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Nigerian Trade Expo Aims to Improve Image in South Africa  - 2004-09-30

A unique Nigerian trade expo is under way in South Africa. Nigerian businesspeople are trying to introduce themselves to the richest consumer market in sub-Saharan Africa. They are also trying to counter the overwhelmingly negative stereotypes that South Africans have about Nigeria.

In some corners, it looks like a traditional African marketplace has sprung up inside the convention center in the wealthy Johannesburg suburb of Sandton.

Several stalls are lined with colorful Nigerian clothing. Another has a wide selection of shoes. There are also banks and insurance companies, alongside sacks of flour, hair products and hand-carved wooden figurines.

In one stall, a woman named Akumagba is showing off an array of spices dried and packaged by women in Nigeria's southern Delta State.

"Then we have the instant Ogbono, for dry Ogbono soup," she explained. "We have the Banga instant spice, for all food, for both African and continental food, we have tried them."

The trade fair, dubbed the Best Of Nigeria expo, has been held twice before in London. But this is its first time Nigeria has targeted a specific African audience, in this case South Africa.

One of the organizers of the expo, Dapo Adelegan, says it is only natural that businesspeople from Africa's two economic powerhouses should try to get together.

"I think Nigeria should take the lead in advancing the cause of trade in Africa," he said. "We have the biggest market. South Africa has the biggest financial muscle and technology. It's all about a convergence of the two."

But another big goal of the expo is countering the negative stereotypes that many South Africans have about Nigerians, who often get blamed for some of South Africa's organized crime problems, especially fraud schemes.

"When you mention Nigeria in South Africa, all you think of is fraud and 419 [scams]," he added. "And the people who engage in this is just 0.001 percent of the population. We think there's a gap, in the sense that government and private sector in Nigeria haven't done much in packaging Nigeria and presenting it in its best possible light to the world."

There is already a significant amount of business going on between South Africa and Nigeria. In 2002, trade between the two countries was estimated to be worth more than more than $700 million. South African cellphone company MTN has aggressively expanded into the Nigerian market, and Nigeria's largest newspaper, ThisDay, started publishing a South African edition last year.

South African businessman Abie Skosana heads the local branch of a major international building-products company. He started doing business in Nigeria two years ago, and he says his perceptions about the country have completely changed for the better.

Mr. Skosana is pleased to see Nigerian companies trying to improve their ties with South African industry.

"I think it's only good for the continent," he said. "I think this bilateral, multilateral trade among ourselves as Africans, I think it bodes well for the economy of the continent at a whole."

Meanwhile, the organizers of the Nigerian trade fair are not stopping with South Africa. They are also planning a Best of Africa expo to be held next year in the United States, in a bid to help business leaders from around the continent break into the tough American market.