One of the ways China is quite an interesting and different development partner is the country’s use of expos as a trade tool. In particular, China’s Ministry of Commerce and the Shanghai Municipal People’s Government have been hosting the world’s only import-themed expo annually since 2018, the “China International Import Expo” (CIIE).  It is the largest Chinese expo for businesses and brands from across the globe to enter or expand their businesses in China, and with halls covering every sector from vehicles to textiles and AI, it always results in significant announcements of new investments and sales. This year’s CIIE generated record deals worth US $78.41 billion – a 6.7% increase from 2022.

In principle, then, it should be a great opportunity for African businesses to gain access to China’s consumer market, but has it really helped in reality, and is it enough? Past CIIEs have proven to be an impactful platform to launch African products in China. For example, Kenya has been shipping frozen avocados to China since 2019 but used CIIE 2022 to showcase its fresh avocados to increase exports. Now, 30% of Kenya’s fresh avocado exports are destined for China up from US $1.08 million in 2022 to US $7.60 million within the first nine months of 2023. Mpundu Honey from Zambia, a brand which has been exhibiting since the first CIIE, has annually scaled up displays and orders from under one ton in 2018 to nearly 20 tons in 2023.

The 2023 CIIE was an even bigger success with 43 African country pavilions, 27 stands for African businesses and organizations and 20 African agricultural companies. South Africa, China’s largest African trade partner and BRICS member, was “country of honor” and free booths and tax benefits were extended to several African least developed countries. This year also saw several African nations exhibit for the first time including Central Africa, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Sierra Leone, Togo and Zimbabwe.

New African products were also displayed and garnered substantial attention. For example, just two months after signing an export agreement with China for its fresh sugarloaf pineapples – Benin’s first protected Geographical Indication, Benin presented the pineapples in a prominent booth at the Expo, which attracted crowds of Chinese consumers, businesspersons and media. African-branded products were also on display, such as skincare products from Organic Trade & Investment, Comafrica, Ingram’s, SHEACOCOA and Aloe Master Care. There were also wAlko VintageGolden VelvetMazoe and accessories from Shlobo Designs. Besides consumer products, Rethread Africa from Kenya presented their biodegradable textile fabric technology in the Innovation Incubation Zone, while Patrick Kwete from DRC exhibited a self-developed AI robotic arm.

In addition, Development Reimagined, in partnership with the International Trade Centre (ITC), provided training for over 67 SMEs from developing countries including 13 African countries, that later displayed their products in the ITC booth at CIIE and met with business partners. Their exhibits included cosmetics, handicrafts, homeware, wine, food, spices and other agricultural products.

All this success notwithstanding, in comparison to other regions, Africa’s presence at the CIIE was, however, tiny. Out of 3,813 exhibitors only 106 were from Africa, making Africa the least represented region (Africa also contributes the least amount to China’s global imports). Furthermore, over 60% of the African products on display were unprocessed, unbranded agricultural products and less than 10% were branded, non-agricultural products. There was also a strong degree of product repetition. For example, there were at least seven African coffee brands from five different countries and shea butter was showcased in several African pavilions. It was also noteworthy that branded African products received relatively little media coverage in comparison to the continent’s agricultural products, which suggests Africa is still seen as a source of primarily unprocessed products by Chinese media.

This overemphasis on low-value, unprocessed products means that the benefits to exporting countries in terms of economic growth, job creation and industrial chain advancement are, ultimately, limited. This is especially problematic for a continent with ambitious manufacturing goals.

To enhance the impact of CIIE and any import-related expo in and out of China on Africa’s exports and African economies more broadly, there are therefore some extra recommended steps.

For instance, the ITC, the African diplomatic core in Beijing and even firms like ours could be encouraged and incentivized to seek out a much wider variety of value-added, branded products for the CIIE. Chinese media could also be encouraged to focus more on these products, and where products are raw or unprocessed their special qualities such as their Geographical Indications could be promoted more strongly, so as to prove their higher value in the Chinese market. Hosting specifically Sino-African business match-making events for these products could also be considered to increase sales and promotional opportunities.

Certainly, the CIIE is showing that import expos can be a great tool for increased trade and business, and African governments and firms are trying to cash in. But to really make an impact on development, CIIE and other import expos need to aim to showcase how rich and varied Made in Africa products and brands really are. That might just be CIIE’s next step for 2024!

Author: Yuejie Shi is Research and Data Analyst at Development Reimagined with a special focus on Global Trade and China-Africa Trade.

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