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Poverty and the Range of Goods

For the majority of people in Mali and Senegal, their dreams of consumption and the good life do not correspond to what they can afford.

Poverty does not mean that people do not consume, though, but it affects how and what they consume and, naturally enough, how much. When we go to the marketplaces we see not only that the tight economic situation affects the range of commodities, but also that producers and retailers exercise great creativity in their attempts to satisfy people's dreams.

Domestic Consumption and Poverty

Bildet kan inneholde: selger, tinning, kunde, marked, praktisk mat.
Stall with groceries

In Mali and Senegal it is family and relatives who constitute people's social security system. The great unemployment means that perhaps only a few members of each family have an income. It is therefore a complete necessity that the one or more in the family who earn/s money shares with the others.

Those who spend only on themselves or are not willing to share risk getting a bad reputation and being labelled stingy. It is clear that in such a situation, an individual has great difficulty saving money. At the same time it is enormously important for people in West Africa, rich and poor alike, to appear presentable, to have fine, freshly ironed and clean clothes and, preferably, a new outfit and accessories for finer occasions. People constantly have to balance between the demands to share with others and the desire to hurry and use the money they have for those things they dream about and need.

As recently as 1994 the economic situation of most people worsened drastically. That was when all the countries in French-speaking West Africa were forced to devalue their common currency (CFA) by as much as fifty percent. Organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) threatened to withhold loans if this devaluation was not carried through. That same year loans and foreign assistance accounted for nearly one half of the national expenditure in both these countries. Along with the demand for devaluation came demands for privatization of the economy, cuts in subsidies to local agriculture, and demands for cheaper imports of goods from, and exports, to countries abroad. In many ways, the aim of these demands was to increase local economic activity, but perhaps, in particular, it was also to increase Mali's and Senegal's participation in global trade.

For people who live in Dakar and Bamako the devaluation meant that the value of their money was halved. Put another way, the price for a sack of the most sought-after rice from Thailand doubled overnight. This necessarily had consequences for local agriculture. One visible effect is how easy it is to buy everyday goods in miniscule quantities. Retailers in the markets offer coffee and sugar in bulk weights of such small amounts that they are sufficient only for one cup. All spices, bouillon, rice and soap powder are for sale in daily rations. Some of the manufacturers have already changed their packaging, like Nescafé and Gloria milk powder bags produced by Nestlé.

Bildet kan inneholde: hukommelse, marked, rekreasjon, søthet, konditori.
Display of a travelling hardware dealer

Many families have such low incomes that they do not have the means to stock more than they actually need from day to day. But shopping in very small quantities is even common among better-off families. In a large household it is difficult to prevent everything that is purchased from being consumed immediately. If one has a large bag of soap powder in the kitchen, it can happen that the girl who washes the household's clothing uses a generous portion, and perhaps takes a bit for her own use. In this way, enough soap powder for a week disappears in two or three days. When one buys only enough for one day at a time it is easier to control the consumption.

Following devaluation it was particularly the prices of imported goods that became higher. In the markets of Mali and Senegal, naturally enough, this affected the range of goods, and there are fewer imported goods than formerly and more products locally or regionally produced. But both the producers' and sellers' have shown great ingenuity in solving the problem. One solution is that sought-after goods from the West are imported used rather than new. Another possibility is to import cheap copies of expensive brands from Asia. A third option is to deal in smuggled goods. It is also striking how many of the locally and regionally produced goods on offer are not factory products but, rather, are made of industrial waste and recycled materials by local craftsmen.

Hamma - the Medicine Seller

Hamma sells medicines from a bag.

Hamma lives by selling medications. Some years ago he was afflicted by a serious disease and everyone thought he would die. But he survived, even though he is somewhat physically reduced today. Now he does the rounds of the villages, carrying with him plastic bags filled with tablets and ampoules of all shapes and colours. The pharmaceuticals are generally goods smuggled in from Burkina Faso, and they are sold without packaging. It is therefore not possible to check their date stamp, nor are there user instructions. Most of his customers are farmers who can neither read nor write. They ask Hamma for advice about what they can take for their various afflictions. Hamma has no education but says that he gives advice to the best of his ability. His clients do not have much money, so they buy tablets one by one, or two or three a time. They do not know what they are buying, nor which illnesses the medicines are intended to treat. Medicines are medicines, and they trust Hamma and what he tells them. After all, he's the seller, so he ought to know! In this manner Hamma manages to earn a few crowns a day and sustain himself and his family.

The Range of Goods in Madougou

Despite devaluation and people's general poverty, imported goods regularly find their way to the villages. The following is a list of such factory-produced goods found in a randomly chosen market stall:

Factory-produced goods
Product and Brand Name Place of Production
Coffee Burkina Faso
Special Gunpowder tea China
Sandals (plastic) China
Flashlight/torch China
Tiger batteries China
Glutamate China
White Cat menthol China
Paraffin/coal oil lamps China
Stationery and envelopes France
Marseille soap France
Nestlé milk powder France
Adam tea bags Germany
Mini Lait milk powder Germany
London cigarettes Great Britain
Tomato paste in tins Italy
Macaroni Italy
Candies/sweets Ivory Coast
Nescafé in small bags Ivory Coast
Maggi bouillon cubes Mali
Bleach Mali
Déli Coco biscuits Mali
Soap Mali
Jumbo bouillon Mali
SOACAP plastic bags Mali
SODEMA detergent Mali
Vita Lait milk powder Mali
Liberté cigarettes Mali
Green tea Mali
Metal basin Nigeria
Paracetamol Nigeria
Rambo insect repellant Nigeria
Supercolle motos glue Taiwan
Spaghetti Tunisia
Claremont cigarettes USA
Bildet kan inneholde: servise, drikkevarer, servering, servise, porselen.
Nigerian metal bowls are popular

As we see from this selection, the largest proportion of the factory-produced goods entering the village comes from other parts of Mali or West Africa (16), thereafter from Europe (8) and Asia (8), one from the USA and one from North Africa (Tunisia).

Frequently there is fiddling with the brand names of goods, particularly with smuggled goods.

The origin of a product is not always what it appears to be. Thus it is possible that, in the above list, an even greater proportion of the goods on offer were produced in West Africa.

Bildet kan inneholde: selger, marked, by, begivenhet, detaljhandel.
Traders have a sense of order

This range of goods indicates that the village is incorporated into global trade. Even though Madougou is located out in the hinterlands, the goods find their way here today just as they have done through earlier eras with the caravan trade across the Sahara.

But it now takes less time than earlier for a product made in China or Nigeria, for example, to reach the village market. Besides, the village population possesses consumer information about other parts of the world, for even the smallest village can now have television sets run by generators.

Despite their poverty, people want to participate as consumers in the global market. But the local population's purchasing power is not great, and because it is more expensive to import goods from the West, most products now come from within West Africa. The difference is that increasing numbers of products are produced in factories in the general region. They are no longer produced locally in the village.

Reuse and Recycling

Recycled plastic goods for sale

Today, far more people live in Dakar and Bamako than the infrastructures of these cities were built to accommodate. The authorities have huge problems keeping on top of urban development. Every day the traffic in the downtown areas comes to a complete standstill because the streets are too narrow for the mass of cars and minibuses. Expenditures on the removal of waste and other refuse consume nearly half of Dakar's operating expenses. Still the mountains of waste build up - something that gives the very poorest the possibility of making use of other people's refuse for their own survival. Today in Bamako and Dakar, a large number of people live by rooting through the garbage, collecting things that can be used, and sold again in the marketplace. The majority specialize in one type of material, particularly plastic, glass, metal or fabric bits. They deliver these to a factory or a workshop with whom they have an agreement. In this manner, rubbish can provide the basis for income-generating industry.

Very few industrial firms in Senegal and Mali use recycled materials in their production. The exception is the local production of household goods of plastic and glass. Every year, tons of plastic products are produced and discarded after use; then, they are collected and sold back to the factories producing plastic products. The result is that plastic goods - buckets, tubs and water containers that rival the batik-coloured cotton materials in the flamboyancy of their hues - are for sale in large quantities in all markets, in both the cities and the villages. But above all, it is manual craftsmen who work with recycled materials. Leftovers from local industry are collected and used as raw materials in their respective production activities. In addition come all the used materials, collected by people who live from this activity.

One could say that objects and materials circulate down through the social system, from the richer to the poorer, before they are used for completely new purposes. Plastic fibre rice sacks are unpicked and braided into a rope that is more durable than the traditional ropes made from plant fibres. An empty tin can be transformed into a water container, or a toy drum for a child; cardboard cigarette cartoons can be used inventively for knife scabbards. Mattresses can be produced from a mixture of used newspapers, dry grass and hemp.

Bildet kan inneholde: gass, rektangel, bygning.
Production and sale of metallic suitcases

There are a number of factors that make reuse and recycling essential. Used materials are certainly cheaper to use in local production than are new ones that perhaps also have to be imported. The lack of materials is another factor: in the villages of Mali, among other things, the scarcity of iron makes it necessary for local smiths to melt down used metals. Grill stands for tea kettles, pots, pans and other kitchen equipment for sale in the markets of Mali and Senegal are almost exclusively made from used remains of industrially produced cooking vessels, motor parts, metal containers and other iron or aluminium objects.

Dakar's many sheetmetal workers discovered that they could use bits of metal to strengthen the construction of their suitcases. These could be bits of metal found in the streets of Dakar or rejects from a factory that produces metallic packing cases. The goal of a boy who has migrated to the city from the countryside to earn money is to invest in such a metallic suitcase and fill it with goods he can take back to the village. Suitcases covered with bits of flattened metal from castoff beer tins, mineral water containers, or tin cans are popular both with tourists and local people. Today, the sheetmetal workers produce not only suitcases made from Coca-Cola, Nescafé or Heineken tins but also a series of other objects such as serving trays, mirrors, ashtrays, lampshades and toys for children. Similar objects are found all across West Africa; an example is the colourful Dogon dancers in metal which can be found in the tourist market of Bamako.


  • Man and Waste: Popular Recycling Activities in the Third World. 1991. Dakar: Enda Tier Monde.

Used Clothing

In search of used clothing of good quality

Particularly in the last decade, used clothing has become an important export item from western countries to Africa south of the Sahara. The USA alone collects about 100 million tons of used clothing annually. Part of this is sold to the well-appointed used clothing shops in the West, while about half of it goes to charity. The remainder is bought up by hundreds of firms that recycle and export clothing at great profit to countries in the Third World. Figures from 1997 show that used clothing is the sixth largest export item from the USA to Africa south of the Sahara. It is, however, in the interest of countries with their own textile production, to limit this importation. State authorities in Senegal have therefore established an annual ceiling for the import of used clothing.

In Dakar, it is the Colobanne Market which is most famous for the sale of used garments. It functions as a central location from which part of the clothing is distributed to rural markets and the neighbouring countries of Mali and Burkina Faso. The garments arrive graded into three categories. West Africans are extremely knowledgeable about textiles, and this, combined with the importance they place on being welldressed, gives rise to the situation where it is not surprising that retailers in Dakar talk about the difficulties they have in selling clothing of the lowest quality.

Imported garments can be used as they are, or they can be adapted to local styles and tastes. For a long time there have been batches of batikked T-shirts for sale in every imaginable colour in the Sandaga Market. Taking a closer look at these T-shirts, one finds that no two are alike, and all are presumably purchased in the market for reuse. They are dyed bright colours and thereafter offered once more in the marketplace. The bright colours force one to look closely to determine whether they are reused items.

Bildet kan inneholde: utesko, gåsko, joggesko, cross training sko, atletisk sko.
Used shoes for sale in rural Mali

Some of the used clothes undergo an even more fundamental treatment and are transformed into completely different kinds of garment. The thread from a cotton sweater can be wound up into balls and used to embroider imitations of costly materials that are used for women's slips. Tailors and seamstresses buy cheap used sewing materials, sew them together to form larger pieces of cloth, dye them, and sell them in the market as bed linen.

Even if used clothing is an important import item, such products make up only a part of West Africans' need for clothing. Clothing in African patterns and fashions are conspicuous both on the urban scene and in the villages.


  • Hansen, Karen Tranberg. 1999. Second-hand Clothing Encounters in Zambia: Global Discourses, Western Commodities and Local Histories. Africa 69(3):343-365.

Clothes and Textiles

Women traders with a rich variety of materials

Textiles have always been an important item of trade in West Africa. The markets of Senegal and Mali are bursting with materials of every sort of quality, pattern and colour. Among other things one finds displayed here are synthetic materials imported from Asia, shiny cotton damask of top quality produced in Germany, and rough bogolan materials that are woven and dyed by local craftworkers in Mali. The quantity of textiles for sale attests to the fact that even though clothes produced in the West are popular, a great number of people go to the tailor with their material when they want a new outfit. Local, deeply rooted styles coexist with western fashions and contribute to keeping alive the many tailors who have their workshops in the vicinity of the markets.

The ability to dress oneself properly is a highly developed art among the people of Mali and Senegal and is a way of communicating morals and status. Both women and men know a great deal about the prices and qualities of various textiles, and can easily identify an outfit and determine whether or not it is made from the finest six-star damask with silk embroidery, or from a cheaper material. The way one dresses also says much about whether one is a "respectable" person or not. Women who hardly have the wherewithal to afford salt for their food, do their best to look elegant when they set out for the market. The markets have a textile selection in every price and quality class and have something to offer every consumer.

Perhaps the most recognizable materials perhaps are those called "wax print", "fancy" or "Lagos", and their per-metre price is dependent upon the quality of the dyeing process. This is a factory-produced cotton textile printed in strong colours and large patterns for the West African market. Women use these materials for everyday use as dresses, or as simple skirts tied around their waists. For men it is usual to have a many-piece suit made up. Today these textiles and patterns are identified as "typically West African", even though they have their origin in Javanese batiks. Production of these materials was started up by merchants in the Netherlands and Great Britain, but by the 1950s, many countries in West Africa had started their own production of such materials. Most of the patterned cotton textiles that are for sale in the markets of Dakar and Bamako are designed and produced in the region. These materials are often given names like "Paris", "Washington", "Broken Heart", "Single Boy", or "Mobile Telephone".


  • Heath, Deborah. 1992. Fashion, anti-fashion, and heteroglossia in urbn Senegal. American Ethnologist 19(2):19-33).
Published Jan. 27, 2021 8:49 AM - Last modified Jan. 27, 2021 9:35 AM