US-Africa trade received a boost with the signing of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) back in May 2000, which enabled African countries to export over 4,000 products, including apparel, quota-free and duty-free to the US.
Geared to support the integration of African countries into global markets, AGOA has enjoyed broad cross-party support in a usually fraught US legislature – especially on issues of foreign trade – and has been renewed several times. Helping Africa, it seems, is something everyone can agree on.
But they might, unwittingly, have been helping China too. Research by Lorenzo Rotunno and colleagues at the Centre for the Study of African Economies, Oxford University, suggests that savvy Chinese companies have set up shop in Africa as a route to get their products into the US with all the AGOA benefits.
The entrepreneurs’ logic is impeccable. Not only could an Africa platform get them duty free access to US markets, they could also avoid heavy quotas on China’s exports to the US, imposed through previous protectionist measures by the rich world, such as the Multi-Fiber Agreement.
Because AGOA did not contain ‘rules of origin’ provisions, the door is wide open for such creative thinking. “Restrictive quotas on Chinese apparel exports in the US and preferential treatment for African exports resulted in quota-hopping transhipment from China to the US via AGOA countries” the researchers say.
Chinese and Taiwanese producers are now said to comprise the bulk of a textile “diaspora” in Lesotho, Madagascar and Kenya. In one Kenyan processing zone, 80% of the 34 garment plants had Asian owners. While some outfits doubtless have in-country assembly – and therefore generate jobs and incomes for Africans – a number are little more than transporting docks for foreign-sourced, fully assembled goods ready to go to their final destination, tax free.
Chinese entrepreneurs made no bones about it. In one survey, they gave ‘taking advantage of international trade agreements’ in their top five list of motives for investing and operating in Africa.