THE BLOG
09/10/2012 09:49 am ET

Africa and the Chinese Invasion: Some Nuts and Bolts in the Craft Sector

I began this blog post almost a year ago, and even today, I still have mixed feelings about the role of China in Africa. Africa needs help, I really believe Africans can do it themselves but after years of colonialism and independence, we are still in our infancy as Modern nations. Africa was transformed with western intervention; now the east is coming in with their version of transformation. I am still waiting for Africans to build their countries. I am traditional African that way but the global African sees the need for some help. The truth really is -- that the world is co-dependent, whether it is Africa and the West or Africa and the East.

I first noticed the Chinese invasion when I arrived in Nigeria on my way to Calabar in 2000. There was a large group of Chinese people -- almost twenty, on my flight and at the airport; they were unloading about 20 computers. To be frank, as an African, I stared at them. It is what we Africans bold-face do on the continent when we see strangers.

The next time, I saw more Chinese was when I went looking for furniture for my family home in Calabar. It was suggested I go the EPZ - The Calabar Export Processing Zone. There, I found a Chinese furniture company making products and training Nigerians. I bought some furniture and talked extensively with the Chinese owner who had opted to sleep in his office (in a room next to the office) as opposed to renting a "huge house". He looked at it this way: I will keep the $10,000 and send it home to my wife in China. I thought that was unusual as most westerners came to work and took all the amenities provided: a house, a driver and tickets for their family members who came to visit or lived in the country. I knew then that the Chinese were unusual business thinkers.

Almost ten years later, I went to the Falomo Shopping Center area in Lagos and discovered next to it was a building which was a stark reminder of the New York Jewelry wholesale district. There, I discovered that most shops were owned by Chinese people selling cheap jewelry, clothing and fake Nigerian fabrics. What had Nigeria come to? I wondered. China was deep in Lagos. How did this happen?

And just last month, I posted a series of articles on Facebook an article on Senegalese banning Chinese from some of their markets and in Kano, Nigeria - the same phenomena -- where the government arrested Chinese for illegal trading of textiles. I see ordinary Africans are fighting back in small measures.

China became another reminder when my friend Leslie-Ann Murray got a teaching position in Beijing and we spent the last of the summer realizing she would be a black woman in China who did not speak a word of Chinese and she wondered how she would get things done. What a reminder, indeed. So, as she begins her adventures, we are talking often and she is blogging on her experience here.

China's invasion of Africa is riddled with fear and concern from the west and less for African countries that are still recovering or have not recovered from the west's colonization. It is amazing to see the Chinese who came to Africa about 600 years ago to help build it as workers return as owners. That transformation is vital - to global Africans like me who are watching carefully, it is important to learn from them. There are lessons from this transformation. It is a lesson for Africa to understand that we have the ability to do this too. We just need a grand plan that we can execute. The Chinese have one.

The main issue for Africans however is the major problem: Africa's resources - water, oil, and diamonds, etc. are being sold to the Chinese. This sale is a bit different from the "reaping" of Africa during its colonial period with the West, but just because you pay for something does not mean it is not the same equivalency of the theft. The theft is of the resources that should be shared by Africans.

The minor problem for Africa in the Chinese invasion is one that most people are not paying attention to - its artisan sector. I see the reality as a business owner who tries to buy authentic African fabrics and clothing. I have to be more careful sourcing Africa textiles. The Chinese have invaded its entire textile sector and frankly, helped destroy it like the west. It is time for Africa to really fight back and require a 'Made in Africa' label which also lists the country of production. Europe already buried Africa's textiles with Dutch Wax fabric and Africans preference for it versus their local fabric helped create the breakdown of the textile industry.

Recently, African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) was extended by the US government and it includes the Third Country Bill which many are applauding but I am concerned about. It is because it makes African clothing not authentic to a particular country. According to the defenders of the bill: "By giving African manufacturers the freedom to purchase fabric from outside the continent to sew garments for export to the U.S. market, AGOA's Third Country Fabric provision will save approximately 300,000 textile and apparel-related jobs which support 10 million people. It also saves U.S. taxpayers $5 million." My take is that Africa needs to create for its population, build its industries and not just rely on export. Simply, we have people to feed, house and clothe.

Countries like Nigeria with 150 million people still need a focus on Nigerian-only made clothing because rebuilding the textile and clothing industries is imperative. African countries should maintain their authentic textiles - and this exception will create an inauthentic version of textiles and clothing. The focus on export maybe good for business but we really need to develop our economies focused on serving our people's needs. Most of the textile industries across the continent are dying or are not supported; this is a problem and further cannibalization of it by intermixing of fabrics and textiles loses authenticity of the fabric and design.

The Chinese invasion of Africa speaks volumes - in many ways, Africa needs China's help to develop but I am still a strong believer in Africans doing it themselves. We are a continent of grand bargains - the west divided us into countries and we got some of our independence from them and with the eastern invasion, we still have not had time to do it ourselves - and as nations that are about 50 years old, we are still too young to figure it out. In time, we will.

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