An African Trader And The Perils Of Business In China

Apr 26, 2012
Originally published on April 26, 2012 8:31 am

It's dinnertime at a bustling Kentucky Fried Chicken in the Little Africa neighborhood of Guangzhou, in southern China. Chinese schoolgirls nibble on fries, a grandmother feeds her grandson, and Kelvin Njubigbo stares at a single wing on his tray. His foot, wrapped in a gauze bandage, juts out from the table.

"Everything is risk in life," repeats Njubigbo. "It's all risk from the beginning to the last."

A lawyer, Njubigbo couldn't find steady work in his native Nigeria, so he's trying his hand at the clothing trade. He's buying cheap goods in China and reselling them in Nigeria. His first two trips were successful. For this third trip to Guangzhou, he convinced his parents to lend him more money. More money means more clothes, which means more profit, he figured.

His family cobbled together $19,000. After he arrived, he got wind of a great deal. Two factory representatives standing in front of the Tangqi market showed him some nice shirts at an unbelievably low price. Njubigbo couldn't believe his luck. He took a taxi with the two men to their warehouse.

Once inside, two men suddenly grabbed him from behind. He tried to fight, but one of the men smashed his leg with a sledgehammer. They pulled down his pants where his money belt was hidden, grabbed the belt with his entire savings and fled.

"And here I am. Everything I saved, just gone like that," says Njubigbo.

A Risky Business

Njubigbo knew the risks. It's not uncommon for traders to carry large sums of money. According to Heidi Ostho Haugen, a scholar studying the Nigerian trading community in China: "The producers are in the informal sector, so you'll have to pay cash. People know about that and can take advantage."

At the police station, an officer gave Njubigbo the phone number of the only man who might help: the Chairman.

Ojukwu Emma is the head of the Nigerian community in Guangzhou, but everyone calls him the Chairman. He used to export shoes, now he exports salvation, helping troubled traders with visa problems leave China legally. But there was nothing he could do for Njubigbo.

Njubigbo had a valid visa and a ticket home. Back at KFC, he debated with himself about what he should do next. "Do I stay? Do I go home empty-handed?" He stared out the window. Traders stood on the sidewalk laughing and shaking hands. Packages labeled Lagos, Nigeria, piled up on the curb.

Eventually, Njubigbo went back to Nigeria. But he saved for another trip and returned to Guangzhou this week.

Nina Porzucki is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. During her fellowship, she traveled to Guangzhou, China, and reported on the Little Africa community for one month.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In addition to its big trade with the United States, China is now the largest trading partner of Africa. In the last decade, trade has run more than tenfold, and many enterprising Africans have started traveling to China to buy cheap goods at the source and ship them back to their home countries.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

These days, the factory boom town of Guangzhou is home to the largest community of Africans in China - more than 10,000. It's a place where a lot of money can be made and lost.

Reporter Nina Porzucki met one Nigerian merchant who risked it all.

NINA PORZUCKI, BYLINE: It's dinnertime at a bustling KFC in the center of Guangzhou's commercial district. Young Chinese schoolgirls in skirts giggle as they nibble on fries, a grandmother feeds chicken to her grandson. And across the table from me, a Nigerian man with his foot wrapped in a gauze bandage stares at the single chicken wing on his tray.

KELVIN NJUBIGBO: Everything is risk in life. It's all risk from the beginning to the last.

PORZUCKI: This is Kelvin Njubigbo's refrain. Kelvin is a clothing merchant but he's really a lawyer, he tells me. He hasn't been able to find steady work as a lawyer in Nigeria, so he came to China to try his hand at the clothing trade. He traveled back and forth between Nigeria and China, buying clothing in Guangzhou to mark up and resell back home. The profit margin is very small - maybe a few thousand dollars from each trip. But in Nigeria, a few thousand dollars is a windfall.

NJUBIGBO: The two times I came was really, really good. Was really, really good.

PORZUCKI: This third time, Kelvin doubled down. He convinced his parents to lend him more money for this trip - more money, more clothing, more profit.

NJUBIGBO: My parents sold everything. Everything. Borrowed money.

PORZUCKI: His family cobbled together $19,000. And now he's here to buy. Two days ago, he got wind of an unbelievable deal. A Chinese couple claiming to represent a factory that made clothes for Europeans stopped him in front of the market.

NJUBIGBO: They showed me some samples. They told me they have clothes. So, I followed them to warehouse and I see good things I liked and they give me good price. And that's what I've been looking for.

PORZUCKI: Kelvin couldn't believe his luck. He got into the taxi with the factory reps and they drove to the warehouse on the outskirts of town. Kelvin followed the female factory agent up to the second floor. Suddenly, two men suddenly grabbed him from behind.

NJUBIGBO: They held me. I tried to fight.

PORZUCKI: Kelvin's thoughts went immediately to the money hidden in his underwear.

NJUBIGBO: I held my jeans because my money was inside my shorts.

PORZUCKI: Then one of the men lifted up a sledgehammer.

NJUBIGBO: You know, those big hammers they use to break walls. So, they smashed my leg, so I let go.

PORZUCKI: The men took all of Kelvin's cash and ran - $19,000 - his entire savings; his parents' entire savings.

NJUBIGBO: I rode down from second floor down to the last floor shouting. People were laughing. The Chinese were laughing. I don't know, they don't understand what I'm saying or it's their way of life. They were laughing at me before a military man called the police.

PORZUCKI: The first thought he had was for his parents.

NJUBIGBO: And here I am. My country's lost. I left it all for this cold, just to make something so that they will be okay. Everything, everything I worked for, everything I saved, it was gone like that.

PORZUCKI: In a hotel as quiet as the marketplace is loud, I spoke with Heidi Ostho Haugen, a Norwegian scholar who has been studying the Nigerian trading community in China for several years.

HEIDI OSTHO HAUGEN: The Nigerian bank system is not working, so you can't pay with a Visa card. And often the producers are in the informal sector, so you'll have to pay cash for whatever you've commissioned. And there's a fairly high chance that you have a lot of cash on you. And some people know about that and take advantage of it and can steal your cash.

PORZUCKI: There's no way around the risks in this business. If you choose not to trust people...

HAUGEN: You might end up not having any business.

PORZUCKI: When Kelvin was at the police station, he was afraid and ashamed to call any of his fellow traders. One police officer who spoke a little English took pity on him. The officer gave him a phone number for the only man who might be able to help. The man that everyone - I mean everyone in Little Africa, whether Chinese or African knows - the chairman.

OJUKWU EMMA: Well, my name is Ojukwu Emma. I'm the leader of African community, you understand?

PORZUCKI: Ojukwu came to China with the first wave of African immigrants to Guangzhou in 1997 to export shoes.

EMMA: We find it difficult because of the language barrier. They are not like us. The culture, everything is very different, you understand?

PORZUCKI: This is Ojukwu's second term as president of the Nigerian community in Guangzhou. He's a big man with an ego to match.

EMMA: The Chinese believe when they cheat people they are clever. They are not feeling like it's cheating. But they feel it's clever, you understand.

PORZUCKI: Dozens of traders arrive from Africa each day with dreams of making it big and no idea of what they're getting themselves into. The chairman points to at least 30 green Nigerian passports stacked on his desk, each passport representing another trader in trouble. The chairman's most pressing task is finding a way for them to leave China legally. He used to export shoes; now, he exports salvation.

EMMA: So, all I'm working is to see that everybody are OK, you understand.

PORZUCKI: Kelvin had a valid visa and a ticket home. The only problem: he hasn't told his family about the money.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

PORZUCKI: It's his father on the phone.

NJUBIGBO: Hello, daddy. I'm trying.

PORZUCKI: Kelvin hangs up the phone and stares down at his hands. His parents, he says, hasn't stopped calling him since he arrived in China.

NJUBIGBO: Every 30 or 20 minutes or one hour he calls me. How are you doing? How are you buying? Have you bought good things? Is the things OK? Is it (unintelligible)? I keep lying. How long? How long?

PORZUCKI: Kelvin hasn't heard anything from the police. So, what now?

NJUBIGBO: Do I stay? Spend the little money that was in my wallet? Do I go home empty-handed? I'm confused. I don't know what to do.

PORZUCKI: Kelvin stares out the window. It's evening time and the streets are buzzing with activity. Packages labeled Lagos, Nigeria pile up on the curb. Traders crowd on the sidewalks shaking hands and laughing. The Chinese street food vendors started to set up for the dinner rush. Kelvin finally did tell his parents about losing the money. His father was not as angry as he feared. Now, he's back home in Nigeria saving for his next trip to China, which he hopes will be this spring.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Porzucki.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: And when we return to Little Africa tomorrow, we'll meet two Nigerian businessmen who have found a formula for success in southern China.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.