Selling African handicrafts to China, is it a definite future or only a “future”?

By Xunpu Wu

After a 48-hour layover in Dubai airport, Bailing finally arrived in Nairobi, Kenya. Because of the terrible weather in Dubai, she spent 2 more days than expected. The long-time delay did not wash down her passion. As a mother of a three-year-old daughter, Bailing found not only her but basically all the families in Shanghai are keeping their kids as the center of their lives. For the merry of their children, they would not hesitate to invest in them with high quality education, even though it comes with a high cost. As a mother, she found many of her friends are keen on handicrafts, especially the workshop that teaches them how to make handicrafts themselves. As a well-trained early year teacher, Bailing noticed not only the handicraft itself, but also the meaning behind it can attract a lot of costumers. Therefore, she decided to start a business, a business about handicrafts. 

Five years ago, Bailing traveled to Tibet, she saw some handicrafts there and was fascinated by those small ornaments. Since then, she started to research about handcrafts and found Southeast Asia and Africa has unique handicrafts. She then went to Thailand and Sri Lanka in Southeast Asia first, but the handicrafts business in these two countries has been over-developed already. Therefore, she came to Kenya, a relatively developed country in Africa. “I like all kinds of aboriginal african handicrafts, meanwhile, coming to Africa is a smart choice for me.” said Bailing. 

Under the policy of One belt one road, the commercial relationship between China and Africa tightens. Just until June in 2017, the value of foreign Trade is 85,300 million dollars, showing a increase 14% compared to last year’s. 

Nevertheless, the trade between China and Africa is not balanced. Africa is exporting natural resources to China such as mine and woods, while China keeps on exporting huge amount of refined goods to Africa. In 2017, China exported about 92.22 billion dollars to Africa but Africa just exported 56.9 billion dollars to China, almost half of it.2 For now, the goods exporting from Africa to China should be more diversified and handicraft is one of them. 

Recently, a kind of refined products has been found with great business potential in the trade between Africa and China. It’s the African handicrafts. These handicrafts are actually effecting local people’s lives every minute. And they have national characteristics. “I think if something can become international from Kenya, the first thing is athletically running and handicrafts will come to the second.” said Evie, a host and founder of show “Cultured International” in Kenya Broadcasting Cooperation. 

Basically all the traditional culture in Africa started from the tribes. Among all the tribes in Kenya, Masai is the one famous for their handicrafts, especially the bead works. For the Masai, the bead work is a necessary decoration for them because it is a symbol of social status. Even for now, there are still Masai markets opening on a fixed date and selling handicrafts to the natives. Most of the women can do bead works and sell them in local market. Some of them have stores to sell them, while for those without one, carrying bead works on the body and trying to sell them to the costumers along the streets remain to be the only option. 

Apart from selling to local people, selling to the global market is another way of increasing income. Retailers of these handicrafts had appeared about 20 years ago in European countries and the U.S. Among them, Amani Ya Juu and Spinners Web Kenya, two American organizations, sell African handicrafts to Western costumers mostly. “We made some improvements to the products, for example, focusing on the quality and adding some modern elements into it. So foreign customers can accept them easily.” said Lydia, the African operations coordinator of Amani Ya Juu. 

Similar idea is expressed by Jacqueline, the founder of Spinners Web Kenya. She mixed some African elements into the modern furniture to make costumers interested. “My own brand, Weaverbird Ltd, is selling products to some of the wealthiest costumers in the world.” Weaverbird uses African elements to decorate. A pillow can be sold at the price of 100 dollars. 

With the successful examples ahead of her, Bailing believes that selling these products back to China can be possible. The frequency of communication between Africa and China enhances daily. More and more Chinese become aware of Africa. In Kenya, there are approximately 60 thousand Chinese who are the communicators between African and Chinese culture nowadays. In addition, in a society where the internet develops rapidly, social media has been used to accelerate the understanding of unknown parts of the world and their culture. Africa foremost. For instance, Amani Ya Juu is introducing their products through social media, right now there are 10,780 followers and growing on their Facebook page. 

Difficulties and uncertainties still exist. For Bailing, she feels the main problem is the high price. The first reason causing this is the high price for labors, due to the underdevelopment of mechanization, it’s hard to make a huge amount of products in a short period of time. The second reason is the high expense on transportation that makes exporting harder. “When I went to Tibet, they were also doing bead works there and if you are not an expert on this you will hardly find the difference between the Tibet ones and the African ones. Plus, the ones in Tibet have a price at least half of the ones in Kenya.” said Bailing. 

Bailing surly is not the only one who feels it’s hard to sell those products. Mr. Su, who has been selling African products to China for years, was trying to sell wood carvings at first but hit a threshold in his business. He decided to make a change by investing in diamonds instead of handicrafts, “I think the market of selling handicrafts towards China hasn’t open yet. I am not willing to take that risk now.” said Mr. Su. 

For some local businessmen, they also think it might be hard to sell to China. Jack a 24-year-old undergraduate student(left), studies business management. His mother is selling bead works in a Masai market. Even though Jack is qualified to export african handicrafts to China, he thinks the procedure is too complicated and confusing. “Apart from selling products itself, problems like getting through the costums and paying taxes are all making this hard. I think it is very troublesome for us.” 

Being aware of there are so many troubles in front of them, many still want to try. Mr. Su’s wife, after having a talk with Bailing, holds a different view from her husband’s. She shows a great interest in forming into a partnership with Bailing. Mr Su’s wood carving business was mainly attracting to midaged customers. However, his wife, Mrs. Su believes targeting young professionals is essential. Therefore, handicrafts, a tradition with unique characteristic in each one becomes the possibilities she thinks of. “My husband’s store is set up in a Chinese hotel with huge amount of costumers passing by, I think it will help me with my plan a lot too.” said Mrs. Su. 

To some locals, they believe they can break into the market in China. As a country that has a relatively well-developed cultural background in Africa, Kenya has the experience of exporting handicrafts to other African countries like Uganda, Tanzania, and etc. After meeting with Elijah the Education Officer from Oliotokitok country government, Bailing shows him how to write “I love China” in Chinese so that he can add these into his wife’s products. His wife has been selling handicrafts to other African countries for 3 years. They have made a plan to sell handicrafts to China recently and some Chinese elements might be what they needed. However, not only the products themselves, but the pattern to advertise their products is also very important and the fastest route is through social media and internet. Julius, a local handicrafts manufacturer, said,after talking with Bailing, that almost all the Chinese are using a social software called WeChat and immediately downloaded one for further advertising and cooperation.

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