Tips for Souvenir Shopping in Africa

Painted Bowls for Sale, Marrakesh
Painted Bowls for Sale, Marrakesh. Stephen Studd/Getty Images

While shopping is unlikely to be your main reason for traveling to Africa, it will probably be something that you indulge in once you're there. After all, local markets and medinas are great places to soak up local culture and color. They also provide the ideal hunting ground for finding the perfect memento, so that you can remember your trip long after you get home.

Shopping in Africa is a unique (and sometimes challenging!) experience, whether you end up getting lost amidst Cairo's bazaars while searching for the perfect copper jug or haggling over the price of Zulu beadwork in a Durban flea-market. In this article, we look at a few ways to make sure that your souvenir shopping adventure is both successful and enjoyable.

Make Sure It's Legal

Illegal items often make their way into Africa's marketplaces, and knowing how to avoid them is important. Souvenirs made from animal products are often a problem as are those made from indigenous hardwoods. In particular, look out for products made from tortoiseshell, ivory and the fur, skin or body parts of protected species. Items like these are prohibited and will be confiscated at customs where you could also be liable for a hefty fine. For more information about illegal animal products, check out wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

Similar considerations apply to buying antiquities, especially in countries like Egypt. Looters have been raiding Egypt's ancient sites for centuries in order to sell artifacts to visiting tourists. To help preserve what's left of the country's cultural heritage (and to avoid breaking any laws), opt for replicas instead of the real thing.

Shop Responsibly

Often, items aren't illegal but should be avoided for moral reasons nonetheless. These include shells and pieces of coral harvested from the ocean and furniture made from unsustainable tree species. The demand for souvenirs like these has led to the mass denuding of fragile ecosystems throughout Africa, and by supporting the trade, you could indirectly be supporting destructive practices like poaching and deforestation.

Instead, try to shop in a way that benefits the country you're visiting. For example, many conservation organizations or human welfare charities based in Africa have adjoining souvenir shops, whose proceeds directly benefit the associated cause. Local craft markets provide income for often-impoverished communities while an increasing trend in recycled art benefits the artists and the environment alike.

Luggage Restrictions

It's easy to get caught up in the moment while shopping for souvenirs, only to find yourself walking back to your hotel with a life-size wooden giraffe. Consider the practicality of carrying your purchases around Africa for the rest of your trip, as well as the weight and size restrictions imposed by your airline's baggage allowance. Often, exceeding these allowances can be incredibly expensive.

Wherever you're flying from, most international airlines have a maximum baggage allowance of 23 kilograms/50 pounds for those traveling economy class. Domestic airlines within Africa are even more restrictive, while small charter flights (e.g. those from Maun to the heart of the Okavango Delta in Botswana) allow only very limited luggage onboard.

Bargaining and Bartering

Bargaining is commonplace throughout Africa, especially for souvenirs and curios sold in markets, medinas, bazaars, and souks. There's a fine line between paying too much and getting ripped off and paying too little and insulting or short-changing the seller. Finding that line is half the fun, but a good place to start is to halve the first asking price and start haggling from there.

If you find that your bargaining partner is a tough nut to crack, walking away is a good way to get the price down quickly. Make sure to remain polite and maintain a sense of humor, but don't be afraid to decline the sale if you can't agree on a suitable price. Pay what you think that the item is worth, and make sure to carry small bills so that you don't have to ask for change.

Ultimately, convert the asking price into your own currency before you end up haggling like crazy over what turns out to be a few cents. While bartering is fun, it's important to remember that market sellers in poverty-stricken places like Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe depend on their sales for survival. Sometimes, it's worth paying a little bit more for the satisfaction of knowing that you've helped someone to cover the day's living costs.

Exchanging Goods

In several African countries (especially those in sub-Saharan Africa), market sellers often consider exchanging material goods for souvenirs. The most sought after items are usually those with a brand-name, including sneakers, jeans, baseball hats, and t-shirts. In particular, soccer is something of a religion in many parts of Africa, and team memorabilia is a powerful currency. Swapping old clothes for souvenirs at the end of your trip is a great way to make a personal connection and to free up some space in your suitcase.

Updated by Jessica Macdonald