Posts Tagged ‘west africa’

West Africa’s incipient mobile platform boom will transform the ECOWAS economy

While East Africa has tended to grab the headlines as the mover and shaker in mobile platform innovation, there’s an imminent boom due to emerge in West Africa. The GSMA’s most recent report on the West African mobile ecosystem contains all the signals of this happening within the next 3 or so years.

Even in mobile money solutions, where East Africa has had a headstart (and worldwide fame for M-Pesa), numerous new solutions have been launched in West Africa and subscriber numbers show double digit growth.

In addition, both smartphone penetration (~30% of all subscribers) and internet use are growing as well.

All of this, taken together with the growth of incubators, accelerators and variations of tech hubs to support the startup ecosystem provide evidence of a transformation underway.

Does West Africa have the potential to surpass the success of East Africa? I believe so, given its larger population, greater numbers of dynamic economies from both Francophone and Anglophone regions, and the side effect of years of watching East Africa grab the headlines.

How to Spot Signals of Local Purchasing Patterns in the Market

np-md-mohamed-kanuThis photograph is taken from a regular news item from a Liberian newspaper announcing the opening of a new petrol station in the town of Ganta. What caught my attention is the size of the LPG cylinders being promoted. On the left is the 6kg and on the right is an even smaller size that I’ve yet to see elsewhere – the 6kg one has been spotted in the lower income side of Jakarta, and in the markets of Abidjan, and Nairobi.

What it tells me is that purchasing power in the local market is not only a little less than a major capital city, this is probably a tier 2 city, but also that its a cash intensive market where incomes are more likely to be the volatile cash flows from commercial activities in the informal sector.

The lumpsums available for LPG aren’t going to be as large as to afford the standard 13kg size, but it doesn’t preclude people from purchasing these smaller sizes more frequently. That is, we cannot assume total consumption volumes to be less than larger cities where larger sizes are more popular. On the other hand, the micro size on the right seems to hint at the possibility of LPG being more popular than traditional fuels such as kerosene, charcoal, or firewood.

These small sizes also signal a fragmented, informal market where small pack sizes and sachets are popular.

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.