African markets are full of cheap bootleg Chinese versions of their textiles. As China comes under US pressure to respect laws on intellectual property rights, should Africa also take a stand?
I walked into a dusty wooden booth known in Sierra Leone as a 'boutique' to shop for fresh clothes. The airline hadn't delivered my luggage on my flight from Germany and I had been wearing the same clothes for days.
When I left the boutique, I had a brand new pair of Armani jeans, D&G shorts and some Lacoste shirts. The items cost me about 500,000 Leones (€50, $58). In Sierra Leone, this is a form of cheap luxury for the middle-class. But for the EU or US, it's a result of China's gross violation of intellectual property and patent laws.
China is facing hefty fines in the United States. In April, US President Donald Trump unveiled a list of over 1,000 Chinese products to be hit with 25 percent tariffs worth $50 billion. The Trump administration said this was punishment for Beijing's policy of forcing American companies to give up their intellectual property rights in order to do business with China.
China struck back with its own list targeting US exports worth the same amount. Economic experts dubbed this spat a "trade war." Whatever the outcome of this political brouhaha between the world's two largest economies, the African continent is bound to feel the effects.
Chinese contraband on African markets
In the grid of "boutiques" along the main road of Koidu, a town in eastern Sierra Leone, Chinese bootlegged 'designer' clothes are all there is for the residents of the diamond-rich region. The only other choice comes in the form of used clothes from Europe and the US - an option which many African countries are growing more critical of.
"This is original GA," the boutique trader told me as I tried on the supposed Giorgio Armani (or GA) jeans. Original indeed! Between this pair of jeans and one costing €200 in a German store, the only difference I could see were the shop's flashing blue neon lights and 50 Cent's In da Club blaring out of loudspeakers in the background.
Counterfeit Chinese-made textiles in Africa have improved so much so that if there is any difference between the original and the fake, a layman's eyes such as mine can't see it.
Eric Olander, co-founder of the China Africa Project, an organization based in South Africa, thinks it is too simple to say that Chinese firms are simply taking advantage of African governments.
"Both China and each of the African countries it engages with are working to maximize their own national interests and it becomes incredibly difficult to determine what is fair," Olander told me.
The supply of cheap Chinese counterfeit items has grown so voluminous that the counterfeiters' Clavin Klein brand inadvertently became more of a household name in Sierra Leone than actual Calvin Klein products. Instead of Samsung, your phone comes from Samsong and the radios are from Sunny instead of Sony.
Many analysts believe that Beijing uses EU and US intellectual property to mass produce cheap goods and dump them onto African markets. But "Africa is not unique in that regard," argued Olander. "China does exactly the same thing in the USA, Asia, and the Middle East."
I should add here that when I refer to "China," I do not only mean the Chinese government, but also small to medium-sized private firms and multinational corporations.
Most African traders prefer to import cheap Chinese goods instead of buying expensive ones from local firms
Africa's 'free-for-all' intellectual property rights
So who is responsible for copyright violations in Africa?
"There are a few complicating factors" in the Sino-African relationship, according to Cobus van Staden of the South African Institute of International Affairs. Van Staden is the co-founder of the China Africa Project, along with Eric Olander.
"There are high level products and low level products all coming out of China. But the most important thing is that Africans have been very active in funneling Chinese-made products to Africa," said van Staden, who hosts a regular podcast on Africa-China relations.
A large group of Africans in China act as middlemen for legitimate as well as illegitimate African traders.
But van Staden believes Chinese authorities are starting to take the issue more seriously. "Reports in the past are about counterfeit products coming in, but I think the Chinese government has been implementing new screening procedures."
Unified Africa regulations against Chinese influence
From electronic gadgets to stationery, from providing cheap skilled labor to exporting natural resources, China has Africa covered.
"Interestingly, all kinds of school uniforms find their way here," said Ismail Bello, deputy secretary general of the National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria. China's labor force is equipped with the know-how similar to most European nations. So arguably, it is cheaper for a primary school in Nigeria to import uniforms from China than to buy them from a local garment industry.
"The Nigerian textile and garment industry is at its lowest ebb," Bello said. "In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, this industry thrived to an extent that it exported to the West African region, occasionally to East Africa. With the liberalization of the textile market in the 1990s and the influx of Chinese textiles, the industry began to decline."
"Local producers possibly have less than 15 percent of the market shares. It has resulted in several closures and loss of jobs over the years," Bello said.
In the 1980's, Nigeria's garment industry employed about 500,000 people. Currently, only about 15,000 work in the industry, according to the union.
So what's the solution? Regulations! "I do think that having a stronger unified regulatory kind of apparatus to protect African intellectual property is really important," said van Staden.
But would China respect a unified African regulatory apparatus like the African Continental Free Trade Agreement - a proposed version of the agreement was sind in March 2018 by 44 out of 55 African Union member states. If ratified, the pact would lay down rules of trade for the entire African continent.
According to van Staden, Chinese firms might actually adhere to such rules. "Botswana and South Africa have complex regulatory framework and Chinese companies tend to work according to local laws," van Staden argued.
The relationship between the African continent and China is complex. It has its positive and negative sides.
Eric Olander explains: "I can tell you that China is the worst thing that ever happened to Africa and list all of the horrors committed over the past ten years. I would be correct in every point."
"I can also tell you that China is the best thing that has ever happened to Africa and, again, I would be correct in every point. This is not a binary relationship," Olander said.