Categorized | Bronx, Business, Featured, West African

West African New Yorkers Ship Large Goods–And Profits–Across Atlantic


Alieu Kamara, an employee at Bronx-based Yomohou Shipping Corporation, stands among items that will be sent by ship to Guinea and Liberia. Credit: SETH MAXON

Off Third Avenue in the Bronx, six men haul duct-taped cardboard boxes out of an unmarked, open garage and pile them into the back of a semitrailer. They squeeze through dozens of plastic-wrapped mattresses that fill the white cement room, where bicycles lean against blue plastic barrels stuffed with canned beans and rice, and used televisions sit atop dusty oak furniture.

Once all this stuff is piled into the truck, the men will load its contents into a metal container, then hand over legal paperwork and an inventory of the items to a forwarding company, which will in turn pass them on to a steamship line. Once U.S. Customs officials inspect the container for contraband, it will be loaded onto a ship.

Then it will all sail to Africa.

This is how many West Africans living in New York City ship goods to their families back home—loading everything from high heels to SUVs into trans-Atlantic shipping containers. Some immigrants have even turned their shipments into business opportunities, sending furniture, food and other in-demand goods to partners who sell them in the city markets of Guinea, Liberia and Senegal.

The United States is the world’s second largest exporter of containerized cargo (after China), while West Africa is the 11th largest importer, according to the World Shipping Council. New York City is home to a West African-born population of about 66,000, many of whom take advantage of the African-run shipping businesses in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

“You cannot compare Africa to America,” said Baba Sy, an Ivoirian immigrant standing outside of Khady’s African Hair Styles on 116th Street in Harlem. Sy uses the businesses to ship food and vehicles to his family. “Some stuff we just don’t have there.”

At Yomohou Shipping Corporation on 168th Street, large items like SUVs can be shipped for $1,500, while a barrel of food might cost $20. On average, it takes five to eight weeks for the goods to travel from New York Harbor or Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Togo, Ghana and other West African ports.

Yomohou and its competitors are often the cheapest option available to send packages to Africa. For very large items like cars, they are sometimes the only option.

“UPS cannot bring anything bigger than this desk,” said Joseph “Kuwait” Adjei, the Ghanaian proprietor of Kuwait Shipping and Packaging. “Things that the Postal Service cannot do, I do.”

Proprietors say the most common items they ship are electronics, cars, furniture, nonperishable food and clothing. Alieu Kamara, a Liberian exporter at Yomohou, says that many of these American-made items are fashionable to send because immigrants want to show off their access to American products. He and others say that American items are usually better made than alternatives that are available in West Africa.

“If you are back home sometimes,” Kamara said, “your relatives will come and tell you, ‘Oh, if you go back, will you please send me back a used TV?’”

There’s another use for the containerized cargo business, though: making money. Mohammed Abdou, a 28-year-old from Mali, does business with his brother at home in Africa. His brother ships gold, emeralds and other gems, which Abdou sells to tourists and jewelers on the street at 47th Street and 6th Avenue. He then uses the profits to buy damaged or used cars from auctions, which he fixes up and hands off to Malian partners in Harlem to take care of the customs requirements. The cars go in metal containers back to his brother, who picks them up in port cities and transports them to Mali. Even after the cost of transport from the coast—about $400—Abdou and his brother can net between $1,000 and $2,500 in profit for each refurbished and resold car.

Sidike Kaba owns Yomohou Shipping Corporation. Credi: SETH MAXON

Abdou said that he ships two cars back to his brother once or twice a month, and they make enough to share the profits. The trans-Atlantic operation has been successful enough that Abdou plans to return to his home in Timbuktu to run his business from there, working with dealers, mechanics and exporters in New York.

“If you understand the market here, you can do it there,” he said.

International container shipping is regulated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Customs lawyer Stephen Zelmen said it’s pretty difficult to get illegal, stolen or improperly documented items past customs officials.

“Every commercial export sent in a container requires the proper export declaration,” he said. “If you don’t do it, you can be pretty sure there will be criminal penalties, and there will very likely be civil penalties as well.”

Violations do happen. In May, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman charged 14 people with stealing cars and shipping them in containers to be sold in Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana. Other car-stealing rings have recently been busted in Newark and Philadelphia.

Most immigrants, though, have a strong incentive to keep their shipments legal: Their families rely on them for support.

Mansour Diaw—a Senegalese clerk at Mama de Momy, a Malian shop on 116th Street in Harlem—regularly ships items in the containers to support his family in Dakar.

“I buy something here and send [it] to my family, like clothes or food,” Diaw said. “I have a wife, I have a baby, it’s 6 months—and every week I have to give there.”

Baba Sy says that his family in Côte D’Ivoire needs some of the goods he sends them, but he also uses the containers to send gifts.

“People over there, they love whatever America have,” Sy said. “We just come here to struggle, to help family back home.”


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