About a month ago, a news story originating from Nigeria got picked up by international media outlets. It was the kind of story which editors tend to love, having ‘clickbait’ written all over it. It involved a topic dear to everyone (food safety), an easily identifiable but faceless culprit (China), and a country far away to the imagination of most people (Nigeria). I am, of course, referring to the story of Nigeria’s ‘Plastic Rice.’ A story which highlights the poor image of Chinese goods in Africa and its effects on China’s economic engagement with the continent.
A quick recap for those not yet familiar with the news item. The Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) announced on December 21 to have impounded 2.5 ton of plastic rice, later said by customs officials to have been smuggled into the country from China.
Rice, a popular staple food in Nigeria, has become quite an expensive commodity in the country since the government imposed (again) a ban on the import of rice in March 2016 to become more self-sufficient in the production of food. Due to a lack of support to rice farmers, the ban contributed to higher food prices and skyrocketing inflation, with a bag of rice now costing more than double the amount of money compared to a year before. The status of Nigeria’s food market has turned the most populous country in Africa into a target for rice traffickers.
Which brings us back to the headline of the seizure of 102 bags of fake plastic rice, originating from China. As one senior customs official told local media during a press conference in Lagos:
“Before now, I thought it was a rumour that the plastic rice is all over the country but with this seizure, I have been totally convinced that such rice exists.”
Though, as it turned out, the rice was not made from plastic at all. After running some tests, Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) concluded a week after the impounding the plastic rice was quite real. Real, but still dangerous for human consumption, since it had been contaminated with micro-organisms.
It is not the first time accusations have been made regarding the existence of dangerous plastic rice originating from China. Especially in other Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore, rumors on fake rice have repeatedly been spread by local media. However, as an article by hoax-debunking website Snopes.com (click) exhaustively shows, none of those plastic rice reports were substantiated by hard facts.
It is striking, therefore, to read the BBC report on Nigeria’s ‘fake’ rice. As told by BBC reporter Martin Patience:
“Whoever made this fake rice did an exceptionally good job – on first impression it would have fooled me. When I ran the grains through my fingers nothing felt out of the ordinary.
But when I smelt a handful of the “rice” there was a faint chemical odour. Customs officials say when they cooked up the rice it was too sticky – and it was then abundantly clear this was no ordinary batch.”
Nigeria’s plastic rice story, besides highlighting how easy media agencies take clickbait-level accusations from government officials for granted without first checking the dubious history of prior reports on Chinese plastic rice, was also revealing for a different reason. It called attention to the usual suspect in food safety and counterfeit cases like these, China.
A pervasive belief among people to distrust Chinese made products underlies the fake rice rumor. This may arguably have been one of the major pitfalls of China’s export-based growth model. Producing cheap, low quality goods for export thrust China’s economy forward in the past decades, but also distributed a reputation of distrust in Chinese goods among consumers worldwide. The ‘Made in China’ label evokes expectations of a degree of quality which, though highly affordable, is likely to let you down at some point.
While Chinese goods have been in high demand by African consumers, being cheaper and more easily available on average than local or Western products, there are also many who hold negative opinions on the low-grade Chinese imports. Rumors about Chinese manufacturers producing substandard quality goods specifically for the African market, deliberately downgrading them in comparison with the same products produced for the European or American market, have added to these negative sentiments among local populations. The distribution of fake or inferior products made in China is in some cases even life-threatening to citizens in African countries, like the counterfeit malaria drugs flooding the continent.
A few months ago, a Tanzanian reader of a popular African blog posited the question why the Chinese “sell us such rubbish.” (Note the “us”, singling out the Tanzanian/African population as a ‘special’ target for unscrupulous Chinese businessmen.) The blog writer replied:
“Well, you are in good company and by that I mean millions of other consumers around the world share your frustration and anger about the quality of Chinese products.
This is not a problem unique to Tanzania, or even Africa, but it’s endemic throughout much of the developing world.”
In countries which lack large middle and high income groups, demand for high quality goods will inevitably be low. When asked on this subject, a Chinese trade delegation in Kenya therefore directed blame at Kenyan traders, who rather than demanding higher quality goods from their Chinese business relationships would focus on cheap, low margin goods from China that sell quickly. Though China can offer any quality of goods, according to members of the delegation, African merchants in cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen specifically request substandard quality because they are unable to sell more expensive higher quality goods.
While the trade delegation was right to an extent (though China also shares responsibility when it comes to preventing the production and shipping of counterfeit medicine and substandard quality goods), local populations in African countries such as the reader of the blog are often simply unaware of the high(er) quality goods being produced in Chinese factories. To them, the ‘Made in China’ label solely represents fake and low-quality products which, while cheap, are likely to lead to disappointment due to their short life span.
This image problem of Chinese goods poses a serious problem to Beijing, which attaches great importance to its public diplomacy efforts in Africa. China has courted African countries and populations for many years now, sparing no expense at convincing governments of China’s benevolent intentions on the African continent. Money is, however, usually spent on large infrastructure or construction projects like bridges and hospitals. While the livelihoods of locals are affected by these large-scale ventures in the long-term, generally leading to higher levels of economic prosperity, these investments fail to target the daily lives of Africans.
They interact with ‘China’ primarily through the purchase of Chinese goods, which to them have often become synonymous with words like ‘bad’ and ‘fake.’ And while they for now may still buy them for lack of better alternatives, this practice could change once huge masses from low income groups amass more wealth and are able to afford more expensive higher quality goods. Consumers might quite possibly prefer Japanese and American cellphones and tablets over their Chinese equivalents, not based on performance and quality but simply because of the difference in reputation.
Would African consumers start to prefer Japanese cellphones and tablets over their Chinese equivalents, not based on performance and quality but simply because of the difference in reputation?
Given the rapid grow of African middle classes, this is an issue of importance to China’s continued economic engagement with the country. Beijing would do well, therefore, to focus more of its attention on restricting the manufacturing and shipping of counterfeit and substandard quality goods. In an interview with a Nigerian newspaper, a high level Chinese government official said China and Africa have a “shared responsibility” when it comes to guaranteeing the quality of goods. Though true, China should on its own part significantly step up its efforts and adopt more countermeasures to protect and improve its ‘Made in China’ label.
Image repairing is much more difficult than image building. Spreading fear-mongering reports about Chinese fake rice is easy. Convincing people to read the retracting article is much harder.