While the activities of Africans in Asia are often overlooked; Asian – especially Chinese – engagement in Africa has become a focal point of interest in Western public discourse. This project explores the differences between the organization of African and Asian networks. It investigates the types of networks (from family to international enterprises), the sectors of trade and mutual impacts of different cultural practices on interactions and decisions. The focus on cultural and economic repercussion of trade, as it is perceived from the local actors’ point of view, allows to study the organization of trade networks, the development of entrepreneurial strategies, as well as the establishment of migrant trader communities.
The project’s focus on anthropological methodology and epistemological interest is the basis for the comparison within the project, even though the conditions in the research countries differ.
The key research questions of the project are as follows: What kind of trade do African and Asian states support? What are the ideological and historical themes that characterize the policies of these countries? What can be found out about the experiences of migration that Africans and Asians encounters in the respective foreign cultural context? Do these experiences differ from those made migrants in Europe? To which extent have these processes modified trade and contributed to the formation of new networks? What kind of discourses have been developed about the activities of Asians in Africa and vice versa? How do Africans evaluate the infrastructural development and the provision of goods in contrast to the increasing presence of strangers? How is competition for African enterprises created and whose cultural difference is often interpreted negatively? Do these evaluations have an impact on the trade networks? How is trade organized on the level of personal interaction?
One major research focus of the project lies on trade goods in order to find answers to these questions mentioned above. Following particular items like tea not only enables the project to understand supply chains from Chinese producers over traders in import and export to the market mechanisms in West African countries like Mali. This approach also reveals insight in the long history of trade and transformation of Green Tea from a mere product to a cultural practice, which is deeply rooted in Malian society today and becomes increasingly prominent in adjacent countries. A case study in Thailand among Malians, who trade with precious stones, revealed that Africans establish networks in Asia through modifying and adapting successful models that were developed in an African context. These activities give a clear idea about “African agency” in trade. Furthermore, they reverse simplistic notions of Africa only being the receiver of processed goods and exporting raw material.
Another focus of research are the activities of Chinese traders in South Africa. Thousands of Chinese traders arrived in the last 25 years from mainland China. While first-comers benefitted from the high demand in low-priced consumer goods; market saturation and macro-economic tendencies influence and transform the Chinese trader communities nowadays. Traders who have developed a sense for the demands in South Africa, found niches or were able to diversify their businesses, do have an advantage. These activities go often hand in hand with development of social, cultural and political ties in the host countries, where a relatively stable community of Chinese does already exist or is in the making. In all cases, the research showed that successful trade often depends on highly skilled brokers, not only in the economic arena, but also as cultural intermediaries. Researching interpersonal relationships allows to paint a profoundly more complex picture than mere generalizations of Asian/African dependencies, which this project aims to do.
Research is carried out in West Africa (Cameroon, Mali) and in South Africa as well as in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, and China. The broad regional choice provides opportunities for the comparison of historically and culturally divergent regions.
The research is conducted by the following team of scholars:
Ute Röschenthaler researches in close cooperation with Antoine Socpa Cameroonian and Malaysian trade networks, in cooperation with Birama Diakon the network of Malian and Chinese traders in Mali and China, and with Shigehiro Sasaki African trade networks in Japan. Mamadou Diawara explores Malian migrants in Indonesia and returnees in Bamako. Matthias Gruber researches Chinese/South African trade networks in South Africa.