Consuming African Cultures in the Hague An Exploration of the Africa Products Shop

Over the past few months, we, Ning Yi Boline and Anissa Sidhoum Hassaïne, studied the Africa Products Shop (APS) located on Spui 231 in The Hague. We investigated the factors pushing people to make purchases in this specific store and the meaning of such an action. Throughout the research process, we spent numerous hours in the shop, observing, interviewing clients, and building a relationship with its owners, Elie and Yvonne.

Encounter with the Africa Products Shop

The Africa Products Shop (APS), Spui 231, 2511 BP The Hague, The Netherlands.

We first discovered the existence of this shop after a quick and very simple search. Using Google, we looked for “shop Africa the Hague”. And, the first business to pop up was the Africa Products Shop. We explored online sources to get acquainted with it and gather introductory information.

The shop itself maintains a limited online presence. It has its own website. It cultivates a presence on social media, with a Facebook page mainly. In this digital world, we could not access information on the backstory of the shop and we struggled to visualize the shop as very few images of it are available. Yet, we had in mind the type of shop it was. It offered daily necessities, ranging from fresh fruits and vegetables to cosmetics, all coming from different parts of Africa.

A few days later, we took our first visit to the shop. Coming from the South of the city, and guided by Google Maps, we walked through Grote Marktstraat, the lively center of the Hague. Then, we turned right on Spui, a long thoroughfare taking us away from the downtown fuss. We entered a part of the city slightly less animated. Cars were numerous and the tram was passing by. But the few shops we encountered were all small and independent. Struggling with a deficient internet connection, we were carefully watching out for the shop to appear by our side at any moment. Finally, we spotted the Africa Products Shop, wedged between a liquor store, a hair salon and a vegetarian restaurant.

We entered the place and tried to start a conversation with the woman who was behind the counter. Then on, we started going back to the shop regularly for different assignments, to update the owners on our research process and start conversations with many more clients and passers-by.

The Project: Consuming African Cultures from the Africa Products Shop in the Hague

The Africa Products Shop is an independent African-owned business located in downtown the Hague, on Spui. It is owned by a Rwandan couple, Elie Kabagema and Yvonne Uwizeye. The shop could be referred as “ethnic”, because it fits into the category of local cultural shops. However, we will not use that concept further in this project.

Throughout our research process, mainly through ethnographic observations and semi-structured interviews, we aimed at answering the following questions: Why do people decide to consume products from independent African owned shops in the The Hague? What does it mean for both Africans and non-Africans? Essentially, we attempted at exploring the reasons behind the action of consumption of so-called African products as symbols of African cultures and its various meanings. The Africa Products Shop is our case study.

The Owner’s Perspective: Getting to Know the Africa Products Shop

During our first visit to the shop, we were in awe of the overwhelming organization of the shop. As we entered, we were welcomed by a recognizable Rwandan music played by speakers as well as background noise of conversations and packages being moved around. And, we found ourselves in the middle of aisles full of products and cardboard boxes still on the ground.

As many Dutch shops, the Africa Products Shop is narrow but long. Thus, when you stand by the entrance, you can have a look at everything that is happening in the store. Several customers were looking at items in the back. Behind a long brown counter, a woman was making a sale. We attempted at having a discussion with Yvonne, who appeared to be one of the owners of the shop. However, she did not seem responsive. When Ning eventually approached her in Swahili, she gave us the number of her husband, Elie.

After some text exchanges, we sat down with him in the back of the store to learn more about the history of the business and his own backstory.

Exploring Customers' Perspectives
A Fundamental Tension concerning the Clientele

During his interview, Elie explicated that his offering is diverse and his clientele international. However, after six visits to the shop, we noticed that the clientele of the Africa Products Shop is mainly made up of Africans and African descendants, and especially Rwandans and Ugandans. Indeed, as Elie later told us, he is an active member of these two diasporas and source most of his offering from these two countries.

Furthermore, we noticed two trends regarding non-African customers. First, most non-Africans would come to accompany an African or African descendants’ friend or relative during a shopping trip. Secondly, non-Africans would mainly come to use the money transfer service the shop offers through MoneyGram and not buy products.

The Prominence of Hair Products

At first, we were overwhelmed by the number of products offered by the store both physically and online. But as we returned to the shop several times, we noticed that hair products had a great significance.

If the shop officially goes by the name of “Africa Products Shop” or APS for short, the storefront is topped by the mention “Cosmetics & African Products Shop” in red bold letters. Similarly, when entering the shop, the first thing one faces is one wall that is filled with hair products, from gels for males at the front of the shop to extensions advertised for females at the back of the shop. Online, the products that are the most advertised are, here again, hair products.

Furthermore, all in all, we interviewed ten customers and casually discussed with many more. Out of the ten people we recorded, seven of them acknowledged coming to the store solely to buy hair products, be they extensions, shampoos, gels and so on.

This significance may be linked to the Rwandan origin of the couple of owners. Indeed, the offering fragmentation would differ greatly with a North African or a Western African shop.

Investigating the Meaning of African Consumption

Consuming African products in this shop appeared to be a double symbol. The action represented a cultural reminder as well as a form of community support.

The Africa Products Shop, a Social Space

As we were building relationships with the owners and with some customers, we acknowledged the Africa Products Shop to be a space of sociability, a space where people come to socialize with one another. Numerous times, we noticed people stopping by only to have some news from the owners and not even to buy anything.

Left to right: Anissa, Yvonne, Elie and Ning.

We are grateful to all the clients who offered us with their time, whether they decided to be filmed / recorded or not. We would also like to extend warm thanks to the couple owning the Africa Products Shop, Elie Kabagema and Yvonne Uwizeye. They trusted us from the start and enabled us to pursue our research project.