sell well back at home. Besides observing her at work, we’d also sit down to talk at her shipping agent’s office. Oftentimes, he would intervene to help us translate, as she speaks very little English and I speak no Somali language. When presented with the invitation to visit her in Kenya, I couldn’t refuse. I was too curious about her business on that end: where do the goods from China go to and how are they sold on the Africa side, so that there’s profit at the end? Does this Somali entrepreneur have employees? How is she like when she’s at home? These were some of the questions that motivated me to find research money to spend a week in Kenya.
I was astounded by what I saw once I finally arrived at the business area. The Somali entrepreneur’s business is located in an area called Eastleigh, where the businesses are mostly owned by Somalis while the customers are Kenyans, Ugandans, and Tanzanians (there was a trickle of Chinese people). As it turns out, she’s in the wholesale business. On the ground floor where she has her shop, there are many other Somalis wholesaling women’s and
men’s clothes. Most of the shops there are relatively small, as they’re merely for displaying available designs to attract customers’ attention. Some stocks are at the shop in case customers only want a small quantity (e.g., half to one dozen) of a particular design, but they’re mostly in a storage area nearby. Young Somali men (normally, at least, two) are employed to help open and close the shops, carry bulk goods, and run to storage to fill large orders.
More surprising for me was seeing signs of two shopping malls shown below:
Of course, my immediate thought was, is there a “China” or “Guangzhou” shopping mall somewhere along this road? We can probably assume that these two signs reflect a history of trade – that is, where the Somali entrepreneurs in this area have traveled to source goods for their businesses. The signs, bearing Bangkok and Hong Kong on them, further suggest a sense of pride in where the goods are from. But, do the names account for why the interiors of the shopping malls are the same in Guangzhou, Nairobi, and Lagos?
Early this month, a Chinese friend sent me photographs of a market she visited on Lagos Island over WeChat, a Chinese social media. She further commented, “No wonder that tang qi and cannan [sic] are so popular. These markets here [are] exactly like them, so narrow and full of stock.” Tangqi and Canaan are two clothing wholesale markets in Guangzhou. The shops are Chinese owned, and they’re indeed always stocked to the brim, bursting at the seams and even pouring outside of the shop. As I’ve described above, the wholesale shops that I saw in Nairobi were just about the same. Are wholesale shops, by nature, the same in developing countries (or emergent market economies) because the shop owners deal in bulk and merely treat such spaces as clearinghouses? Or, is it a situation of one copying/learning from the other. If so, who’s emulating who?
Though I believe analysts, who are pointing out how African cities are increasingly looking like Chinese ones, have a biased starting point (see “Photos: African cities are starting to look eerily like Chinese ones” and “Africa’s carbon-copy cities show how much it wants to be the new China“), it’d be interesting to identify the kinds of borrowings or cross-pollinations that are taking place through increased interactions between African and Chinese small-scale entrepreneurs. Are Africans opening up to the idea that what comes from China (not just cheaply manufactured goods) could be just as good or even better than the West?