NPR

In Nigeria, Chinatown Vendors Struggle For Profits

The Chinatown in Lagos, Nigeria, was built in 2004. It's home to more than 100 shops that sell everything from ceramic coffee cups to Hannah Montana backpacks. (NPR)

This month, NPR is examining the many ways China is expanding its reach in the world — through investments, infrastructure, military power and more. In this installment, a tale of two Chinatowns in very different circumstances — one in Nigeria and the other in the Italian town of Prato.

The Chinatown in Lagos, Nigeria, is one of a kind. It looks like a big, red medieval fortress with crenellated walls that resemble the Great Wall outside Beijing. A Nigerian flag and the Chinese flag fly together on the ramparts.

Inside is a courtyard filled with 180 shops, selling everything from blue jeans to High School Musical sketch pads. But many stores are shuttered and dusty.

Chinese clothing imports practically destroyed the Nigerian textile industry, so six years ago, the Nigerian government banned them.

"The impact is that most of them [Chinatown clothing shops] had to shut down," says Solomon Julius, a Nigerian who manages Chinatown.

[The Chinese have] taken over this economy like they're taking over the world.
Ope Banwo, Nigerian lawyer

Nigerian companies have also tried to crack down on Chinese businesses for selling pirated CDs and DVDs.

Ope Banwo, an entertainment attorney, accompanied police on a raid of Chinatown in 2006. Banwo says cops found bootlegs of Hollywood films. Then, Banwo says, something strange happened: Police received a phone call and let everyone go. He says it was clear to him that somebody intervened to save the merchants from arrest.

"When I say, as a lawyer, they're being protected by the powers that be, I don't say it lightly," Banwo says. "I saw that. And they left those guys with everything."

Today, you can't find pirated DVDs in Chinatown, but people sell them just outside the gate. Like many Nigerians, Banwo sees Chinese businessmen as an unstoppable force.

"They've taken over this economy like they're taking over the world," he says. "The next superpower is China."

Some vendors in Chinatown tell a different story. Huang Haifeng owns a tiny shop that sells doors and cheap Chinese suits. He says doing business in Nigeria is brutal.

"I want to quit trading," Huang says. "There are no profits."

"Even last year, we lost much money. In dollars, last year [$80,000] or $90,000. Even some Chinese, they lost more," he says.

Huang moved to Nigeria in 2002, because the country has Africa's largest Chinese population and he saw a huge potential market for Chinese goods. Huang imports the suits he sells from China, but Nigeria is notoriously corrupt, and Huang says some of his suits are stolen in customs.

"Sometimes, each bag, you're short five or 10" suits, he says.

Huang says manufacturing in Nigeria isn't much easier. He imported parts and tried to build doors in a factory here to save money. But Lagos suffers blackouts several times a day, which makes operating a factory difficult and expensive.

"The cost was too high, because there's no power," Huang says. "We're always using diesel, and the engineer is not as good as a Chinese engineer."

A third big problem, Huang says, is exchange rates. The Chinese currency, the renminbi, is strengthening, raising the cost of his products. Meanwhile, the Nigerian naira has weakened, reducing his purchasing power.

Some Nigerians think the Chinese are taking over the country, but Huang shakes his head. "No, I don't think so," he says. "I don't think so."

Tony Jun agrees. He runs a Chinatown shop that sells everything from 50-cent ceramic coffee cups to $10 Hannah Montana backpacks. But after nearly a decade in Lagos, Jun says it's no longer worth it. He figures he can make more money back home.

Jun plans to move back to China in the next year.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos
Transcript

FRANK LANGFITT: This is Frank Langfitt and I'm in Lagos, Nigeria in front of the city's Chinatown. It's probably not like any Chinatown you've ever seen. It actually looks like a big medieval fortress. It's about three or four stories tall, red walls. Up on top, it's crenellated, kind of like the Great Wall in Beijing, and you can see a couple of flags - the red Chinese flag and the Nigerian flag - flying together.

Inside is a courtyard filled with 180 shops, selling everything from blue jeans to "High School Musical" sketch pads. But many stores are shuttered and dusty. Chinese clothing imports practically destroyed the Nigerian textile industry. Six years ago, the Nigerian government fired back.

Solomon Julius, a Nigerian who manages Chinatown, explains what happened to many of the shops here.

Mr. SOLOMON JULIUS: In 2005, the government actually placed a ban on importation of textile, which is an economic policy. The impact is that most of them, they have to shut down.

LANGFITT: Nigerian companies have also tried to crack down on Chinese businesses for selling pirated CDs and DVDs.

Ope Banwo is an entertainment attorney. He accompanied police on a raid of Chinatown in 2006. Banwo says cops found bootlegs of Hollywood films. But after police received a phone call, Banwo says, they let everyone go. Banwo says it was clear to him somebody intervened to save the merchants from arrest.

Mr. OPE BANWO (Attorney): When I say as a lawyer that I believe they are being protected by the powers that be, I didn't say it lightly. I saw that. And then they left those guys with everything.

LANGFITT: Today, you can't find pirated DVDs in Chinatown. People sell them just outside the gate. Like many Nigerians, Banwo sees Chinese businessmen here as here an unstoppable force.

Mr. BANWO: They've taken over this economy just like they have taken over the world. The next superpower is China.

LANGFITT: Some vendors in Chinatown tell a different story. Huang Haifeng owns a tiny shop that sells two unrelated products: doors and cheap Chinese suits. Huang says doing business in Nigeria is brutal.

Mr. HUANG HAIFENG: There is no profits. Even last year, we lost in dollars, I think it's 80 or 90 thousand. Even some Chinese, they lost more.

LANGFITT: Huang moved to Nigeria in 2002 because the country has Africa's largest population. He saw a huge potential market for Chinese goods. Huang imports the suits he sells from China, but Nigeria is notoriously corrupt, and he says some of his suits are stolen in customs.

Mr. HUANG: Sometimes you're short - each bag you're short five, 10.

LANGFITT: Five or 10 suits?

Mr. HUANG: Yes. Even more than that.

LANGFITT: And how many are in a bag?

Mr. HUANG: Fifty.

LANGFITT: Huang says manufacturing in Nigeria isn't much easier. He imported parts and tried to build doors in a factory here to save money. But Lagos suffers blackouts several times a day, which makes operating a factory difficult and expensive.

Some Nigerians think that the Chinese are taking over the country, that you're very successful and you're making lots of money. Is that true?

Mr. HUANG: No, I don't think so. I don't think so.

LANGFITT: Tony Jun agrees. He runs a Chinatown shop that sells everything from 50-cent ceramic coffee cups to $10 Hannah Montana backpacks. But after nearly a decade in Lagos, Jun says it's no longer worth it. He figures he can make more money back home. Jun plans to move back to China next year.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular