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From the Field

Made in China, Sold in West Africa

From a small border post between Senegal and Mauritania, Anne Bouahli, Nora Mareï and Mamadou Dimé follow the journey of goods from Europe and China, as well as locally produced merchandise, with a view to examining and analyzing the different forms that globalization is taking in these little-studied areas.

Along the Tangier–Nouakchott–Dakar coastal corridor, the Rosso crossing on the Senegal River is both a border and a discontinuity in terms of transit. As the missing link in the interconnection of road networks between Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal, it is a discreet observatory of mobility and traffic flows between the three neighboring countries. On either side of the river, connected by a small ferry, two cities face each other : Mauritanian Rosso, with a population of about 33,000 in 2013, looks across from the northern shore to Senegalese Rosso, which has around 10,000 inhabitants. The latter is the second-busiest gateway into Senegal in terms of traveler numbers, after Dakar International Airport. Our aim is to understand the role of this nodal point between the Maghreb and West Africa, at a time when Morocco is increasingly turning economically and diplomatically towards its sub‑Saharan neighbors (Mareï 2017 ; Daviet 2013 ; Wippel 2004). From this point of view, Rosso can be considered a crossroads of trade routes between West Africa and Morocco, just as the latter has begun its process of accession to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), after rejoining the African Union in early 2017. Situated at the midpoint between formal and informal flows, between local goods and goods made in China, between international transporters and small “businessmen,” the Rosso border crossing [1] is one of these “discreet spaces” (Choplin and Pliez 2018) that allows us to understand how globalization and regionalization shape territories, from their borders to transnational spaces. Following the road out of Rosso (Choplin and Lombard 2010) takes us to the markets of Dakar and Nouakchott, in search of products and traders encountered around the river.

Trade, mobility and traffic between the two Rossos

The Rosso ferry is a perfect opportunity to observe the intertwined links between remote areas, cities, consumer markets, and supply points between which people and goods circulate. The goods come mainly from the north, and are composed primarily—in terms of both volume and value—of fruit and vegetables from Morocco, and sometimes also Spain (Figure 1a), which arrive by the refrigerated-truckload. This trade represented 80% of the revenue of the Senegalese Rosso customs office—some 5 billion CFA francs (about $8.5 million) in 2016.

Other products cross the border to the south from Morocco (industrial and construction equipment, clothing, footwear, furniture, furniture, argan oil, etc.) and Europe (livestock, fruit and vegetables). Secondhand cars for resale also arrive by road from Europe. They are driven by Senegalese citizens “from abroad” ; these occasional or professional traders sometimes travel onward by road to Gambia, Guinea or Mali—all countries that accept imports of vehicles over eight years old, unlike Senegal. The flow of private cars and trucks, filled with everyday consumer goods destined for the family or a small transnational business (Figure 1b), is particularly dense as the religious pilgrimage to the Grand Magal of Touba [2] approaches ; each year, it attracts millions of Mouride adherents (Bava and Gueye 2001).

Figure 1. Senegalese Rosso : different kinds of commercial traffic

© Anne Bouhali, Mamadou Dimé and Nora Mareï, 2017.

On a daily basis, “river people,” often from transnational families settled on both sides of the border (Dimé 2016), use either the ferry—free for pedestrians—or the fleet of private pirogues. These residents enjoy a special status that allows them to cross the border freely and undertake activities on both sides, such as trading in food products purchased in Mauritania, often originally from Morocco, and sold with a mark‑up in Senegal.

The spatial disruption created by the border has thus led to the development of commercial activities on both sides of the river, in order to serve the extensive passing trade. In addition to the small subsistence trade around the ferry or in the bus stations of the two Rossos, shops are set up at the entrance to the customs zones. On the Senegalese side, these include cellphone shops—enabling money to be sent to travelers blocked by unexpected customs duties—fast-food restaurants, cafés, and shops selling everyday items (such as shoes and clothes). On the Mauritanian side, a larger market has developed after the border crossing. In particular, the shops there sell (retail, semi-wholesale or wholesale) melehfat—the colored veils that women wear—as well as other items made in China (shoes, mats, crockery, perfume and clothing) purchased from wholesalers in Nouakchott or Dakar (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Mauritanian Rosso : the market behind the border crossing

© Anne Bouhali, Mamadou Dimé and Nora Mareï, 2017.

Passages, checks and waiting times in Senegalese Rosso and Mauritanian Rosso

All border markers are present on both sides of the river : customs zone bounded by high walls, police screened entrances, customs and police regulations posted for travelers (Figure 3a), health services, goods declaration offices. On the Senegalese side, as soon as you get off the ferry, the surrounding area is dedicated to the declaration of the goods transported and the payment of customs duties. Waiting times can be long, sometimes up to 48 hours, when there is disagreement on the amounts requested or when the taxed person is unable to pay the amount requested and must wait to receive money from the sponsor of the goods they are transporting. Vehicles and their cargo undergo a second check as they leave the city : Rosso’s mobile brigade has a brand new gantry to check the contents of the trucks without opening the load (Figures 3b and 3c). Then there are the unannounced controls between the border and the final destination.

In addition to the time taken for customs formalities, there is the time required to cross the river. Two bins, managed by Mauritania, allow them to be crossed several times a day (Figure 3d). Since a barge can only accommodate two semi-trailers per passage and a few private vehicles, carriers sometimes have to queue several hours before crossing. The service stops at nightfall, leaving only the canoes. A whole economy has thus been built up around border crossings, with its intermediaries who help with the passage : freight forwarders handling the administrative procedures for clearing goods through customs, transporters taking over from drivers arriving from Europe, currency changers.

Figure 3. Senegalese Rosso : the customs area and the ferry

© Anne Bouhali, Mamadou Dimé and Nora Mareï, 2017.

Markets that generate regional commercial traffic

The road from both branches of Rosso continues towards the markets of Dakar and Nouakchott, mentioned by traders on both sides as their supply points.

Dakar’s markets are at the crossroads of trade flows from different origins. These are also places of supply for traders from all over the country, as well as places of re-export to Rosso and Mauritania. This is the case with the Allées du Centenaire, a historical “purchasing center” for Chinese products (Bertoncello and Bredeloup 2009 ; Diop 2009 ; Marfaing 2015). This wholesale and semi-wholesale market offers products made in China entering through the port of Dakar. The shops, run by Chinese or Senegalese merchants, are mainly aimed at professionals, Senegalese but not only, who buy ready-to-wear by cardboard. Mauritanian traders are regular customers, according to the wholesalers interviewed. The merchants of both Rosso also buy their supplies there.

Other Dakar markets are supplied by road from Mauritania and Morocco, and are the final destination for products crossing the Senegal River from north to south. The shops on Rue Mohamed V in the Plateau district are a perfect example (Figure 4). Run by families living between Morocco and Senegal, they offer Moroccan products : clothes, leather shoes, prayer mats, handicrafts, etc., but also Turkish products, imported via Morocco.

Figure 4. Shops on Rue Mohamed V

© Anne Bouhali, Mamadou Dimé and Nora Mareï, 2017.

In Nouakchott, links with Morocco but also with Dakar are important and visible in the main markets. At both the Capitale and Cinquième Markets, many European-style men’s clothing comes from Morocco by road, indicating that products made in China are being re-exported from this country. Some shops highlight other sectors, Turkish or Italian (Figure 5). Links with Dakar are also important, particularly in the Cinquième Market, where the majority of traders and customers are West African (Choplin 2009) : wax, fabrics made in China or Europe, but also shoes made in China, are partly purchased in the Dakar markets (Figure 6). Other sectors directly supply the port of Nouakchott and wholesalers in the Sixième Market with “Chineseries,” often via the port of Dubai. Finally, Moroccan refrigerated trucks are also visible in the wholesale food market of the “Moroccan mosque” in the center of Nouakchott. The supply chains therefore intersect in the Nouakchott markets, again pointing to trade links between Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal, and further afield with Europe and Asia.

Figure 5. Shops in Capitale Market that trade on the foreign provenance of their merchandise

© Anne Bouhali, Mamadou Dimé and Nora Mareï, 2017.

Figure 6. Chinese shoes (a) sent from Dakar and (b) found in Nouakchott

© Anne Bouhali, Mamadou Dimé and Nora Mareï, 2017.

To stop in Rosso is to observe a globalized Africa, from a place where the flows of people and goods intersect ; where the scales are intertwined, from local to global. Small and large entrepreneurs play on the differentials created by the border by building their business between several marketplaces, between several countries, and participate in regional economic development “from the bottom up,” despite institutional constraints. The spatial system that revolves around the Rosso crossing point, from the transmitting markets to the receiving markets, from Dakar, Nouakchott and further afield in Morocco, is a fine example of this other globalization (Choplin and Pliez 2018) that is taking place on a daily basis, on both sides of the Senegal River.


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Pour citer cet article :

Anne Bouhali & Nora Mareï & Mamadou Dimé & traduit par Oliver Waine, “Made in China, Sold in West Africa”, Métropolitiques, 31 mai 2019. URL :

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