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At the beginning of my study days in Antwerp, Belgium in the mid 80’s I was the only black student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and there was no African shops. The only exotic shops I remember, were Moroccan, concentrated in Borgerhout, a neighborhood everybody told you to avoid. That’s where I got my flour for Ugali (Fufu) and spices. But they didn’t identify themselves as African; neither were their shops associated with Africa. Until today, Moroccan shops have a unique identity of Mediterranean Muslim.
In Brussels, the capital city, one would find African shops selling Congolese food and wax textiles in Matongé, Porte de Namur. But again, Matongé was more famous for its musical and beer ambiance. Africans went to this mini vibrant Kinshasa to drink, dine and dance.
With a population of around a million, Antwerp, Belgium’s port city and capital of the Flemish region housed less than 300 blacks, mainly students and political refugees from Ghana and later Nigeria. Unlike Britain of that time, there were no black workers in the supermarkets and many of them only came out at night due to police harassment. Sometimes they’d stop me 3 times in one day, asking for ID documents.
Then one day around 1989, as I walked through the pedestrian crossing, an Asian man got out of the car and handed over a business card and told me he would be expecting me at his shop. I thought, this is interesting, let’s go check it out. It was the first African Supermarket, a walking distance from my apartment, just behind the Antwerp Central Station and the famous Antwerp’s Zoo.
Mr. Ahmed, a Pakistani native, didn’t just own the supermarket; he organized the entire African food and cosmetic chain in Flemish Belgium. He later helped a few smaller shops owned by Africans sprout but he was steadily behind the supplies.
By the end of 1999, there was a huge influx of African refugees from Rwanda, Congo, Sudan, Senegal and a couple other countries and when I set up Mamboleo, the first newspaper for the minority community in Belgium, Ahmed had established more than 10 shops in Belgium, a huge wholesale store and a sports shop. He also dominated the African cosmetic sales in Belgium and parts of Holland.
Not far from Oriental Supermarket was a couple of Indian owned African Textile shops vigorously competing against each other. Only one stayed, Sonna Textiles, owned by a Ugandan Indian who was kicked out by Iddi Amin from Uganda in the early 70’s. Today, Sonna is a global leader in African textile export, with a branch in the US. Seven out of ten African garment you see around the world is probably made in Holland and sold by Sonna African Textiles.
By 2005, there was an African shop less than 200m from each other in main cities, most of them owned by Pakistanis.
I witnessed similar stories in London, Paris and Frankfurt. But the most disturbing of it all, was in Kenya, the country where I was born. But things are changing, only to some; it’s a long slow process.
The greatest challenge in business is not the funds to set up a business, neither is it the business premises or products, or even the services to sell. It’s the commitment, time and the risks involved. This to me is the barrier to most Africans. When in comfort, don’t want to die.
During the 10 years I run the newspaper and as community leader, very inclined towards entrepreneurship, I challenged Africans to become entrepreneurs, but most of them looked at me as a rich Anglophone brat. First of all, the situation in Belgium is complex, not only for the natives but the immigrants as well. The country is divided into French speaking South and Dutch speaking North and Brussels capital as bilingual but actually trilingual because of the third silent language, English.
It’s the language you speak when you think you don’t want trouble, only that you’re not sure whether the other person will want to respond, but it’s the safest language to use when new in town. So the division is also felt in the African community, French and English speaking, many of whom don’t understand a word from each other and with their community leaders, just like in Africa, are more ethnic based than policy based and you probably know that there was no large scale organized markets in traditional ethnic Africa. Everybody, except fishermen, sold their produce directly to the consumer and the reason here is that there was no refrigeration, fishermen work at night while markets are during the day and fresh fish must be cooked on the same day. Whatever fresh fish is not sold must be processed in the evening otherwise it will rot the next day. This is why fishermen were not involved in selling of their catch to the end user.
French speakers are not comfortable with English speakers on money matters. In the French culture, speaking about money is a taboo, but they all want it.
If you ask Africans why they don’t set up their own businesses, 6 out of 10 will tell you they don’t have funds and 3 out of 10 will say that the Belgian fiscal is difficult for entrepreneurship. In a way, like all communities, Africans are very calculative, but their maths doesn’t consider long-term benefits. For instance, 2008 studies show that Africans were second to Europeans in terms of highest number of University degrees, but also the last in terms of employment and active in economic activities.
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