Dakar, Senegal – Every morning, Ibrahima Syla arrives early to open the doors of the Fama Boutique, his shop at the Soumbédioune Craft Village in Dakar’s Medina neighbourhood. Along the narrow shop walls, the entrepreneur arranges his leather creations – handbags, wallets and shoes – fashioned out of snake, crocodile and camel.
“Leather is in my blood,” says the 56-year-old, who learned the art of working with animal pelts from his father. “I can kill the animal, tan it, cut it, and produce it.”
Syla’s handicrafts retail at between $10 and $175, depending on their size and the type of leather. Many of his customers are European or American tourists eager to snag a leather handbag for a fraction of the price they would pay at home.
“Tourists who come to Senegal and appreciate art come to [the Craft Village] to buy something original,” explains Syla. “It is illegal to sell items here that aren’t made in Senegal.”
The former president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, established craft villages around Senegal to protect the country’s traditional artisans.
But Syla, who has worked in Soumbédioune since 1999, says he has noticed a rise in Chinese vendors selling imitation products in markets across the city over the past two decades.
“I feel concerned about it [affecting my business],” he says. “An original product is something like a dream and you don’t want someone to take it.”
In Senegal, Chinese-made goods are often equated with low-cost, low-quality products. Many merchants hawking their wares to both local and foreign customers hesitate to admit that an item is made elsewhere – even in the rare case that it carries a “Made in China” or “Made in India” label.
“In terms of business, you have both sides: you have local people in any country in the world who benefit from products coming from elsewhere,” explains Daouda Cissé, an expert on Chinese imports and exports to African countries. “You also have buyers who favour certain products because of [the customer’s] purchasing power.”
The owners of stalls in Ngor Beach, Pointe des Almadies and Sandaga display products they say they made by hand themselves, although there is a clear similarity between most of the items on offer around the nation’s capital.
Not far from the ferry terminal to Ngor Island, a shopkeeper who introduces himself as Mâme Fall welcomes us to his small store. Although he sells the same objects as his neighbours, Fall says he stitched every piece by hand.
“[This dress] is made in Senegal – I made it at home,” he says. “The workshop here is small, so I just expose my work here and make them at night.”
While the dress isn’t labelled, several cotton T-shirts featuring pieces of African-style print have a “Made in India” label on the collar. When asked about them, Fall doesn’t miss a beat.
“[The T-shirts] are Senegalese,” he explains. “It’s Senegalese fabric – I buy the T-shirts and afterwards, I add the Senegalese fabric.”
Similar items can be found across Dakar.
After a decade of recognising only Taiwan, Senegal re-established diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China in 2005. Chinese products amounted to 7.7 percent of the country’s total imports, at a value of nearly $407m, in 2015 (PFD).
China’s largest exports to Senegal are manufactured goods. Cissé says local production of clothing and footwear has been most affected by this, but Chinese-made handicrafts are also entering the market.
“Senegal itself is a good place for handicrafts. There is a competition happening nowadays with the Chinese handicrafts coming into the market,” he explains. “But I still think people would be more in favour of buying local handicrafts than Chinese ones.”
Some of these items are sold by the dozens of Chinese shopkeepers concentrated in the Centenaire neighbourhood. These vendors often double as importers or wholesalers who sell their products to local entrepreneurs.
And, despite concerns for his own livelihood, Syla says he has no qualms with the Chinese vendors selling their products in Dakar.
“I am not against the Chinese because they also need to earn their daily bread,” he explains. “I would like that the Chinese make original things. They are capable of doing so.”
Made in Senegal
Tourists are among the most sought-after clientele for Dakar’s handicraft vendors. With an estimated 836,000 arrivals in 2014, 306,000 jobs – or 9.9 percent of the country’s total – are connected to the tourism industry (PDF).
American Carmen Paraison visited Dakar from her current residence in the Ivory Coast. The 27-year-old bought several souvenirs from the city’s markets, including a “boubou” – a traditional dress. While the items aren’t labelled, Paraison believes most of her purchases were made in Senegal, with the exception of the boubou.
“This particular store that I went into had many different boubous among other products like purses, key chains and jewellery. They had a very large quantity of each product in different colours,” explains Paraison. “Variety is fine, but it just looked like [the handicrafts] were mass-made.”
Counterfeits of traditional clothing and fabrics, such as Ghana’s famous “kente” cloth, are commonplace in West African markets. The more affordable copies are often made in China and imported across the continent, but retain some distinct differences from the locally made versions.
“I could tell that it wasn’t real traditional African fabric and the construction of [the dress], the way that it was sewn, I could tell that it wasn’t hand-made,” continues Paraison. “The boubou was in a plastic cover and it just looks like it was something made in a factory.”
While Paraison was hoping to only purchase locally made products to support Senegalese artisans, she is sympathetic to the vendor’s predicament.
“When the shopkeeper says something is not made in China and it clearly is, I do feel deceived,” she says. “But at the same time, I don’t think they want to readily admit that these things are made somewhere else.”
Artisans such as Syla rely on their customers’ ability to differentiate between products of varying quality.
When asked if he would support a “Made in Senegal” label initiative, Syla says it would meet with a mixed response.
“There are vendors who do that, but there are other [shopkeepers] who don’t want that,” he explains. “I put my business cards in all my creations to show that I made it.”