China’s manufacturing is a multi-billion dollar sector that contributes over 30 per cent to national Gross Domestic Products, according to a World Bank report published in 2012.
Sadly in some parts of Africa, Chinese products are casually dismissed with one word; ‘fake’ and this tag seems to have stuck permanently for everything Chinese; an unfair reality.
But is this a fact or fallacy about Chinese commodities? Is everything made in China ‘fake’? Why do most Rwandan consumers regard Chinese commodities as ‘fake’ and short lasting but still buy them anyway?
In Rwanda, to buy Chinese is to invite derision from colleagues yet despite this, it’s safe to say that six out of every ten mobile phone holders are using Chinese technology.
Last month in Shanghai City, Eastern China, I witnessed something that gave me a whole new perspective about the so called ‘Chinese fakes.’ A group of African students was touring the city, walking the streets and window shopping in some of Shanghai’s top stores.
Many were resigned to just watching and satisfying their eyes for most of the shops were stores for international brands such as Gucci and the price tags for a unit are simply astronomical.
Then at a corner shop on a relaxed street, the group landed on a shop of fakes! It had everything in it, from jewelry to fancy shades to caps. The students were befuddled to learn that all the items, no matter how fancy they appeared, were priced the same, 10 yuan or $1.6 which is less than Rwf800.
The excitement on everyone’s face was comical but understandable. One lady from Djibouti was cautious, thinking it was some kind of trick to get them buy then be handed a heavier bill. The prices were too low to believe.
Initially, the plan was to just walk the streets, go pitch at a bar and have a chat over drinks. The cheap shop of fakes changed everything. Everyone picked and packed whatever item they fancied, after all they could afford to pay. Even when one of them pointed out that the items were fake, the answer came in a chorus, ‘of course’ meaning that no one really cared.
The truth about China is that the manufacturers produce for everyone in all classes. They produce for the super rich, the middle class and the poor and it’s the wallet that determines ones choices.
Li, is a salesman dealing in electronics especially phones and computers. He has a long list of African friends in China whom he has sold phones in the past. He also knows all the major capitals in Africa and his company helps many dealers secure commodities for export to Africa.
“In China you get everything, real and fake depending on the money; many of the African friends want cheap items but they also want original but original is expensive,’ he explains.
In Beijing, you just have to look at what cars people drive to understand their taste.
It is German cars with plants in China that dominate the road; the Audi, Volkswagen, and Mercedes are the popular cars here. American Brands such as Buicks and Ford are also well represented and a few Japanese cars. These German and American firms wouldn’t be here if Chinese love their goods cheap.
In the library at the Communication University of China , most students have Apple laptops and the iPhone is also prominent though Lenovo is a more popular brand. Of course all these items are made in China from plants specifically brought to China to serve the Chinese market.
The German cars, American phones and laptops made in China are as durable and good as the ones made or assembled in the home countries but they come at a price most ordinary African consumer can’t afford.
“When African importers come here, they buy cheaper goods because they say many of their customers at home can’t afford the expensive ones,” Li explains.
Clearly, there’s a market for ‘cheap goods’ in Africa and other poor parts of the world for China to serve and this explains the story of fakes. It’s fair to say that without the Chinese cheap mobile phones, many in Africa would still be digitally divided. Cheap Chinese smart phones have connected many in Rwanda to the internet.
But even inside China, with a population of about 1.4 billion people, half of these are poor rural dwellers who can’t afford Marcs and Audi. The cheaper goods are for them too, a class of consumers similar to most in Africa.
The day poverty levels in Africa go down with people picking up larger incomes, their consumption habits will gradually change as their preferences and tastes improve from cheap and short lasting to expensive and durable.
Today, Africa’s so-called ‘wealthy’ people drive second hand Japanese cars that have been dumped in Japan, this too explains that even our rich aren’t wealthy enough to buy brand new.
Again it’s fair to say that Chinese cheap goods are a relief to poor African consumers who can’t afford expensive brands.
“For everything expensive, we have it in a cheaper version’ explains Li, and that’s the way it is, because there’s demand for them.