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07. May 2007

Cheap imports batter Africa's businesses

The poor in rural Africa have for years cooked their meals of stew and cornmeal porridge over open wood fires in three-legged cast-iron pots that are made in South Africa and sell for about $55.
Recently, however, a foundry in Shanghai has begun shipping its version of the pots to Africa, where even after shipping and import duties, they can be purchased for as little as $15.

The trend -- repeated on product after product and in country after country across Africa -- has been a huge boon for the continent's poor, many of whom are now able to afford consumer products that previously were beyond their reach.

But it has delivered a body blow to an already weak manufacturing sector, eliminating jobs and forcing companies like one Johannesburg cooking-pot maker to consider making its products abroad.
South Africa alone has lost 70,000 jobs in the apparel sector over the past four years because of imports from low-cost Asian producers, said Rudi Dicks, co-coordinator of the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

"Thousands of jobs have also been shed" in South Africa's electronics sector because of the cheap imports, Mr. Dicks told The Washington Times during a recent visit to Geneva.
South African government figures show China has eclipsed the United States to become the nation's second-largest source of imports, and could take top place from Germany as early as next year.

The Department of Trade and Industry in Pretoria, South Africa, says imports from China almost tripled from $2.4 billion in 2003 to $6.7 billion last year. Garment sales increased by 81 percent last year alone, according to estimates by the World Trade Organization.
Ebrahim Patel, general-secretary of the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU), calculates that every African breadwinner supports an average of six persons.

That means the 70,000 textile jobs lost in South Africa are affecting almost half a million people in a country already suffering from high unemployment, he said.
His remarks reflect a growing concern across Africa, from Kenya to Nigeria, Lesotho, Namibia, Madagascar and even Mauritius, which is a major exporter in its own right.

A recent U.N. report found that Chinese companies are present in 48 African countries and that annual trade with Africa, now $56 billion, has grown fivefold since 2000.

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