Kenyan artisans say they are losing the market for their products to Chinese imports. According to the crafts persons, the high quality and lower prices of Chinese-made goods put them at a disadvantage.
Jua kali, popularly known in Kenya as artisanal work such as toolmaking or textiles, has been a livelihood for more than 7,000 crafts persons at an open market in Kenya's capital for decades.
Njoroge Macharia has been making charcoal stoves, commonly known as jikos in Swahili, for four decades. He says imports from China have edged out his business. Jikos from China are affecting us, he says, because we used to sell a lot before they started bringing them here. He said, “Now we don't sell as many as we used to. They are cheaper than ours, but those from China are not better than ours. Ours are really good.”
National data show that Kenya spent nearly $4 billion on imports from China in 2021. Kenya sources a vast array of consumer and capital products from China, while exporting $1.5 billion worth of goods to the Asian market. Traders like Magdalen Vivi, who sells imported kitchenware, say customers demand modernized products like nonstick cooking pots, commonly known as sufuria in Swahili.
"If you suggest the aluminum or the stainless steel, they keep on asking for the nonstick." Vivi said "(I don’t understand why) they prefer to have the nonstick over the ones that are locally produced in Kenya, because for me, I have not seen any nonstick sufurias made in Kenya."
An African Union study on international trade finds that the African continent is the largest market for Chinese goods. Some Kenyan consumers prefer the wide variety of the cheap products. Mary Wambui is one such buyer.
"There is always variety," Wambui said. "All the time, you get new products, and they have different types. You don't get the same ones all the time. Every time you come, there is something new that has come up."
Wohoro Ndhoho, an economist in Kenya, says a lack of strong automation and technology in Kenyan manufacturing means most products made locally are by crafts people, not machines.
''The jua kali sector in Kenya has very much been human-power-driven rather than machine-driven," Ndhoho said. "So, you find that inevitably means that when things are made in China, they can be made in bulk. Which, if today you go to Gikomba, they still beat those karais, for making mandazi (fried bread) with (their) hands. So, for every one hour they make one, a machine can make 1,000."
The Kenya National Federation of Jua Kali Associations told VOA that imports from China have cost them the regional market. Engineer Charles Kalomba is the secretary-general of the artisans federation.
"The energy-saving jikos, which have got liners, clay liners, and they are just fabricated metal and clay liners.," Kalomba said. "And we used to produce a lot of them for the East African market. Today, there is a lot of influx of the same into the market."
Data from the Kenya Export Promotion and Branding Agency show that South Africa is the only African country among the top 25 nations exporting to China. Kenyan authorities are banking on trade agreements to sell more to China. The agency's chief executive officer, Wilfred Marube, explains.
"There was a bilateral agreement in January where some of the areas were agreed upon," Marube said "And also, a joint committee established was to basically ask the question, ‘How does the Chinese government work together to increase market access for Kenyan products, especially agricultural products?’"
Tiku Shah is profiting from China's massive market. Shah exports up to 100 containers of frozen avocados annually to more than 1.4 billion people.
"Now, we have avocados, but it's got to be very high quality, very big volumes," Shah said. "And a lot of us are not ready for that scale of business. It's a big business on a big scale. It requires a lot of investment, and it requires a very dedicated market focus."
China ranked 11th among Kenya's top export destinations and accounted for 2.3% of the total exports in 2020, according to national data.