Archive for the ‘Fashionomics’ Category

Women’s Entrepreneurship Driving Emerging Future in Africa

We’ve been silent of late on this blog due to work deadlines and end of the year paperwork, however this will change. I’ve promised to write one blog post every day – even if its a few lines – for the next 30 days. I realized it was habit and discipline that was missing, not content related to this blog.


Meanwhile, here are some data points to ponder:

African entrepreneurs are missing out on the untapped potential market – said to be worth around $ 800 million – for women’s hygiene products such as sanitary napkins. The opportunity exists at every price level, from branded consumer oriented premium goods distributed through local supermarket chains, to rural handmade and re-used napkins that enable girls to go to school. What are you waiting for, if you’re looking for new ideas to invest in?


African women are also driving the small home solar revolution. I’m planning on sharing key extracts from the household energy consumption behavioural study I’d conducted in rural Kenya and Rwanda soon on this blog. In the meantime, the article linked above offers some food for thought on this trend.


Elsewhere, women whose herds of goat were ravaged by drought are picking up the pieces with cash grants which they are ploughing back into their businesses.

Ahatho Turuga arranges goods in her shop set up with support from The BOMA Project in Loglogo village, near Marsabit town, Kenya, on November 29, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Benson Rioba


This theme is best wrapped up by an article showcasing Maggy Lawson of Lomé, Togo, a woman whose trading ability has made her famous throughout the African continent and abroad.

Maggy Lawson is a Mama Benz. That’s what people in West Africa call women who have become rich in the textile trade – so rich that they can afford a Mercedes-Benz. Maggy Lawson owns homes in Dallas, Washington, Paris, and Monaco, as well as a villa on the outskirts of Lomé with marble floors and teak paneling. She is both wealthy and influential, representing the coastal regions in the Togolese Parliament and advising the Minister of Labor on important economic questions.


Here is our report on Nigeria‘s informal and formal textile trade, tracing the value web from end user customer through brokers to wholesalers and retailers of appliques.


A Very Nigerian Opinion on E-Commerce and Online Fashion Startups

Folake Shoga shares her opinion on the recent spate of tech startups and apps mean to serve Nigeria’s fashion and fabric industry.

Two recent articles in Techpoint, the Nigerian online technology magazine, feature initiatives dealing with aspects of the clothing business. One is a startup letting studio space and equipment to makers, 360 Creative Hub; and one is an internet based fabric selling business, Fabricsphere. Reading up on the feasibility of these two initiatives has been an interesting experience, very much encouraged by the richness of Techpoint’s coverage of Nigeria’s tech and business ecosystem.

Having said that, as just a humble, occasional and above all provincial Nigerian, I’ll start by paraphrasing L P Hartley: “Lagos is another country; they do things differently there.” Sometimes, reading official accounts, reports etc of events in Nigeria really jarrs with one’s lived experience of the country (even though being as the standard of written professional journalism is generally excellent, this hardly every happens when reading the actual quality newspapers, Punch and The Guardian and their ilk.) In the aforementioned Techpoint articles some of the prices quoted for goods and services seem steep to me, which surely militates against takeup, but I am, as I said, provincial, and moreover brought up by Ijebu people. No doubt everything costs more in Lagos.

Startup culture is a thing in itself; current, progressive, innovative, aiming to breach new ground or disrupt! received conventions – although strictly speaking away from the comfortable global North there may already be more disruption going on than we are entirely comfortable with. But the term itself, startup, comes surrounded by an effervescence of aspiration, floating on an expectation of the power of a tech-determined state change in human affairs. “First we’ll click here, then we’ll be in tomorrow today already! Yay!!”

As recently as 12 years ago it was impossible to prejudge which casual, frivolous digital activity would end up as an engine of massive social change. Nobody could possibly have foretold, for instance, how a site for rating the comparative attractiveness of your female fellow students could have morphed into a giant data-gatherer, news disseminator and influencer of global public opinion. Or how a site for online shopping could evolve to be at the forefront of research into the logistics of drone technology and other automated delivery systems. So there is a hope and a hype around web-based startup culture, an eye for the next big thing, the next new system that will prove that from small beginnings come big changes. Nigeria, as a vast untapped market, has the potential to be a hive of new technology activity, and Techpoint in it’s many articles provides an interesting and thorough overview of the local scene, though concentrating almost entirely on Lagos.

Read On…

Launching Our Digital Documentation Project: Ibadan’s Tailors, Traders, and Textiles by Nigerian/British artist Folake Shoga

finalcopyAfter months of hard work, I am very honoured and proud to announced our new digital documentation project by my friend Folake Shoga, a Nigerian/British multidisciplinary artist with more than three decades of experience.

She went on a journey of discovery through the twists and turns of the informal value web that holds together West Africa’s famed textiles and fashionably styled culture.

Her window to this world is centered around Ibadan, Nigeria, and she takes us through an illustrated, personally narrated documentary that spans the experience of getting a new dress, from choosing the right fabric, all the way through building a fashion brand.

Come and join us for this fascinating peek behind the scenes! You can also find this unique photo-documentary again on my portfolio page.

Mirror-Mirror, Who am I? The rise of African doll brands that empower Black girls

During the past few years, people of color all over the world have started challenging their absence in a positive light in the media, entertainment, books and toys. Black people, and Africans more specifically, feel invisible or highly under represented. The lack of visibility has severe effects on image, self esteem and success.

Experts say that self confidence starts at an early age. The images, words and overall culture we expose young minds to have a long term influence on the trajectory of their lives.  Who best than people of color themselves to produce and create articles that celebrate them and put them in the best light?

Several Africans, men and women, are active in the business of creating dolls or barbies that African girls can identify with through different skin tones, body shapes, hair texture or different outfits representative of various cultures. These dolls are mostly assembled in China, produced in low quantities and generally sold locally.

So far, five brands are emerging in both francophone and anglophone Africa:

Queens of Africa Dolls (Nigeria): The dolls and materials are designed, through fun and engaging materials, to subconsciously promote African heritage. Queens of Africa celebrates being an African girl in the 21st century by drawing on the strengths and achievements of ancestors and bring them up to date to empower and inspire today’s generation of African girls.



Momppy Mpoppy Dolls (South Africa): Fashion forward with an afro, the doll seeks to be a trendy and attractive alternative to Barbie for girls of African descent.



Sarama Dolls (Côte d’Ivoire): Dolls dressed in traditional Ivorian gear, they celebrate various cultures in Côte d’Ivoire.



Naima Dolls (Côte d’Ivoire): A mix of dolls and barbies, with different shades of brown, hairstyles and outfits (modern and traditional) that exist in baby, male and female versions.


Nubia Kemiat (Cameroun): The doll with natural hair is a cultural story teller that narrates tales in Africa and throughout the world.

Local entrepreneurs are partnering with (department) stores or e-commerce sites to ensure greater distribution across the country and increasingly all through the world. Although, the middle class is  enthusiastic about such empowering cultural products, prices and availability remain barriers that brands need to address to develop mainstream products.

“Made by Ethiopia” is so much more than manufacturing goods in Ethiopia

* This post is based on the article “Made in Ethiopia: Fashion’s next sourcing hub”.

When factories producing for the likes of J Crew, Harbor Footwear Group, Calvin Klein, H&M, PVH, Aldo, Under Armour, Guess, Tommy Hilfiger and Caleres are turning their attention to Ethiopia for large scale apparel and footwear production, it’s because Ethiopia is “getting focused” about building top notch manufacturing plants, such as Industrial Parks Development Corporation (IPDC) or private ventures like the label Anbessa’s 20,000 square-metre facility.

The combination of traditional handicraft skills, natural endowments (energy and raw materials dor leather), and government’s industrial policies have worked well in favor of Africa’s second most populated country.

Some of Ethiopia’s advantages for retailers:
• Ethiopian fashion exporters have duty-free access to the US thanks to AGOA for another decade, duty free entry into Canada, the European Union and preferential duty treatment to Japan and other countries
• National production capacity: 3.54 million pairs of shoes, expected to rise to 75.2 million pairs by 2020
• Cheaper labor costs than Asia
• Cheap electricity
• Handwoven skillset
• Ancient tanning industry that produces various types of leather


Source: Ayyaantu

What is even more interesting to witness is the creation of a professional cluster that seeks to rise Ethiopian factories’ comparative advantage, better their negotiation skills and improve on their production capacities. Indeed, “Made by Ethiopia is here to provide Ethiopian factories with all the critical support they need. We’re a singular interface for factories and international buyers. That means production, supply chain, sales and marketing, operations and export management too”.


Bethlehem Tilahun, CEO of Made by Ethiopia and Founder of Sole Rebels

This invaluable assistance is key into meeting international standards and getting access to information, funding, experts, training and all the necessary ressources to build a global valuable brand. Moreover, it offers an opportunity to leapfrog into modern technology and previously untapped markets in the international fashion scene.A

Coining the imitative “Made by Ethiopia” is powerful as it puts Ethiopians in the driver’s seat of their industrial revolution such that they reap the benefits not only at a financial level but also socially.

Ethiopia’s level of investment and commitment in becoming an industrial nation has an all encompassing approach (capital, labor, infrastructure, policy) that (West) African nations could emulate to  to build industries wherever they have a comparative advantage.

Tailors, the overlooked actors of the value chain

According to Ibifagha Cookey, a Lagos-based financial analyst, custom-made apparel from self-employed tailors generates $8.2 billion annually out of the clothing industry’s $19 billion in sales. In other words, half of the earnings in the custom-made clothing industry in Nigeria is generated by tailors.

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "tailor africa"

This finding highlights two important points :
• Tailors alone represent a central piece of the value chain : whether self-employed or working with designers, their earnings can be significant. For instance, a local designer in Benin has a workshop of 5 tailors working full time who are paid on a pro rata basis. Her minimum fees for an outfit are $30. Do the math. Despite their important contribution to the fashion industry, tailors are overlooked and considered semi-literate or semi-skilled and part of the informal economy, thus irrelevant. During discourses on building a fashion industry or industralization in Africa, tailors’ professionnal advancement (training, funding, equipment, marketing, financial literacy, etc.) is scacely taken into account.

• Custom-made apparels remain a large part of consumers’ habits and this practice is not going away anywhere any time soon. While we have previously discussed the need for ready-to-wear Africa made clothing apparel, there is also a market for custom-made. It is far from a seasonal activity given that they receive orders any time of the year and peak times being weekends and holidays. It is in our DNA to go visit tailors with piles of fabric and rough sketches of designs and let them operate their magic.

Tailor are professionals who generate revenues and contribute to the economy. Let them be seen as such and be assisted to master their craft, adequetly equip their workshops, fund raw materials and be celebrated.

Promoting local designers: brick and mortar vs. online

Retailer Woolworth has had a history of collaborating with South African local fashion designers, selling collections in their department stores. This is how I discovered South African designers and managed to incorporate a few items in my wardrobe during my stay in Pretoria from 2007 to 2009 (sidenote: flea markets are also a good place to get more traditional designs with locally-made fabrics).

After a short interruption, Woolworth is bringing back local designers’ collections to the general public through e-commerce as well as select stores.

According to Elle Magazine South Africa, “the retailer has joined forces with SA Fashion Week as an exclusive retail sponsor, starting with the Autumn/Winter 2017 collections. What this means is that a selection of A/W 17 designer capsule collections will be made available online and through select Woolworths stores as from April 2017”.

SAFW x StyleBySA

The first preview of the different collections, presented by fashion influencers, looks eclectic, versatile and comfortable. What is interesting is that the collaboration extends to different stakeholders in the fashion industry:  “We are committed to collaborating with home-grown talent across the industry, from designers to stylists, photographers, bloggers and models”.

Across the continent in Côte d’Ivoire, a similar initiative was launched in 2014 by Jumia, the leading e-commerce company. The initiative is called “Designers Ivoiriens” (or Ivorian Designers). It brought together trendy designers (well-know as well as up and coming) who could manage to present quality collections at affordable prices.


According to Jumia, « local designers will benefit from access to markets at the national level and expertise in logistics, client management, flexible payment options, all of which are offered by e-commerce”.

Whether it is in South Africa or in Côte d’Ivoire, retail’s support to local designers is advantageous at many levels throughout the supply chain. One of the biggest constraints designers have is access to capital to produce on a large scale. Sometimes, even when the capital is accessible, the lack of clear market opportunities represents a risk that many are not always willing to take. I suppose that is why, after the many fashion weeks and fashion shows, designers are not able to sell their designs. Thus, partnering with retailers solve two critical problems:  economies of scale as well as distribution.

However, the difference between both initiatives lies in logistics. In the former case, Woolworth chose to sell the designers’ collections both in brick and mortar stores and online. In the latter, being an e-commerce company, Jumia could only suggest the online option.  Given the relatively low access to Internet in the country (close to 3 million people or 14,6% of the population), these collections would only be accessible to a selected few.  Although Côte d’Ivoire has a store located in the capital Abidjan that sells a wide variety of local designers’ collections, it does not come close to the dozens of Woolworth department stores that will be selling local designers collections across the country.

All in all, the Woolworth model of using department stores for mass distribution could serve in other parts of Africa (East and West for example) where franchise chain-stores or mall are becoming increasingly popular. Such partnerships could develop real fashion industries in the most promising countries.

5 examples of the breadth of African led human-centered design and thinking and planning

The other day I was searching for news on design from the African continent and noted on Twitter that it seemed as though only the South Africans were consistently talking about their various creative outputs. Having long been part of the crowd that believed in the indigenous creativity and innovation in the less visible parts of the world, I went digging to see if maybe it wasn’t the words that were important but the intent of the action.

Was there, in fact, evidence of people centred thinking and planning, and solution crafting, that was innovative or transformative? This is what I’ve found with just a couple of days of desk research, I expect there’s much more out there and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

South Africa: What was designed to exclude can be redesigned to include


Papwa Sewgolum Golf Course © Johnny Miller / Millefoto

During apartheid, barriers were both constructed and modified to segregate urban spaces—roads, rivers, and large stretches of open land separating rich neighborhoods from the poor. Twenty-two years later these barriers still exist, large homes with lush lawns just a few yards away from tightly-packed communities organized with dirt roads rather than tree-lined streets. Photographer Johnny Miller wanted to capture the dramatic divide from a new perspective, and decided to shoot many areas in South Africa from several hundred feet in the air for a series titled “Unequal Scenes.”

Miller’s photographs went viral as evidence of the inequality inherently embedded in the design of the landscape. Now, the City of Johannesburg is talking about redesigning apartheid’s spatial design:

The city is trying to achieve this through its spatial development strategy dubbed the ‘Corridors of Freedom’ to eliminate sprawling low-density areas without practical public transport networks.

The City of Johannesburg’s executive director for development and planning, Yondela Silimela, says suburban living is not efficient, as leisure amenities are shared by few people. The proposal by the city is urban mixed-use areas that promote shared public spaces such as swimming pools and tennis courts between the rich and poor, to close the widening inequality gap.


Government of Rwanda’s political will to enhance citizen-centered governance

In Rwanda, however, the people centric policy design has entered the realm of the intangible – pushing the envelope of design thinking as far as any Nordic city. Taxation policy is to be reconsidered after a User Perception Survey, and an ambitious plan for leadership commitment has been launched by the president for people-centered development. We have hopes of a design policy lab being pioneered in Kigali.


Namibian invention disrupts mobile technology


Petrus Simon with his invention

More pragmatically, a young Namibian figured out how to make mobile phone calls without the need for a SIM card. Luckily, this achievement of his captured the media’s imagination, catapulting him into the limelight and garnering him a scholarship in technology at any university of his choice from the local telco. If every young African inventor received the same, the landscape of STEM would change across the continent.

Ekandjo revealed that the company does not usually fund learners from grade 12, but MTC  is proud to make an exception.

Last year Petrus won a gold medal at the NamPower national schools’ competition, after he invented a machine that serves as a seed drier and cooler.


Kenyan Andrew Kio saw the unmet need for African sizes in clothing

 “There are no standard sizes for Africans like the way people walk into shops abroad and you are asked whether you are a size 12 or 14 and such like things.”

Kio did basic market research to help him carve out a niche for himself in the market given that most people then still had a preference for imported jeans, despite the fact that they did not fit properly. He learnt that women have the most problems. He had found his entry point. Kio then went and bought some pairs of women’s jeans, ripped them apart and studied their designs carefully.

Blacjack now has six full-time employees and Kio has recently bought new machines to keep up with demand. Blacjack dresses KFC and Kengeles staff and recently signed a deal with French retailer Carrefour, which has debuted in Kenya. He also imports Woodin designer African prints from Ghana for uniquely African jeans. Source


Which segues nicely into the recently launched initiative by the AfDB called Fashionomics – complete with a B2B platform for pan African SMEs. We keep our fingers crossed that creative entrepreneurs like Andrew see the fruits of all this hard work.


What will it take for African-made clothing to become available for mass market?

When we talk about fabric in West Africa, there is no doubt that wax (also called ankara) is one of the first thing that comes to mind. Vlisco, the Dutch fashion textile brand, has been for long THE fabric par excellence bringing prestige and elegance to those who wear it. As 2016 marks the 170th anniversary of the brand, a celebratory campaign has been launched in several West African countries to share the history of the brand, re-print classic fabrics with a modern touch and weigh on the stakes for the future.


Vlisco’s campaign with 8 brand ambassadors


Cocktail for the launch of the celebratory events around Vlisco’s anniversary in Cotonou

Speaking of stakes, competition from China has been the most damaging to Vlisco’s sales and image. Cheaper Chinese fabrics that happen to be look-alikes of Vlisco patterns have created two shifts in society:

  1. wax has become widely available to working class who can now frequently purchase fabric; and
  2. a rise of fashion labels creatively using wax for accessories, clothing, and shoe apparel.

Fashion labels using wax have flourished, at low scales, remaining more custom made than ready-to-wear. Yet whether they are designed with Vlisco or cheaper wax fabric, prices remain high. Let’s have a closer look:

Case 1: Woodin, part of the Vlisco group, boasts to be the “first African brand offering a contemporary and wholly African fashion range”. Vlisco owns two textile factories in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire yet ready-to-wear designs remain expensive, according to consumers. Prices range between $50 and $120. Interestingly enough, Woodin aspires to produce ready-to-wear collections accessible to all.


Case 2: newly launched clothing lines that produce small scale collections with (cheaper) wax prints. Designers work with tailors and seamstresses to produce their clothing/accessories items. Volumes produced depend on demand from customers, personal funds (access to funding) or requirements for expo/private sale designers are attending. Prices are also deemed expensive and closely mirror those of Woodin.


Left: Nanawax from Benin who aspires to be the Zara of Africa; Right: Dakrol creation from Togo

Admittedly, despite the current trend in wearing wax, African consumers still have a hard time purchasing ready-to-wear wax prints because of alternative options such as buying fabric and sewing preferred design directly with a tailor or seamstress or second hand clothes. However, mindsets are changing and demand is rising, especially from the middle class.

So, despite the democratization of fabric, both cases highlight important points:

  • Cheaper fabric, even when produced locally, does not significantly reduce cost of clothing
  • Labor costs remain expensive
  • Economies of scale could be reached if demand rose significantly so mass market clothing in wax (or other locally made fabric) could be readily available

This begs the question: will manufacturing enable reducing the cost of ready to wear Ankara clothes and accessories in Africa?

Democratization of value in emerging markets


Original Woodin designer African prints

There’s something interesting happening in West Africa. Known for its fashion sense and style, exuberantly patterned textiles dominate men’s and women’s apparel. Until now, the impact of cheaper Chinese imports had been felt by the traditional manufacturers, in Ghana particularly.

But this is not where the story ends. Today, the majority of Dutch designs available on African markets are low-cost reproductions made in China. The entry of these Chinese textiles has upset Dutch and local producers of “authentic” wax prints.

What has happened is that these imitation African prints from China are themselves gaining ground among discerning customers:

These [Bigname waxprint] producers are trying to protect their hold on the market by appealing to ideas of “originality” and legal notions of “authenticity”. But consumers are more interested in the quality and look of the cloth, and the way it reflects the wearer’s taste and status.

And this is the interesting twist in the tale that caught my attention. Bypassing discussions on what exactly is authentic about a Dutch company mass producing imitation Indonesian batik and creating a whole new market in “African prints” (ankara)  – I want to talk about consumer’s choice. By the by, it was consumer choice that created the market for the “authentic” in the first place, allegedly as West Africans took to that batik inspired fabric after teh Indonesians rejected it.

Be that as it may, what is happening now, is then no more than a repeat of what happened back then. Just as mass produced English and Dutch textiles overshadowed and shrank the indigenous handmade fabric culture in West Africa’s diverse nations, the Chinese manufacturers are now doing the same. Mass production commodified batik, and made it affordable for the mass market to enjoy the styles and trends of their wealthier brethren, if not the look and feel. I can pick up a beautiful batik sarong from Indonesia – “authentic” – for around $15 Singapore dollars. I know it must be mass produced. Here’s the insight from the original article:

Instead of relying on labels and techno-signs of authenticity as per the Vlisco style guide, Togolese turn to the cloth’s material properties to establish its worth. Value is ascribed through the senses, by touching, smelling or even tasting the cloth.

Value is being ascribed by the customers themselves. If this isn’t the democratization of design, then I don’t know what is. In India, something similar seems to have happened in the recent past. Banarasi silk saris are family heirlooms, their worth and value goes beyond the difference in use of pure gold wire, or simply gold coloured thread.

Yet, the Chinese managed to not only disrupt that entire market, but just as in the case of Ghana’s textile industry, affected the weavers of the sarees. From available articles, it seems the earlier hubbub has died down and instead the tone of the articles turn to debates over whether you are wearing the cheap Chinese fakes or the original handloomed ones.

While distinguishing a “good fake” from an original needs experience with handlooms, the best way to know the difference is to first assess the textile. A pure Banarasi is woven on tissue or raw silk, not synthetic materials like polyester, hybrid fabrics, artificial or Chinese silk. Machine-made saris also do not have floats between the weft and the warp which can be spotted on the reverse. The price is a big giveaway too. In Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market, for instance, Banarasi brocade is available for as little as Rs.120 a metre. It is clearly fake. The original ones start upwards of Rs.600 a metre.

While the African report has this to say,

In Togo, societal norms of ascribing value to fakes and copies are at odds with global regulatory regimes that are based on a specific proprietary relationship between authorship and ownership.

the Indians seem to be taking a pragmatic approach now, as the changes occurring have had more time to settle in:

It is an ironical prosperity. “Even in the last 10 years, Varanasi is a bigger textile centre than ever before, perhaps a logical corollary to the gradual democratization of a traditionally exclusive product, and the lowering of production values and standards over a broader production base. We must celebrate it as a contemporary industry that allows a lot of people to participate and survive in a certain economic environment, while affording a lot more people the pleasure of indulging in the Banarasi. But we must separate it from our appreciation and understanding of the historical art of Banaras silk,” says Jain.

Will this be the same acceptance that will take place in West Africa? That the retail trade will benefit, that aspiring new consumers will enjoy what was hitherto out of reach? That the “original” fabrics will retain their place at the top of the value chain?

“In a crafts pyramid, the peak should be kept alive instead of just sustaining the base by making it market- and volume-oriented,”

Or, as the Indian story asks, can the African fashion industry leverage this democratization to spur economic and social development in underserved and lesser known segments? Could this trend actually benefit the original indigenous textile handicrafts of the Sahel and the west African nations? Will they re-emerge in prominence, and value, once again?

We’re starting a new series on the blog to explore these questions and more, led by our West African partner Yacine Bio-Tchane, of Cotonou, Benin. You will find them filed under the AfDB inspired category of Fashionomics and the tag fashionomics.