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Foreign Traders, Senegalese Artisans Compete Over Aluminum

The outside world has long looked to Africa as a source for raw materials. In Senegal, Indian firms are buying up metric tons of recycled metal, including aluminum. For VOA, Naomi Schwarz visited an aluminum pot workshop in Dakar to see how the international trade affects Senegalese craftsmen.

Souleyman Ba is demonstrating how he makes pots. Right now he is working on a series of lids.

He starts by making a pile of dirt.

The dirt comes from the bush, he says.

He places an old lid with the handle removed on the mound and tamps down the dirt around and under it. Then he places a wooden frame around the pile and adds more dirt.

Using a wooden baton, he pounds the dirt until it is compressed. He lifts the dirt-filled frame, and the shape of the lid is impressed on the underside.

When he finishes this mold, and the eight or so others that he makes in rows on the ground, he will pour in molten aluminum through the small holes he has poked in the top.

The aluminum comes from vehicles, he says, or else from the frames of glass doors. There are beer cans, and aluminum electrical wires, he says.

Every element in the fabrication of these pots is local and recycled.

Yusufa Thiombane, president of a large association of Dakar artisan metal workers, has been making recycled aluminum kitchenware since 1959.

Recently, he says, the cost of doing business has gone up.

Before we paid less, he says of the price per kilo of aluminum. But now, he says, foreigners come and buy up huge lots of raw materials to ship overseas. Before he was able to get a kilo of aluminum for about 90 cents (400 or 450 local francs). Now, he must pay more than a dollar.

"My main clients are in India and China, and some are in Singapore," says Manjet Singh, a metal trader from India. He has been buying recycled iron, aluminum, copper, and other metals in West Africa for five years, though he has only been in Senegal for the past year and a half.

"Now the countries in Asia and China, they are developing," he says. "So there is a huge demand for creating infrastructure. So that is why people come here to this continent to start searching for materials and all."

Local industry is just what director of artisans for the government Moctar Diakhaté would like to see Senegal develop.

It creates some revenue for the local aluminum scavengers, he says, but if we can transform the aluminum locally, it is even better.

Economist Moubarak Lô says the aluminum artisans hold the key to developing larger-scale industry within Senegal.

"You need to develop from what you have," Lô says. "What you have is indigenous entrepreneurship, but you can have, after five years, 10 years, become big industries."

He says that government investment is necessary to make that transformation. On their own, he says, small-scale artisans cannot afford to make the changes needed to increase productivity and quality.