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China-Africa Trade Reshapes Street Commerce


African leaders in China have just signed business deals worth nearly $2 billion. Many Chinese entrepreneurs have taken advantage of warming relations to set up shop in Africa, selling imported goods at cut-rate prices. The new competition is changing the consumer and business landscape.

On a busy, tree-lined Dakar avenue, men unload a tractor trailer stacked to the roof with cardboard boxes. Each is marked with handwritten Chinese characters. The merchandise will fill a new shop opening up on Dakar's Centenaire boulevard.

Shopkeeper Linda Chen watches from her own cluttered storefront just across the street. She came to Dakar from China's Hunan Province two years ago.

In broken English and French she says she came to Senegal to be her own boss. But also, to explore the world.

Whether it is to be a boss, explore the world or simply make money, Chinese merchants have opened shop up and down the Centenaire over the past decade. Much to the pleasure of customers like Aminata Gueye. She says she just paid $6 for an enormous bouquet of silk flowers. At regular stores, they could cost as much as $30.

"They are perfect prices to match our budgets," she said, laughing as she heads to her car

But shopkeepers at Dakar's giant Sandaga market are not laughing. In one stall, clothing seller Ibrah Ndiaye is sitting and listening to the radio with fellow shopkeepers. There is not much else to do.

Ndiaye says all day, not a single customer has inquired about his dress shoes and slacks. He says merchants down on the Centenaire are stealing his business.

Sellers at the Sandaga market have periodically closed their stalls during the past year, urging officials to act against what they say is unfair foreign competition.

But Momar Ndao with the Senegalese Consumer Association says if local merchants did not have such high prices, Chinese entrepreneurs might not have come in the first place.

"For a good that costs about $2, the Senegalese charge about $10," he said. "The Chinese people come and give the good price."

Ndao says those good prices have made life easier for many poor people. Just a few years ago, things as simple as drinking glasses were considered a luxury. And, he says, now even the poor can build up their wardrobe.

On the Centenaire, Maty Mbaye is stocking up on footwear.

Mbaye has a dozen pairs of slippers with gold sequins. But they are not all for her. She plans to re-sell them in another neighborhood for about $5 a pair-making a $3 profit.

With scarce job opportunities, many young men and women in Dakar try to make a little cash re-selling products from Chinese merchants. But for Mbaye, those shoes mean much more than pocket money. She says she is an unwed mother and many people do not even look at her. Many in her position would have to beg for a living.

But thanks to the cheap Chinese products on the Centenaire, Mbaye says she keeps something she cannot put a price on: her dignity.