Senegal's shoe capital faces competition from China


Momodou Thiam, head of a shoe workshop in Ngaye Mekhe, holds up this oversized babouche that he is, perhaps, as likely to sell as any of his over-stocked shoes.


Drew Hinshaw

NGAYE MEKHE, Senegal — For years, this little town was Senegal's shoe capital. The craftsmen here produced shoes for the nation and people came from all over to buy footwear made here.

But then in 2000 this town's cobbling business began to die.

Ngaye Mekhe is a village of craftsmen, blacksmiths, horse-driven cart jockeys and above all, shoemakers. It smothers the country road with open-air racks of red sandals, yellow babouches, green loafers and flip-flops galore. All are locally, proudly made. 

“Everybody knows that this is the capital of shoes,” local shop owner Momodou Thiam said. “Original Senegalese shoes.”

Emphasis on original. In a bruising verdict on Africa’s industrial might, most Senegalese shoes are no longer made in Senegal. This artsy footwear synonymous with "thiossane" — Wolof heritage — is increasingly cobbled in China.

China’s exports to Africa blossomed tenfold in the last decade. Senegal’s imports from China tripled from $140 million in 2005 to $414 million in 2009, according to the government statistics agency.

In 2009, Senegal, exported back just $24 million worth of goods — peanuts, mostly.

Imports of shoes — including Chinese versions of Ngaye Mekhe’s shoes — grew 64 percent in the same period.

“This is our thiossane, our culture, the work of our grandparents,” said 38-year-old Ibrahima Pene, who has been carving soles since he was 13. “But around 2000, it began to collapse. Now, in 2011, this industry is dead.”

Crasftspeople throughout West Africa are grappling with such bewildering currents of globalization.

In Ghana, Chinese knock-offs undercut traditional batik fabrics — although, to be fair, batik cloths originated in Java, and were printed in Holland for centuries, long before they became the iconic African cloth.

In Burkina Faso, souvenir peddlers sell synthetic cowry shells — those shells, a medieval African talisman that happened to have come from the Maldives, via British ships.

Meanwhile, Nigerian DVD racks pit Thai-copied bootlegs of American movies against Nigerian-made films — which are, in turn, heavily influenced by Mexican soap operas.

In a world of such inside-out global trade, a village so strapped for cash as Ngaye Mekhe can hardly keep up.

“Truthfully, those less expensive Chinese shoes are not the problem,” Thiam said. “Our problem is our own lack of money.”

With a little bit of capital, cobbler after cobbler in the village said they would build their nation’s first leather liming plant — a processing factory where cow hides are tossed in an alkaline soup that singes prickly hairs and loosens the skin.

For lack of that simple alkaline vat, Ngaye Mekhe depends on Senegalese middlemen who sell the craftsmen $8-a-pound leather from Italy or Spain.

“We are full of cows in Senegal,” Pene said. “All we lack is a processing plant for leather.”

“If we had that, we could bring the price down, while preserving the quality,” agreed Moctar Gueye, a shoemaker.

A plant, Gueye added, would require some loans, yet credit here flows in spurts and fits as inconsistent as the electricity.

Like hundreds of his young neighbors who have moved to Dakar, Gueye, too, has left Ngaye Mekhe. The world-traveled, two-time award winning shoe designer moves from trade show to trade show schlepping giant white sacks of shoes, which he sells to any foreigner who will spare a moment to hear the story of his town — unless they’re Chinese.

“I don’t sell to them, because they might go home and copy it,” he said. Instead he keeps changing his styles, improvising new designs faster than they can be duplicated.

“We’re not running in place,” he said. “We want to improve our know-how and occupy a part of the American market.”

Back in Ngaye Mekhe, his colleagues watch TV in their idle workshops, ignoring their handcranked sewing machines — which are made in China. All are surrounded by an absurd surplus of handcrafted shoes that nobody seems able to sell.

“It must be the economic crisis,” Thiam said. “The demand for these shoes is so low. Some people have gone to Dakar, but usually they don’t find work, and they come right back. At least here you don’t have to pay rent.”

“The town is dead,” he said. “But if you had seen this town back then.”