A glance at the goods piled on shelves across East and Central African local markets, roadside stands, and grocery stores reveals a diverse array of manufacturing origin – cloth shoes from India, silk ties from Turkey, shiny dress shoes from China, school supplies from Iran, shirts from Thailand, dried fish from Brazil, soap from South Africa. Their labels are a hodgepodge of English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, or Urdu, indicating that many of these goods were not manufactured with a specific African consumer in mind (although this is changing). These commodities arrive through decentralized networks of East and Central African entrepreneurs who travel to various hubs in the Middle East and Asia, including Dubai and Guangzhou, to buy goods for shipment and resale in their home countries.
Academic Gordon Mathews somewhat bluntly characterizes this “low end globalization” as
not rich countries sending their manufacturing to poor countries, as is the typical pattern, but rather, very poor countries seeking manufactured goods from less poor countries…These are goods that their own countries either do not manufacture or manufacture at such prohibitive costs and low quality as to make imports from many thousands of miles away preferable to those of their home countries.
The Central African Copperbelt-Dubai Connection
In the early 2000s, waves of entrepreneurs from the southern Congolese city of Lubumbashi began traveling by plane to the wholesale malls of Dubai. With increasingly cheap airfare, these entrepreneurs travel to buy bulk merchandise and that is then shipped via rented containers to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. From there, travel agencies ensure these goods reach southern Congo in trucks passing through southern Tanzania and Zambia.
Upon entering stores in downtown Lubumbashi, the owner – oftentimes a composed, middle-aged woman known as the “maman” – sits in a plastic chair, casually but attentively watching potential customers as their eyes scan the shelves. While stores specialize – in clothing, hardware, food – they often carry a variety of odds and ends, or “les divers,” of spice packets, lighters, batteries, mobile phone credits. By maintaining a diverse stock of goods in small quantities, shop owners have more flexibility during the volatile exchange rate fluctuations that are now considered ordinary. Mercy Tshizainja, owner of Blessing Foods, first began her business several decades ago selling cloth to miners’ wives. Since her first trip to Dubai eight years ago, Mercy has travelled to Tanzania and South Africa and operated two stores, one selling food and the other clothes, until the latter closed after the 2008 financial crisis.
Dubai: An African Marketplace
More than any other contemporary location, Dubai provides a geographically and politically accessible marketplace for facilitating trade between Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Muhindo Musavuli, an employee of “For Dubai Business and Cargo Services,” one of the most prominent travel agencies for small businesses in Lubumbashi, clearly outlined that “before the 2000s, the tendency [of Lubumbashi travelers] was first oriented towards Europe and people went to find merchandise there. Since they discovered Asia, I believe, and as going to Europe became more and more difficult, people now go where it is more accessible.” Coupled with newer airline initiatives that provide cheaper and more direct flights to various business destinations in Asia, Congolese travel agencies have reported a marked shift in popularity from Belgium-bound flights to Dubai and East Asia-bound flights over the last ten years.
While Dubai has been instrumental for many small-scale African entrepreneurs tepidly engaging in international commerce, more experienced entrepreneurs have started bypassing the middlemen of Dubai and have traveled directly to locations closer to production centers, particularly in Asia and Turkey. Mwange Wambaya, a Congolese entrepreneur who first traveled to Dubai in 2001, explains this trend: “People were not there yet, but then everyone else followed . . . the benefits of going to Dubai have since decreased.” Nevertheless, there are challenges to making direct purchases from production sites in Asia, namely, that African merchants who travel these longer distances require a much larger amount of dispensable capital and must be willing to run greater risks.
“Global South” Not Located Outside of the West
A striking result of this trade is the creation of direct economic and transportation connections between cities, which had previously received little interest from business people in the Global South. These strengthening ties are rapidly redefining traditional notions of global economic centers and peripheries. Capitals and major cities instantly recognized in the United States and Europe as economic, technological, and cultural capitals, are often absent from the itineraries of merchants coming from Africa. For example, many Congolese entrepreneurs who travel to China never spend time in Beijing or Shanghai, but instead visit lesser-known cities like Guangzhou, Yiwu, and Anhui. Indeed, I developed an interested in this research topic after being asked in East Africa, as an Asian American perceived as Chinese, if I had connections to factories in China.
Although they complain about the poorer quality of goods, such as clothes, coming from China (versus from Turkey, Thailand, and Indonesia), African traders traveling to these cities acknowledge that they are offered the same goods as other business people with similar purchasing
power. Nevertheless, the business opportunities generally available to entrepreneurs in Africa are greatly circumscribed by contemporary political configurations, including fluctuating and volatile exchange rates dictated by the strength of the U.S. dollar and international commodity prices.
For example, mineral ore price volatility plays an enormous role in Lubumbashi’s economy, having a tangible effect on the daily lives of Congolese citizens. Every street corner has at least one, if not several small, Cabine Publique stands, where a large hand-written, ever-changing sign denotes the day’s exchange rate and tightly bound bricks of American dollars and the Congolese franc bills are readily at hand.
Congolese merchants are ultimately importers forced to operate within the confines of an unpredictable currency and commodity market in which they are only indirect participants. These realities are far from the neat neoliberal visions of development and the often-romanticized microfinance discourse, which mythologize the ability of earnest and hardworking entrepreneurs to save up money and turn profits that fuel economic development.
A Different “Market” Model
Affordable mobile phones and mobile network access have become ubiquitous, with four major international companies providing coverage in southern DRC, including Vodacom (South Africa), Zain (Kuwait), Tigo (Luxembourg), and Congo Chine Telecom (a Congolese and Chinese collaboration venture). These communication technologies, have far, however, from replaced face-to-face interaction.
For each of their transactions, Congolese merchants reported travelling in person to Dubai to haggle their way to an agreeable price (paid in cash) and to oversee transportation. Abstract understandings of markets – the demand and supply for specific goods – are manifested only through a physical interaction in a site understood as a marketplace (wholesale malls, etc.). Despite new technologies of communication, markets are enduring places that couple physical face-to-face interactions with transactions. Dubai’s wholesale malls add to an accumulating knowledge and recognition that capitalism, far from being an abstract and universal model of economic interaction, is in fact very much reliant upon various practices of kinship, affinity, and social relations.
Limited Cross-Cultural Interactions in Dubai
Still, it is important to keep in mind that these interactions between thousands of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern merchants are brief and transitory. Some responses from merchants, such as the following, suggest a sense of alienation arising from interactions with people of different linguistic, national, religious, and ethnic backgrounds: “In any case, I don’t know about the lives of someone. Wherever you travel, we don’t know each other, we don’t communicate outside of numbers.”
While increased economic activities move merchants from countries all over the world to destinations further and further from their homes, there are few exchanges beyond the transactions of the calculator, hand gestures, rough haggling back and forth through numbers, handshakes, and movements of cash. Despite narratives about the increasing opportunities for global travel, questions are raised as to how these processes may or may not actually connect people in a meaningful or sustainable way.
Conclusion: the Marketplace to Stay
As hundreds of Africans, Asians, and Middle Easterners converge to make their livings in the wholesale malls of Dubai, the stakes are high. While the full scale of this “low-end globalization” is far too decentralized to be quantifiable, its lasting impacts are already visible through East and Central Africa’s rapidly expanding material culture.
Dubai is not simply a node of a commodity chain linking production sites in Asia to African import networks. Its immense popularity and accessibility for newer African merchants, as well as its central shipping port, suggest both a cultural and geographic permanency. The current commercial configurations in Dubai’s wholesale malls encourage and thrive on small-scale merchants from the Global South. While globalization in developing countries is continually discussed as a massive tidal wave of corporatization and sweatshop industrialization, Dubai and other emerging commercial hubs suggest a different, decentralized, and possibly more interdependent pathway forward for transforming economic livelihoods across the Global South.
*Vivian Lu is a meandering first year anthropology PhD candidate at Stanford University. Research included in the article was conducted in 2009-2010 in collaboration with Stéphane Lumbu, of L’Observatoire du Changement Urbaine (OCU) at UNILU (Université de Lubumbashi).
 Mathews, Gordon. “Chungking Mansions: A Center of ‘Low-End Globalization.’” Ethnology, Vol. 46, No. 2 (Spring 2007), pp. 179