The flip-flop, that most basic of footwear, may be the best illustration of China’s immense influence in and on Africa. Professor Caroline Knowles of Goldsmiths College, London, went on the flip-flop trail round the globe
for her recent book ‘Flip-flop. A Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads’. She came away rather impressed by the immense numbers of these open-toed sandals that went from China to Ethiopia. With a population of over 84 million and a low GDP, Ethiopia is the ideal market for cheap Chinese goods. It buys more Chinese flip-flops than any other country in the world.
Professor Knowles argues that flip-flops “take us to heart of China’s phenomenal export-led growth and its footprint across Africa.” Literally. And that the world’s cheapest footwear is a game changer for Ethiopians and all the other Africans who buy them. And walk in them. On her travels, Professor Knowles came across people whose lives were so much better because they had a pair of flip-flops. For instance, an elderly lady in Addis who like most urban Africans of her generation, had walked barefoot for the first few decades of her life.
Footwear is seminal, says Professor Knowles, in the mechanics of mobility through which our world is constituted. “It is through our feet that we are in touch with the ground on which our lives are lived.”
True. But it’s doubtful Ethiopians, or other Africans, or anyone else anywhere for that matter, explicitly associates his cheap new flip-flops with China. As a general purveyor of low-cost products and relative comfort, yes.
But does this really build Brand China?
(Tomorrow: The scramble for Africa III: China’s no-strings approach is attractive)