Ultimate Guide to Importing from China

ultimate guide to importing from china

Are you interested in importing low-cost, high-profit items from China to Africa? If so, you’re living at the right moment in history!  China has been Africa’s foremost trade partner since 2009, with a connection that stretches back to the Silk  Road. Recently, a Chinese diaspora has come to the African continent offering expertise in infrastructure.   

As African development booms, governments and businesspeople alike have welcomed this expertise and the accompanying workforce.   The Chinese diaspora population in Africa have used their connections at home to import desirable convenience goods, technology, and personal care products.

African entrepreneurs and importers can follow and strengthen the links created by this commerce to build their own robust trade routes!    In this article, we’ll discuss How to Import from China; Importing from China Wholesale; Cheap Products to Import from China; and Profitable Products to Import from China.

How to Import from China: Steps

This is a general outline of how you would go from brainstorming about starting a business to actually receiving your products at the port and taking them home to sell!

  • Research a Product
    • This is an important step.  It can not be underestimated how crucial it is to take the time to do thorough research.  There are an abundance of cautionary tales to be told of business people who imported 400,000 white shoelaces, only to recognize that neon colors are the new hot thing!  Don’t get stuck with an oversupply of an item that no one wants to buy.
    • Look for a local “opening”.  What are low cost, small, useful products that are not readily available in your area?  Keep an ear to the ground – what do people say they wish they could purchase locally?  What are people ordering online?
    • Specialize and find a niche.   Developing a niche company means that you can become something of an expert in your field, and if you’re selling online, you’ll ensure that your shop rises to the top of searches.
    • Take some time to look around Alibaba – it’s kind of like a one-stop shop global marketplace.  You’ll get ideas of what kinds of items you could import, and be able to see suppliers ranked by reputation.  Stick with gold members!  They’ve been vetted and are known to have solid reputations.  (Here are some tips for buying from Alibaba.)
    • Once you’ve narrowed down your ideas to one or two that you believe are sustainable, order a sample lot. According to Start Up Bros, many suppliers will tell you they can only ship a full container, but when pressed, are willing to ship a sample lot.  You’ll want to see the products for yourself, and do some A/B test selling before you invest in an entire container!
    • Keep in mind, unique products or large products (think furniture)  have a higher selling point, but products which are small and light (and can be shipped in large quantities) will ultimately keep your costs down.
  • Research the Process for Importing to Your Country
    • Once you’ve identified a product to import from China, you’ll need to understand the details of the import process.
    • Learn about the import documentation that is specific to your country.  Each country has unique regulations regarding customs and classifications which you will need to understand.  The best place to start is with your country’s customs department.  You can get a general sense of what this is like by seeing examples from NigeriaSouth Africa, and Kenya.
    • Of course, as you are studying your country’s regulations, be sure to determine if the product you’d like to import is allowed in your country!  If not, fines and penalties will follow, and possibly even the seizure or destruction of your commodity!
  • Choose a Supplier, Learn about Customs,  and Place Your First Order!
    • Choose a reputable supplier, and begin the order process.
    • Be sure you calculate the landed cost of your products!  The landed cost includes the cost of the product you are importing, but will also include transportation from the factory of origin to a cargo ship, customs fees, transportation from a dock to your warehouse, etc.  Don’t get caught by surprise!  These fees really add up, and you’ll want to be fully aware of them before you order.
    • It is of the utmost importance to use a sales contract in your negotiation with the supplier.  A sales contract will specify these as well as other terms:
      • manufacturer’s name, address, and business license number
      • seller’s name and address (the seller is the party who will receive payment from you)
      • product specifications (the details of precisely what you expect your product to be made of, look like, weigh, function as, etc.  The more detailed, the better!)
      • defect list (what qualifies as a defect, what compensation you agree upon for defected products)
  • Choose a Shipping Method
    • Each major method of shipping supplies has benefits and drawbacks.
      • Regular post
        • Pros: cheap
        • Cons: difficult to track packages
      • Courier
        • Pros: excellent tracking, speedy delivery
        • Cons: pricey
        • Note – Fed Ex is recommended in Africa
      • Air Freight
        • Pros: relatively quick turnaround; cheaper than courier
        • Cons: expensive for heavy shipments; purchaser must handle all customs paperwork themselves.
      • Sea Freight
        • Pros: By far the most economical choice for large quantities
        • Cons: may take longer; purchaser must handle all customs paperwork themselves.
  • Make arrangements to bring your new product home!
    • Be sure you have the correct customs documentation if you are using Air or Sea Freight, and of course have the proper transportation from port to home!ultimate guide to importing from china

Importing from China Wholesale

We’ve already talked a bit about the giant, Alibaba, which is perfect if you are searching for a supplier from the comfort of home or an internet café far, far away from China.  However, if you can travel, you may want to see the import/ export spectacle that is the Canton Import and Export Fair.  This – the largest trade fair in the world – is held biannually in Canton, or Guangzhou, China.

Tips for navigating the fair:  This incredible fair is the size of 218 football fields, and is divided into three sections: electronics; consumer goods, gifts, and home decor; and finally, textiles, garments, and office supplies.  This free fair is an opportunity to see, touch and examine products that you may want to import, as well as to meet and network with suppliers.  Attending the trade fair is free, and for a reasonable $15 a day, one can hire a translator to aid communication between sellers and buyers.

If you plan a trip to the Canton Import and Export Fair, you may want to tag on a trip to the Global Sources Exhibition, which takes place right before the Canton Fair, in Hong Kong.   This is a smaller fair which has a focus on electronics – so if you’re hoping to import from the ever-expanding field of electronics, this may be the spot for you!

Finally, Global Sources prides itself on being an educational resource, so for newer importers and business people, consider yourselves in a space where you can learn a lot about what lies ahead in your business venture!  If you are unable to travel to Global Sources, then just like Alibaba, you can access many of the products and merchants online at GlobalSources.com.

Cheap Products to Import from China

Some of the least expensive products to import from China include items which are lightweight, made from common materials, and which can be shipped at high quantities.  Perhaps the first things that come to mind are clothing and textilesOf course, this presents just one of the controversies enmeshed in China to Africa trade.  Chinese clothing is inexpensive because of cheap Chinese labor and a relatively developed manufacturing infrastructure. As a result, Chinese clothing has been flooding the African markets and out-pricing local suppliers and manufacturers.  This creates a tricky path forward for African countries and importers.

China is manufacturing plastics at much lower rates than in the past, and therefore those plastics can be purchased cheaply and sold for a profit.  Consider importing not only consumer plastic goods, but also plastics that are used in industry and manufacturing.

Brushes are a rather specialized niche – but they fit our categories of being lightweight, made from common materials, and can be packed and shipped at high quantities.  The “brushes” category would include brooms, paintbrushes, mechanical floor sweepers, and squeegees.

Profitable Products to Import from China

There is some crossover between “cheap products to import from China” and “Profitable Products to Import from China”. This occurs wherever a product is initially low cost, but can be sold at a meaningful markup.  The most profitable products on our list cannot be considered cheap, but interestingly they are attached to quite a profit margin!

According to the website Quality Trade, the top 10 most profitable products to import from China are:

  1. Vehicles
  2. Iron and Steel
  3. Plastic
  4. Brushes
  5. Apparel
  6. Footwear
  7. Furniture
  8. Sports Equipment, Games and Toys

Noted in other research are some other profitable products to import from China.  These include rice, pharmaceuticals, and electronics.

The Africa – China Connection

For better or for worse, the Africa – China trade connection is strong, and only getting stronger.  Earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited four African countries: United Arab Emirates, Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa on an official tour.  It is interesting that there are many organic benefits for both the African continent and the country of China as a result of this partnership.

African countries continue to import Chinese goods at a record pace.  South Africa, followed by Egypt and Nigeria are the largest importers of Chinese merchandise. In 2017, China exported US$94.74 billion dollars worth of goods into Africa, and Africa exported US$76.25 billion dollars worth of goods into China!

While growth has been steady and increasing, there are signs that some African markets are getting saturated with Chinese goods. As you plan your import business, focus on supplying items that are unique in your area, don’t fall into the trap of being the 17th shop in your town selling the same suitcases, t-shirts, or phone cases!

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In 2014 when we started WaystoCap we had an idea: to make trade in Africa accessible and easy. Since then we've been working hard to make that vision a reality. Thousands of people have joined us on our journey. We have 4 offices on the continent, and will be opening more soon!

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