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Trading nations

Updated: 2013-01-25 11:57
By Zhang Haizhou and Xu Junqian ( China Daily)

Trading nations

Rich and poor, from far and wide, migrants have turned a small Chinese city into business hub with indelible links to Africa

A big mosque stands among residential blocks by the river. Smoke and the aroma from grilled lamb kebabs drift in the chilly winter air.

Men talk loudly in Arabic, French, English and other less easily identifiable languages to a background of pulsating music, and veiled women glide through the neon glow of restaurant signs in "Exotic Street".

You could be in any Middle Eastern or North African city, or in the Muslim community of a big European one. But this is Yiwu, a county-level city in Zhejiang province on China's eastern coast, 280 kilometers south of Shanghai.

It is more than 8,300 km from Cairo, but distance seems to be no problem for Adel Sayed Mahmoud El-Maairgy.

"I have no difficulties, no difficulties," the 52-year-old engineer-turned-businessman from Cairo says when asked about his life in Yiwu.

"I feel very safe and comfortable here; it feels like home. I never left Egypt before I was 45, but here I don't feel lonely at all."

This is because Yiwu, with a population of 1.23 million, is home to the second-largest African community in China, after Guangzhou. About 2,500 African business people live in Yiwu, the international office of Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College says.

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Two in three of more than 14,000 foreign business people in Yiwu are from Asian countries, and those from Africa form the second-largest overseas business group.

The college also says there has been a surge in the number of African visitors in recent years.

Yiwu attracted 68,302 African visitors in 2011, more than double the number four years earlier.

It peaked in 2010 at 70,276, but declined over the past two years, mainly due, it is thought, to the global economic recession and political turbulence in North Africa.

Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Morocco and Ghana rank as the top five sources of African visitors to Yiwu, which the United Nations and the World Bank recognize as the world's biggest commodities wholesale market.

Lying in the northeast of the city, Yiwu International Trade City has 70,000 stalls, covering 4.3 million square meters and offering more than 1.7 million different products, a bewildering array of goods ranging from souvenirs to cigarette lighters, from English Premiership jerseys to posters of Nelson Mandela.

Founded 30 years ago, goods from the market now go to 219 countries and regions.

Yiwu's exports of small commodities rose 20.9 percent last year compared with the previous year to reach $11.9 billion, Yiwu Customs says, exceeding $10 billion for the first time.

Though no figures are available on the city's exports to Africa last year, it exported $2.33 billion in goods to the continent in 2011, Xinhua News Agency reported.

Commodities from Yiwu appeal more to Africa, which is still hungry for basic consumer goods, Yiwu Customs says. Electrical goods, garments, accessories and plastic goods are the main items on Africa's shopping list.

Since Adelco Trade, El-Maairgy's company, opened in 2006, it has been exporting construction hardware to Egypt.

Despite the gloomy global economy of recent years, El-Maairgy finds his business is still growing, and has recruited three more Chinese employees.

"Every year we have new customers, your business grows more and more," he says, adding that the biggest advantage is Yiwu's wide range of goods.

"You don't just focus on one product."

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