Could the Coronavirus lead to a change of Africa-China trade patterns?

 In op-ed, personal

A security personnel wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly SARS-like virus which originated in the central city of Wuhan is seen at the entrance of subway station in Beijing on January 28, 2020.

Photo Credit: NOEL CELIS / AFP

With the recent Coronavirus, 2019-nCoV outbreak thrusting China into the limelight, the world is gripped by health concerns. However, the impact of the virus on trade, including with African countries, could also have long-term implications, for better or worse.

Yiwu, a little-known city in Zhejiang Province, Eastern China is a home to the world’s biggest market for “small commodities”, or rather, wholesale manufactured items. At over 7 kilometres large and with 70,000 businesses inside, you can find literally everything from kitchen appliances, to hair accessories and Christmas decorations.  Around 300,000 foreigners visit Yiwu each year to purchase cheap but highly desirable goods and send them back to their home countries, the vast majority of these from developing nations, including African countries.

During December 2019, Yiwu reported a staggering 35.761 million USD worth of goods was exported overseas. And because of this bustling export market full of international traders, the city is a multicultural haven within China.

Whilst visiting the market in 2019, I was astounded by not only the variety of goods but also the variety of nationalities, in particular those from developing nations. Although Yiwu is a small city of only 1.2 million people, it was estimated in 2016 that about 80,000 African traders visit each year, and around 3,000 traders from over 50 African countries have settled in the city.

With regards to trade, Yiwu exported 48.21 billion yuan ($7.24 billion) of small manufactured goods to Africa in 2015, a reported 51 percent year-on-year increase. Furthermore, an average 200 containers, filled with hundreds of products such as garments, toys, accessories and electronic devices are sent to the African continent each year.

But currently this gigantic market is empty. No traders can be found pacing the floors trying to get the best deals. Few containers are leaving the nearest port in Ningbo, life is at a stand-still.

This is because Yiwu market, like many other markets across China, is closed due to the recent outbreak out the Coronavirus, 2019-nCoV. And Zhejiang Province, where Yiwu is located, has been particularly badly hit. To date there have been 1117** confirmed cases – the second highest number outside of Hubei, the epicentre of the epidemic, and they are continuing to rise.

But what does this temporary closure mean for the all the foreign traders and their communities back home who rely on the goods from Yiwu?

Firstly, looking at the economic impacts from SARS may provide some clues. A 2004 analysis determined that the SARS crisis cost the world economy a total of about 40 billion USD.  The economic fallout had a ripple effect, slowing manufacturing, trade and tourism, not only in China but across the region and beyond.

There is no doubt the latest Coronavirus is going to have a similar impact on trade and cities such as Yiwu, and the traders who rely on these small manufactured goods for their business will need to be resilient. In the short term, the number of foreign visitors will certainly slow and it is expected that the number of orders will be reduced.

However, the situation may also provide an opportunity for both the foreign traders and the businesses in China to review ‘how best to trade’ and grow their partnerships.

For the traders buying all these small manufactured goods from China, it has created a reliance on markets such as Yiwu, and on a broader level for many countries contributed to large trade deficits with China. Data my consultancy firm Development Reimagined released in mid-2019 showed that 74% of African nations have trade deficits with China.

In order to build a stronger ‘win- win relationship’ and one more resilient to shut-downs in China, there is an opportunity to develop manufacturing capacity in African countries and utilise their lower labour costs. This would mean in the short-term exporting machinery and skills from Yiwu, as opposed to exporting low-cost finished goods.

That said, doing so would means the businesses in Yiwu would need to diversify their niche from being in the “small commodity capital of China” to becoming the leading exporters of machinery and skills for manufactured goods. However, in the long run this will also help Yiwu to become more resilient when unexpected shocks – such as the Coronavirus – occur.

Whilst visiting Yiwu last year, I spoke to many African traders who hoped in the future to shift from exporting the finished goods and to instead help their local communities source machinery, to add value and create jobs back home. I hope that once the Coronavirus has been contained and managed in China and globally, they will have the opportunity to see this vision through.

In the short term, the situation for everyone in China is tough – but I have no doubt the community in Yiwu can work together to weather the storm and together develop a new, stronger and revitalised trade relationship in the future.

By Leah Lynch, Development Reimagined Deputy Director. This article was originally published on The China Africa Project on February 6th 2020

** number correct as of February 11th 2020

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Research Analyst

Edmond is a research analyst who is passionate about sustainable development, innovation, and the environment. Passionate about climate financing, he firmly believe there is a more reliable system to promote equality, growth, and welfare in societies without affecting the ecosystem. Through his skills, knowledge and experienced gained over 7 years, he wants to make an impact in the world of development. Edmond holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Korea Development Institute and a BA Degree (Honors) in Business from University of Derby.


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Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.


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Leah Lynch is Deputy Director of Development Reimagined (DR), and head of the China office. Leah has over 10 years of experience in development and has lived in China for over 8 years. Leah has also travelled extensively around Asia and Africa for research. Leah supports the strategic direction of the team across China, with a mission to deliver high quality research on sustainable development and poverty reduction. Leah is also Chair of the Sustainability Forum at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, providing direction on sustainability initiatives for British and Chinese business. Leah has also consulted on various evaluations on UK aid (ICAI) and is a specialist on development cooperation from the UK and China. Leah has also consulted on various UN projects, including providing support to the UN China team during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prior to DR, Leah was at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, supporting the UN’s portfolio on communication strategies, China’s South- South Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Before UNDP, Leah lived and worked in Kenya developing sustainable water policies for the Kenyan government.


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Yike Fu is a Policy Analyst and has been responsible for leading numerous areas of work, including on debt analysis in Africa and beyond, and China-Africa trade and investment logistics and analysis. She is the co-author of “African Debt Guide”, in which she challenged the narrative that Africa is in the midst of a new debt crisis by analysing data back to the 1970s and adopting new metrics to present the real story behind the data. She also developed a benchmark to compare the financial distribution of development partners such as the UK, US, Japan, France and China in Africa. Prior to her role at DR she worked at the International Finance Corporation and African Union Representational Mission to the US. She holds a Masters in International Affairs from George Washington University.


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Patrick is an International Trade Policy and Trade Law Expert with over 5 years of experience. His expertise includes trade law, trade policy analysis and regional integration. He is currently engaged with Development Reimagined as a Senior Trade Analyst and was the lead author of Development Reimagined's recent Report on Africa-China Relations titled "From China-Africa to Africa- China: A Blue Print for a Green and Inclusive Continent-Wide Strategy Towards China." and “Reimaging FOCAC Going Forward.” Patrick has previously consulted for the East African Community, UNECA and for the Kenya Ministry of Trade.


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Jade is a Project Manager for Development Reimagined’s flagship project Africa Unconstrained, which focuses on financing needs and debt vulnerabilities of African countries. Her research focuses on China-Africa development finance alongside debt vulnerabilities, infrastructure needs and South-South cooperation. She has worked with a breadth of stakeholders from China, Africa and the wider international community, including governments, private sector, NGOs and civil society. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Africa Report, The China-Africa Project, The Diplomat and more. Jade holds a Master’s in China and Globalisation studies from King’s College London.


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Rosie is the Project Manager of Africa Reimagined (AR) at Development Reimagined (DR) where she supports high-end African brands with entering the Chinese market by operating services such as trademark protection, Chinese market research, Chinese partnership building, and Africa to China logistical support and import/export services. Rosie has worked with DR for over two years now with proven success in helping high-end African brands navigate the Chinese market. She is extremely passionate about her work because more African brands selling in the Chinese marketplace means African countries can export MORE value-added goods, create MORE jobs and foster MORE innovation in African countries.

Rosie is also alumni of the School of International Studies at Peking University in Beijing where she is also an editor at the Peking Africa Think Tank. PATT is led by a diverse group of scholars who specialise in African Studies within the context of Sino-Africa relations.



Lauren has lived in six countries from the Americas to Europe and Asia and speaks both French and Spanish proficiently. At Development Reimagined, Lauren’s research focuses on climate action both in the Asia-Pacific and in Africa, and how countries are using tools such as SDGs and Covid-19 action to build a more climate-resilient future. She holds a Masters in International Relations from Leiden University.



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Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.