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Street vendor sees hope in summit talk about African trade

June 24, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ From the sidewalk where Mamadou Ballo hawks his wares under a blazing sun, President Clinton’s heady talk about building trade with Africa filters down to just two words: duty free.

``That would help me. My dream is to open a big business,″ says Ballo, who is from Mali and sells African arts outside a shoe repair shop on bustling K Street.

Under Clinton’s push to spur U.S. trade and investment in Africa, 1,800 additional products would be allowed to enter the United States duty-free from the 48 African countries below the Sahara Desert, in exchange for lower tariffs.

That could be a boon for people like Ballo, a former cook who became a street vendor four years ago.

Removing tariffs from Ballo’s wares _ mahogany sculpture from Ghana, color-splashed fabrics from the Ivory Coast, masks, jewelry and leather goods from across West Africa _ would bring an end to the fees that frustrate him with each shipment.

President Clinton came into a weekend summit of the world’s largest industrialized nations pushing more trade and investment for Africa, while President Jacques Chirac of France, a former colonial power in much of Africa, urged more aid.

World leaders at the Summit of the Eight in Denver, unable to resolve the difference, called for the more expensive direct foreign aid that France wanted and the cheaper trade benefits and debt relief advocated by the Americans.

Clinton’s goal for the United States is to increase the U.S. share of the African market, which stands at 7 percent and supports 100,000 American jobs.

Mel Foote, director of the Constituency for Africa, a private advocacy group based in Washington, likens Clinton’s trade initiative to a steam engine.

If obstacles to trade with Africa are loosened and U.S. companies flock there, Foote says, it would foster an appreciation for African culture that would feed American demand. He cited surging interest in woven straw purses from Kenya and colorful kente cloth from Ghana as examples.

``The crafts market will automatically benefit,″ Foote says. ``When you go to Africa, the first thing you do is buy something. And once you start buying, you don’t stop. My house is just full of stuff.″

Otis Johnson, owner of a Washington computer consulting firm that does business in Ghana, said Clinton should control the flow of African crafts to ensure that small businesses like Ballo’s are not pushed out of the game.

``These are the people who really need it, not Macy’s,″ Johnson said. ``It would be just another example of the average working man not being able to take advantage.″

Ballo ponders the possibilities between brisk lunchtime sales at his wooden booth, festooned with leather bags, mudcloth shirts, cowrey-shell earrings and pagoda-like Fulani tribal hats that he sometimes props on his head for shade.

``I never asked nobody for help,″ says Ballo, 30, also known as Mohamed. ``But I want to make this business bigger. And President Clinton, if he wants to invite me to talk to him, I’ll be waiting to talk to him too.″

Ballo could tell Clinton about the time he paid $200 to get his merchandise through customs _ roughly the same amount he paid to buy it.

Without tariffs, Ballo says, he could move his operation into a store and expand his product line to items such as handcarved furniture. He envisions parlaying that into an import-export company that brings crafts into the United States and sends anything from shoes to luggage back to Africa.

The profits _ coupled with a loan and a U.S. investor _ could help build a cement factory in Mali, a democratic West African country of 7 million people.

But without a U.S. investor, Ballo’s cement plant is just a pipe dream. ``You have to have somebody who has money,″ he shrugs, and turns to sell a $7 silver necklace.

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