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Prospects for African Handicrafts in China

Prospects for African Handicrafts in China

The following article was written by Wu Xunpu, a student fellow at China House Kenya.

After a tedious 48-hour layover in the Dubai airport, Bailing finally arrived in Nairobi, Kenya. The extreme weather conditions in Dubai had left her stranded for an extra two days. This hindrance, however, did not dissipate her enthusiasm and drive. Bailing is a mother and, like many of the parents in Shanghai, Bailing is willing to make sacrifices for the well-being of her daughter. One such sacrifice is the money parents spend on their children’s education, and Bailing is no different.

Bailing is, like many of her friends, fascinated by handicrafts and found workshops that teach people how to create their own handicrafts to be particularly interesting. Bailing’s interest in handicrafts soon developed into more than a simple hobby, as she began to notice the enthusiasm people had for such handmade items. With this new awareness and her daughter’s future in mind, Bailing decided to conduct research about the possibilities of starting a business through which she could sell handicrafts.

Five years ago Bailing traveled to Tibet, where she was captivated by the handicrafts and ornaments sold by the locals. Her trip to Tibet prompted her to conduct in-depth research regarding handicrafts and Bailing soon discovered that some of the world’s most beautiful handcrafts were made in Southeast Asia and Africa. Bailing therefore decided to visit Thailand and Sri Lanka to find out more about the handicraft business. Soon however, Bailing realized that these handicraft markets were overly saturated, and setting up a business here would bring little by means of profit. Bailing therefore turned her attention away from Southeast Asia towards the east African country of Kenya. Bailing moved to Kenya to start her handicraft business stating, “I like all kinds of traditional African handicrafts, so coming to Africa was a smart choice for me.”

Under the Belt and Road initiative, the commercial relationship between China and Africa has increased drastically. Sino-African trade for the first half of 2017 was recorded to be US$ 85.3 billion, which is an increase of 19% compared to the previous year. The trade relationship that exists between China and Africa is however, not balanced. Africa largely exports its natural resources to China, while China exports huge amounts of refined goods to Africa. In 2016, China exported US$ 92.22 billion to the African continent, while Africa exported only US$ 56.9 billion to China.  This trade imbalance could be amended through the exportation of more diversified African goods to China, and handicrafts are one such example. Handicrafts hold the potential to sway the trade imbalance between China and Africa, and additionally are important for local African communities. Through the sales of handicrafts, local artisans are able to generate an increased income. Evie, the founder and host of a local television show called, ‘Cultured International’ expressed her enthusiasm and support regarding the exportation of local Kenyan handicrafts: “If something from Kenya is going to become internationally recognized, it will primarily be our running athletes, but second will be our handicrafts.”

African culture is based largely on traditional tribal affiliations. Among all the tribes in Kenya, the Masai people are most well known for their handicrafts, particularly their beadwork. Traditionally the Masai people used beadwork not only for aesthetic purposes but also to represent different social statuses. Today in Kenya, it is still common to find markets where Masai artisans sell their handicrafts. While many of the local artisans sell their handicrafts at markets, others have their own stores. Some, however, are unable to afford a place to sell their work and resort to selling their handicrafts on the streets.

While selling handicrafts to the local residents is a way to generate an income, expanding the trade to an international market could bring the artisans an increased income. Retailers of African handicrafts appeared about 20 years ago in European countries as well as the USA. Amani Ya Juu and Spinners Web Kenya are two American organizations that sell African handicrafts to Western customers. Lydia, the African operations coordinator at Amani Ya Juu explained, “We made some slight adjustments to the products, for example, improving the quality and adding some modern elements to the design. This makes foreign customers more interested in purchasing the products.” A similar idea was expressed by the founder of Spinners Web Kenya, who incorporates African elements into her modern furniture designs. In this way, Jacqueline explained that “My own brand, Weaverbird Ltd, is selling products to some of the wealthiest costumers in the world.” Weaverbird uses African inspired elements to decorate items such as pillows, which then can be sold for up to US$100.

Inspired by these success stories, Bailing believes that she too could be successful in selling such African handicrafts in China. With the ever-increasing degree of communication between China and Africa, Bailing sees more and more Chinese people becoming aware of Africa. In Kenya, there are approximately sixty thousand Chinese nationals who work as communication bridges between China and Africa. Additionally, increased accessibility to social media allows users to increasingly access information regarding the differing cultures found around the world. The American Amani Ya Juu company utilized social media to advertise their African inspired handicrafts, and now have over ten thousand followers on their Facebook page.

Although Bailing has witnessed many success stories surrounding the trade of handicrafts, she still has to deal with uncertainties and difficulties. One of her biggest concerns is the price of the handicrafts, which she believes to be too high. Bailing cited the high cost of labor in Kenya to be one cause of the handicrafts high prices. High transportation costs also present Bailing with obstacles regarding exporting the goods to China. An additional concern of Bailing’s was the availability of handicrafts in places such as Tibet. She commented on this stating, “When I went to Tibet there were a large number of people selling beadwork, and the prices were half of what they charge in Kenya. I think most people would be unable to tell the difference between Kenyan and Tibetan beadwork.”

Bailing is not alone in her concerns regarding the exportation of African handicrafts to China. Mr. Su is a Chinese national who also had the idea to export African handicrafts to China. He began by exporting African wood carving ornaments to China but soon ran into issues. Mr. Su, therefore, decided to invest in diamonds rather than handicrafts explaining, “I think that for now there is not a large enough market in China to sell such handicrafts.” Other local African businessmen also expressed concerns regarding the exportation of handicraft goods to China. Jack is a 24-year old undergraduate student studying business management. His mother sells her beadwork in the local Masai market. Although Jack is qualified to export goods to China, he is pessimistic about the procedure stating, “Apart from selling the products, issues such as getting the products through customs and taxes make the procedure incredibly difficult. It is very troublesome for us.”

Although the difficulties are abundant, many are still willing to take on the challenge. Mr. Su’s wife is very interested in collaborating with Bailing. Mrs. Su believes that the woodcarvings her husband was trying to sell were only of interest to older consumers; she thinks that in order to be successful one needs to target the rapidly developing class of young professionals in China. Additionally, Mrs. Su believes that her husband’s current store, located in a hotel in China, would be a prime place to sell African handicrafts.

Like Bailing, many local Kenyans also believe they have the ability to break into the Chinese market, particularly as Kenyan handicrafts are already exported to other African nations. Bailing was eager to cooperate with an Education Officer from Oliotokitok country government called Elijah. For the past three years, Eligah’s wife has been successfully selling her handicrafts to other African countries and is now looking to expand her customer base to China. One of the most effective ways to advertise products is through social media platforms and for a Chinese market this means utilizing WeChat. A local handicrafts manufacturer called Julius was very excited to learn about the WeChat platform from Bailing, and immediately downloaded the app to try to expand his presence into the Chinese market.

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About Eric Olander

Eric Olander is the founder and Editor in Chief of The China Africa Project. Eric is a veteran international journalist with 20+ years experience throughout Greater China, Africa, the United States and Europe. Eric is currently based in Southeast Asia where he is the senior news executive with a leading 24-hour all business news cable TV network.

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