Passion is defined as any powerful or compelling emotion, such as love and hate. It is an intense emotion. Passion is what drives us, it motivates us and empowers us. I have recently taken it upon myself to understand the African apparel industry and I am driven by a passionate desire to see the industry grow and flourish despite its many challenges.
Deola Sagoe was quoted in a 2014 article as projecting that the industry could contribute as much as $15.5 billion to the African continent. She should know, she has been a force in the industry for more than 25 years. At that point in time though everyone was saying good things about almost every sector in Africa, by the middle of 2015 and early 2016 the tune had changed significantly with many of the positive GDP countries taking a sharp downward turn. Many analysts however believe that the market could potentially be as big as $50 billion if properly managed and harnessed. The biggest challenges however are the over dependence on foreign imported clothing, with China being the biggest contributor. However, many of the global brands have made significant in-roads into the African apparel market. Unfortunately, none of these brands contributed much to the growth of the local apparel industry.
Like many of Africa`s business sectors, the Apparel sector in Africa is largely traditional, mainly unstructured and eagerly waiting for innovation. One would expect that given the craving in the rest of the world for new and fascinating design concepts African governments would have put their act in order, the reverse is the case, the sector if it has made any advancement in the past couple of years has done so primarily through private sector initiatives. Notable amongst these are the various African fashion weeks in major traditional fashion hubs such as New York and Paris. Innovators such as fasha.com are also worthy of mention as the sector needs more technology driven fashion initiatives. It is arguable however that these initiatives despite their noble stands are but beacons of light in a very dark tunnel. I invite you on a journey across Africa, to understand what the challenges are, discuss with key influencers and explore possible solutions to the myriad of problems the industry faces. The objective of this is to add another light bulb to this sector, hoping against hope that this will allow fashion designers and others in the industry enough light to find their way to the end of the tunnel. $50 billion is a lot of money and if this industry can add that much to the GDP of our continent it is noble enough an objective to have. Just imagine how many jobs we could create, how many families could feed themselves, have an education, provide good Medicare, the list is endless.
Many African countries established clothing factories to serve local markets after the end of colonialism to spur industrialization, as happened in South Korea and China. Unlike their Asian counterparts, African leaders were unable to protect them infant industries, and under political pressure from banks and governments in the West, they were forced to liberalize their economies in the 1980s and 1990s. This meant that African clothing factories had to compete with imported goods, like second-hand clothes. Cheaper imported garments flooded African markets and workers in clothing factories lost their jobs. Meanwhile incomes were falling across the continent due to the debt crisis and the long-term decline in the price of agricultural products, such as cotton. Used-clothing imports boomed, forging a relationship of dependency and negatively affecting poor countries’ balance of payments. In today’s globalized economy many cotton farmers and ex-factory workers in African countries, such as Zambia are now too poor to afford any clothes other than imported second-hand ones from the West, whereas thirty or forty years ago they could buy locally produced new clothes. The flourishing used clothing is a symptom of uneven development and the continued impoverishment of Africa has been an outcome of economic globalization.
The fall of the African textile and by extension its fashion industry is well documented and reported. What is not reported is the ongoing impact faced by African countries because of the ongoing effects of the dirt of this industry. Now you could argue that African fashion is on the rise and fabric like Ankara are now on the world stage. As true as that may be, it misses the bigger context and describes a few shades of light in a dark universe. Case in point is the fact that although Ankara is printed in Ghana, Nigeria and several other African markets, like most of our so called “local production” many if not all the raw materials used in its production are imported from other non-African countries even if the base materials originated in Africa in the first place.
The biggest effect of this “pseudo local production” and the low prices of imported second hand clothes is that the fashion industry to a large degree is relegated to special occasions or runways. The average African will be adorned with imported apparel whose origins have nothing to do with his or her country.
The fashion industry is a complex supply chain that starts at the farm where the raw materials for textile are grown all the way down to the retail store where the final produce is sold. This industry does not only provide jobs; it also contributes significantly to the local economy. The world at present is sourcing for low cost production and looking more to Africa. The biggest challenge is that we do not want to replace the Asian markets with our own form of high yield, low wage industry, we need to learn from their mistakes and ours and create an industry that generates sustainable revenue for the country as well as good living wages for its workers.
This is the reason behind StyleStation, clothes made using as much locally sourced materials as possible, using local labor and focused on reducing price and increasing coverage rather than selling a few high margin products. The road ahead is long and wide, the challenges are many but our purpose is clear.