F Mira: Capulanas, 2009 (CC)
The foray of Chinese companies and institutions into African countries is often met with suspicion yet great curiosity abroad. Many scholars and policymakers in different areas of the world see the growing Chinese engagement in Africa as an indicator of expanding Chinese foreign-policy ambitions in general. Especially the contested Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global development strategy the Chinese government introduced in 2013, which is currently all the rage in China–Africa research. Initially promoted as a revival of ancient trade routes, the ambitious initiative now includes dozens of countries as far away as Chile, Nigeria, and New Zealand. In the last years, a frenzy of BRI-related, highly visible Chinese infrastructure and construction projects on the African continent has raised concerns about the influence of China on African governments and societies in particular. However, there is one aspect of it that both researchers and the media often neglect: apart from humans, money, goods and ideas, there is also fashion and style travelling back and forth along the BRI’s increasingly dense network of trade routes. Looking at the example of the southeast African country Mozambique, which is now home to around 40,000 Chinese migrants, it becomes clear that there is a growing and mutual bottom-up fashion exchange between China and Africa.
Taibo Bacar and Nivaldo Thierry are two of the very few successful local fashion brands. They, however, only cater to rather wealthy and upper-class consumers in Mozambique and abroad. Thus, second-hand clothes and imports, most of which come from China, but also from South Africa, Europe and Brazil, are now dominating Mozambican fashion. The same applies to other fashion items and beauty products, including underwear, capulanas (traditional cotton fabrics), shoes, jewelry, hair extensions, hair products, nail polish and whitening creams. These products are not produced in Mozambique, or if they are, they are of a very low quality, whereas their imported Western versions are not affordable for most Mozambicans.
Chinese manufacturers are able to fill this price and quality gap between Western and local or South African products. The good quality–price ratio of Chinese products also has an impact on the ubiquitous Mozambican capulanas, colourful cotton print fabrics which Mozambican women usually wear as wraparound skirts. While Indian producers have long controlled the capulana market, most of the large capulana wholesalers in Maputo’s downtown Baixa area have now switched from Indian to Chinese suppliers, convinced by the low price, strong colours and clear prints of their products.
In Baixa, there now even are several capulana stores owned and run by Chinese, who buy their goods directly from China. Similar developments can be observed in the Mozambican clothing and accessories market in general. For a long time, Chinese fashion came in mainly via third countries such as South Africa, Brazil or Portugal. In the last few years, the number of local direct importers has increased, but they now have to compete with Chinese traders, who often benefit from their Chinese-language skills and their close connections to the producers in China.