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Dakar Fair Aims to Promote African Products

Economists have long noted that one of the main impediments to development in Africa is the fact it imports most of its manufactured goods. That holds true for the shelves of many West African supermarkets as well. But one group in Senegal's capital Dakar is hoping to get more locally-produced products on to store shelves. In the city's downtown, they have set up a marketplace exclusively featuring goods made in Africa. Jordan Davis files this VOA report from Dakar.

As a voice over a public address system urges shoppers to visit the dairy aisle, customers fill up yellow shopping baskets before heading to the cash register.

It could be a supermarket anywhere in the world. Except that this one is the "100 Percent Africa Expo", held under a large white tent in Dakar's main square. And every single product on the shelves was made in Africa.

Shopper Fatou Sall has filled up her basket with shea butter soap and a bottle of ginger juice.

She says there are products she does not find often because the supermarket stocks mostly imported, European brands.

The expo organizers say too often, consumers do not even know local products exist. And then suppliers do not think there is a market for African goods.

Expo founder Aissadou Diagne Deme says she wants Africans to know they do not have to look to Europe when there are plenty of high quality products being manufactured nearby.

Though processed foods are a luxury for many African consumers, advocates of African commerce say locally-made foods are accessible to more people because they cost less than imports.

United Nations Development Program Senegal Representative Adama Guindo says buying local will also create jobs.

"If you give a job to one person, behind that one person you have ten others who benefit from that source of income," he said. "Helping local entrepreneurs is basically helping the communities to grow and rely more and more on themselves."

But to be competitive, African products have to look just as bit as good on the shelf as the European imports.

Across the street from the big white tent, product makers attend seminars on marketing, packaging and hygiene standards.

But building a local supply chain capable of competing with the Europeans has been a challenge.

Amadou Pouye with Senegal's state-funded Institute for Food and Agricultural Technology says it is only within the past five years that the country's packaging industry has been able to print directly onto plastic.

While, a number of products at the expo were professionally packaged, peanut butter was on display in store-bought plastic containers with screw-on lids.

Nearby, photocopied product labels were attached to syrup bottles with scotch tape.

But some entrepreneurs say their first concern is not pretty packaging but finding financing.

Kadidia Djiteye Sangare passes out samples of her instant ginger tea… crystals of ginger and sugar that dissolve in water just like instant coffee.

She says she came up with the idea to save homemakers the hour it normally takes to prepare the tea from scratch.

In her native Mali, she says the product is selling briskly.

Sangare says she wants to branch out into herbal tea bags. She would need equipment costing eighty thousand dollars. But no bank, she says, has been willing to lend the money to her.

Mass distribution may still be a long way off in the future for many of these small producers.

But many expo attendees are hoping consumer demand will help them overcome many of the hurdles to getting their products into kitchens across the continent.