What ‘Made in China’ Really Means for Africa
We all own a product branded with a discreet ‘Made in China’ stamp; in our closet, our kitchen, our bathroom, in our bags, in the car…anywhere and everywhere. Most of the time we’re unconsciously aware of this, perhaps because Chinese products have become so ubiquitous. Our favourite department stores often source our plush polyblend sweaters, our non-stick frying pans, the latest domestic gizmo, our kids shirts branded with the latest Disney character, and the like. We buy these products primarily because they’re affordable and not outwardly cheap. We buy them, because there are very few places left where a ‘Made in China’ product has not yet penetrated.
Of late though, products made in China have come a long way from when they first entered the African market. Today, as China works to shed its ‘cheap’ reputation, we are presented with higher quality products from leading Chinese brands, particularly those in the tech space.
However, Chinese products – cheap or otherwise – have long usurped the retail market, particularly in countries where the consumer’s disposable income, albeit growing in Africa, is spent with a discerning eye on price. For decades, China has grown to become what I often hear in the news as a superpower, this is partly thanks to its unrivaled manufacturing capacity, scalable volumes, and low production costs, making it the centre of the world’s industrial and technological production.
In a continent with a fractured manufacturing industry and a burgeoning sector of local brands that cannot compete in scale with international retail giants, competing with China almost seems unavailing. Moreover, the Chinese manufacturing industry has perfected mimicry almost down to a fine art. In our last post about African versus African-inspired fabrics, we mentioned that a sizable amount of the ‘African’ textiles on the market are produced in China. For those unaware of the nuanced and aesthetic inconsistencies between African and African-inspired, the differences may not be so obvious.
Nonetheless, rather than assume the worst, we wanted to really look into some of the challenges and benefits ‘Made in China’ products have on Africa. On the one hand, Chinese products eat into the profits of the small business owner. They place the African manufacturing industry in a less competitive position, forcing us to remain dependant on their more affordable wares. Whereas, on the other hand, we recently discovered that a few Chinese companies are now looking to shift their production offshore, more specifically in South Africa and Ethiopia.
Owing to the stringent environmental laws placed on manufacturers in China, as well as the increasing cost of production, manufacturers are now setting their sights on Africa as a more desirable base. The shift from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Made in Africa’, might mean a transfer of skills and know-how that may be a boon for the local manufacturing sector. It could also mean the employment of many Africans, increased foreign direct investment and a contribution to economic growth. Conversely, we may be faced with the same labour and environmental issues that plagued the Chinese manufacturing industry, especially in a continent where many African governments tend to be lax about such issues. The presence of Chinese industrialists may pose a threat to the growth of local brands, craftsman and artisans, or it may mean an opportunity for local brands to learn how to scale their production and compete more effectively.
China and Africa have had a long and mutually beneficial relationship that stretches as far back as the Mao era, although the scale of benefits have often been tipped in China’s favour. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the Chinese private sector has invested about $34 billion in Africa. So it’s safe to say that this relationship will not wane anytime soon. But rather than fear the inevitable, perhaps we could change what “Made in China” really means for us Africans. While cheaper products will continue to maintain its demand, there is a growing appreciation for authentic, higher quality products Made in Africa. Because consumers have been bombarded with so many cheap alternatives, there is a notable rise in the desire for locally-made goods. Could the arrival of Chinese manufacturers and industrialists bode well for Africa? Or will this be another setback to the fragile growth our local fashion, design and textile industry?