Posts Tagged ‘fashionomics’

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…

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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Vlisco’s campaign with 8 brand ambassadors

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.