How Remittances From Africans in Petit Senegal in New York Builds Wealth Abroad

The African diaspora sends more money to Africa than U.S. foreign aid and foreign direct investment. In 2018, sub-Saharan Africa received $25 billion in development assistance. In that same year, immigrants in the United States sent $46 billion in remittances to their home countries in Africa, out of a total of $150 billion sent from the United States globally.

In 2017, $85 million in remittances were sent from the United States to Senegal, the seventh-most of any country (France topped the list with almost $650 million). Remittances are the transfer of money, often by a foreign worker, to an individual in their home country. A closer look at a diaspora neighborhood in New York City helps explain that remittances are not only a form of familial aid but also an important investment vehicle that builds wealth.

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In Petit Senegal, on 116th street between Lenox Avenue and Frederick Douglass, the sound of English is replaced by Wolof and French. “How are you?” is transformed into “Nanga def” and “ca va?” Wolof is the native language of the Wolof people found in the Gambia, Mauritania, and Senegal. French is the language of francophone West African countries, including Senegal, which are former French colonies.

American fashion—such as blue jeans and t-shirts—also disappears. Instead, people are dressed in elaborate, traditional West African textiles and fabrics. In the evening, there are Muslim men sitting outside on the sidewalk with foldable chairs drinking attaya tea, a Senegalese drink consumed after meals and with guests. Petit Senegal, located in the heart of Harlem in Manhattan, is not much different from some neighborhoods in Senegal’s capital, Dakar. The cultural link between Petit Senegal and Senegal underpins an economic one.   

Petit Senegal is filled with thriving, tax-paying businesses owned and operated by Burkinabe, Gambians, Ivorians, Malians, and Senegalese, though the majority of businesses are owned and operated by the latter. Import-export businesses, supermarkets, seamstress, tailors, phone repair shops, beauty salons, bakeries, Islamic educational programs, and African goods stores fund the remittances to their respective West African countries.

Senegalese immigrants have built a substantial amount of wealth for themselves, but to understand their success requires a look back to Senegal. Dakar’s real estate market grew 256 percent between 1994 and 2020, and business owners in Petit Senegal opted out of investing their profits in a house with a white picket fence in America. Instead, they opted to invest in the profitable real estate market in Dakar.

Residents return home during holiday breaks to purchase their land in cash instead of sending the money via wire transfers. Once the land is acquired, they return to Petit Senegal and remittances pay for construction. Profits from these properties in Senegal are then invested in local businesses in Petit Senegal, helping them grow, and the investment cycle in Senegal continues.

The goal of most residents in Petit Senegal is to build as many properties in Senegal as they can while they are in America. Mr. Jabel Cisse, a seamstress in Harlem for over twenty-five years, has built two villas and an apartment complex since immigrating to America. Mr. Muhammad Fall, the owner of an import-export business, has built two apartment complexes and is now in the process of building a hotel. While these shops are small, their owners are engaged in international business with Senegal. The people in Petit Senegal selling earrings and soaps and repairing phones are the same individuals financing real estate in Senegal.

The $85 million from the United States is about 4 percent of the $2.2 billion Senegal receives as remittances, which together account for 10 percent of Senegalese GDP. One of the sources of that capital, diaspora communities like Petit Senegal, are a natural bridge between the U.S. and their home countries. They know the risks and customs of the market, have local contacts, and know how to invest in their countries in profitable ways. As foreign aid budgets are cut or threatened and immigrants find financial success, remittances have grown in importance; so, too, should the diaspora communities that pay for them.

Tareian King is an intern with CFR’s Africa Program and a student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. She is also the founder of Nolafrique, an e-commerce platform that enables artisans in African villages to have global exposure and opportunities for scale up.

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