ROME was not built in a day, neither was the city of Yiwu in Zhejiang Province, China.
Despite now being widely recognised as the largest small commodities market in the world, the intriguing story of Yiwu is a shining example of how determination and willpower can transform a community — relegated to the gallows of economic productivity — and catapult it to gain international recognition.
The United Nations, the World Bank and Morgan Stanley, among other world authorities, declared in 2005: “Yiwu market is the world’s largest wholesale market of general merchandise.”
This comes as no surprise as China has, over the years, carved a global reputation for manufacturing of both quality and cheap goods.
This journalist recently travelled to the bustling city of Yiwu, whose history dates back to 222 BC, initially named Wushang County during the Qin Dynasty, before later being named Yiwu County in 624 AD.
Long ago, Yiwu was a mere village ensconced in the mountains, with most of its lands barren, which forced its people to scrounge for a living.
The enterprising villagers sowed the first seeds for what has now become the ‘promised land’ for small commodities merchants from across the world.
Now boasting sprawling small commodities markets strewn across the breadth of the city, whose administration is under the municipal region of Jinhua, Yiwu is the Mecca for small commodities wholesalers.
Upon arriving at the south gate of the humongous District 4 Market, it suddenly became clear this was a shopper’s paradise.
While we had been told we were going to sample the shopping experience in Yiwu, perhaps the language barrier, which at times would rear its ugly head even on our Chinese interpreters, Alice and Jessica, could have been to blame for the shock we were about to receive.
No one had prepared us for what we were about to experience.
And it’s not an easy feat to shock well-travelled journalists to the extent the globetrotters among our team admitted they had never, in their travels, come across malls with the degree of specialisation such as in Yiwu.
District 4, for instance, has a market devoted to socks with other markets dedicated specifically to daily necessities, underwear, scarfs, gloves, hats, footwear, belts, neckties, towels, wool items, lace items and other textiles.
Alice, a programme officer at Zhejiang Normal University, quickly advises the tourists to head to the 4th floor because that is the only floor dedicated to retail: all the floors below the 4th sell their merchandise in bulk.
Kunle, a Nigerian studying towards a PhD with Zhejiang Normal University, would soon offer advice through a WeChat group that would prove invaluable in navigating the matrix of shop booths.
His advice: First study the map of the complex before going in, and take note of the geographical features of the entrance you use because you can spend all day trying to find your way back.
Armed with Kunle’s advice, the exploration of District 4 began.
Upon entering, one is confronted with identical square shop stalls with some semblance of similarity to what you find at Harare’s Gulf Complex, the difference being each floor is a market for specific merchandise.
However, the shear size of each of the complex dwarfs anything one would have come across in Africa, even in the developed world.
Did I mention that District 4 is only a small portion of Futian Market?
Consisting of cluster markets that include International Trade Mart (Futian Market), the biggest market cluster in Yiwu with 62 000 booths and selling 400 000 kinds of products from 100 000 suppliers, with 2 000 categories and products from 40 different industries, Futian Market looks like a year-round fair rather than a traditional wholesale market because of the set-up.
The products from this market (65 percent) are mostly exported to over 215 countries and regions.
More than 90 percent of the shops sell their wares directly from the manufacturer, hence their prices are factory prices, giving the highest level of convenience to the discerning retailer.
Below is a list of the market clusters under Futian Market.
– Yiwu International Trade Mart District 1 was opened in October 2002 and has a construction area measuring 340 000m2 and features 9 000 booths which sell wares from over 10 500 suppliers. District 1 thus houses an artificial flower market, toy market, fashion jewellery market, picture frame market, arts and crafts market, furniture and decor market as well as hair accessories market.
– Yiwu International Trade Mart District 2 opened its doors to the public in October 2004. The wholesale market is
600 000m2, and has 8 000 booths from 10 000 suppliers. This market has market clusters for suitcases and bags, umbrellas and raincoats, hardware tools and fittings, electrical apparatus, locks, kitchenware, sanitary wear, small home appliances, telecomms equipments, electrical instruments as well as watches and clocks markets.
– Yiwu International Trade Mart District 3 was officially opened in October 2004 and features a building covering
460 000m2 with 6 000 shop stalls inside. The markets in District 3 include stationery, cultural products, sports products, cosmetics market, eyeglasses, zippers as well as buttons and apparel accessories market.
– Opened in October 2008, the construction area of Yiwu International Trade Mart District 4 complex is 1 080 000m2 with
16 000 shop booths selling merchandise from 19 000 suppliers. District 4 consists of the following markets; socks, daily necessities, scarves, gloves, hats, footwear, belts, neckties, towels, wool items as well as textile markets.
– Yiwu International Trade Mart District 5 was commissioned in October 2008 and features a building spanning 640 000m2 with 7 000 shops. This market is peculiar because it sells imported commodities, including an African emporium. The markets housed in this district include bedding, textiles, knitting materials and auto products as well as knit ware.
While the above is the run down of products and characteristics of the Futian Market, which is the biggest of the market clusters, Yiwu also boasts other markets that include Zhezhong Timber Market, Yiwu Decoration City, Yiwu Material and Construction Market, Yiwu Digital Marketplace, Yiwu Binwang Market, Yiwu Furniture Market, Yiwu Food Market, Yiwu Auto City, Yiwu Home Appliance Market, Yiwu Night Market and Yiwu New Huangyuan Market, among others.
The next instalment will focus on how Yiwu became what it is today, tracing its history and the factors that made it a shining beacon of China’s experimental cities.