How a northern Chinese became East African

Every year thousands of Africans go to China to shop. Their purchases mount up and it takes containers to bring the goods back home. After spending his formative years in East Africa, David Li found a way to make a business out of facilitating this trade.

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Linking Africa with China through trade 4:53

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“Let me find out what the price is,” David Li says to his African customer, holding a pair of leather shoes, and goes to speak to the Chinese shopowner.

The scene is Yiwu Commodity Market, one of the largest export bases in China. 75,000 shops give the 210,000 daily visitors 1.8 million different commodities to choose from. Basically, anything you’d ever need. Dubbed "the world’s largest small commodities wholesale market" by the United Nations, exporting a mind-boggling 570,000 containers of goods every year, this is David Li’s home turf.

“This is what we do. We take the clients to here and when they find something they like, we help them find the cost, we help them with the negotiations and when they have completed the purchase, we help them put the goods in a container and ship it back to Africa,” David Li explains.

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A supermarket far from home

Every year thousands of Africans go to China to shop. They purchase so much that it takes containers to bring the goods back home, and fellow Africans have set up shops in China to help facilitate the trade.

In 2013, David Li became customer of Maersk Line and he has since shipped over 1,600 containers, growing the business at a rate of 20-30% every year in those four years.

Making trade easier

Originally from Shenyang in northern China, David Li travelled to Kenya in 2001 to help his sister who had started a business. Here, he became invaluable as an interpreter and fixer. Also, he thrived on the cultural exchange, eventually deciding to make a business out of helping his African friends prosper.

“The four years in East Africa made me understand how challenging a place it can be, and when my friends in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania began asking where they could get different products in China, I thought I could create an organisation to help them source products in China, to simplify everything for them.”

The company, Yiwu All Ways Import & Export, was set-up in 2005 to do exactly that: help Africans do business in China and export back to their home countries. This means picking up the clients at the airport, taking them to their hotel, to restaurants, and taking them to the market to do business.

Even with the cost of transportation to Africa, the goods bought in China are still less expensive than what is on the shelves of local shops. That is what drives this niche trade.

Connectivity matters

“In the beginning, we only had two or three people employed. But we tried to improve, learning what the clients wanted and tailoring our services around that, and once we got it right, the business began to grow fast. Today, we have more than 100 people with the company in East Africa, in Yiwu and in Guangzhou,” says David Li, emphasising the importance of a reliable shipping partner.

“Maersk Line is the leading shipping company and their systems are very organised. Also, they have all of the capacities at the destination,” he says of the cooperation which is still going strong.