East African fashion designers raise their voice at Origin Africa
By Jozef de Coster
Nov 4, 2019
Dar es Salaam - During the 10th edition of the annual textile event 'Origin Africa' (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 28-30 October 2019), experts from the public and private sector tried to forecast the future of the East African cotton, textile and garment industry. Much to the annoyance of numerous fashion designers in the conference room, most forecasts neglected to mention African designers or their role in adding aesthetic, commercial and sustainable value to the African cotton value chain.
Even Stella Manyanya, the Tanzanian Deputy Minister of Industries, Trade and Investment, was criticized by some listeners for not referring to the important role of fashion in the regional creative industries and especially in the cotton-to-clothing supply chain. She got applause, however, for her proposal to encourage Tanzanians to wear traditional clothing every Friday and Sunday (around one-third of the nearly 60 million Tanzanians are Muslims, another third are Christians). Over 100 various tribes with their own colorful clothing traditions live in Tanzania, but outside the country garments called 'kanzu' (a white or cream-colored long tunic for men) and 'khanga' (a more colorful dress for women) are considered to be the traditional attire of Tanzania.
Strong African identity
Antoinette Tesha, Director Textiles & Apparel at the East-African consulting organization Msingi (Nairobi, Kenya), encouraged the audience to make good use of the image of African fashion in the world. She said: "African fashion has a strong identity globally whereas nobody seems to know what Chinese fashion is for instance."
Msingi has experience with SWOT-analyses of industries with high growth potential across Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Msingi experts recently developed a strategy for the textile industry of Uganda. Antoinette Tesha believes that employment in the East African textile and apparel industry, including Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, could reach 80,000 jobs in 2025 and 200,000 in 2030. Garment exports from the region could reach 1.4 billion US dollars in 2025 and double to 2.7 billion in 2030. This is not wishful thinking, as examples of rapid growth in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam demonstrate. Also Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa, is slated to show fast apparel export growth in the next few years, in spite of the obvious errors made by pioneering Turkish and Asian investors who apparently believe that Ethiopian workers are some kind of cheap robots in which to put two dollars, or less, per working day.
The American entrepreneur and consultant Samuel Meeks (ex-Levi Strauss), who lives in Madagascar, predicts that within two or three years Madagascar will be Africa's biggest apparel exporter to the USA under AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act), beating Kenya and all other AGOA-entitled African countries. For the time being, nobody knows what the effects will be for Mauritius' well-developed apparel sector, of the Free Trade Agreement with China that the small island country signed on October 17, 2019. Will Chinese textile groups see Mauritius and its production base in Madagascar as a soft spot in the new African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which comprises 54 countries?
Strong African designers
The Tanzanian couturier Mustafa Hassanali, Chairman of the Fashion Association of Tanzania, is convinced that fashion designers can significantly contribute to the industrialization of Tanzania, as championed by the country's dynamic President John Magufuli, nicknamed 'The Bulldozer'.
It's obviously not only by showing off their talent during the Swahili Fashion Week, which Mustafa Hassanali founded in 2008, that the Tanzanian designers will attract international brands to their country to set up a business and manufacture garments. This year, the Swahili Fashion Week, currently the biggest annual fashion event in the whole of East and Central Africa, will take place in Dar es Salaam from 6-8 December 2019. Participating fashion designers regret that their African-style creations, though getting global applause, usually don't function as an entry ticket to production facilities or Western brands. The Tanzanian fashion designer Jamillavera Swai explains: "It's true that we, African designers, don't have to pay for inspiration. Just living in colorful Africa gives us inspiration. It's nevertheless frustrating that all those prosperous international brands that greatly benefit from us by sucking inspiration from our creations and shows, give nothing in return. Our creations are not respected or rewarded as intellectual property."
During Origin Africa 2019, some self-confident designers raised their voice requiring more attention and appreciation for their role. Tanzanian fashion designer and entrepreneur Kemi Kalikawe (brand name Naledi) said: "Designers are mostly forgotten when experts discuss the cotton-to-apparel value chain. But at the end of the day, we are the ones who create the most value. I went to India and saw there that designers can work with factories and that factories want to work with designers. At the same time, I learned that East African designers hardly have any training working with factories and brands. We need to learn how to make patterns and to use CAD-equipment. Unfortunately, here in Tanzania we don't even have fashion schools."
No fashion schools in Tanzania? Kemi Kalikawe founded the Naledi Fashion Institute herself as well as the Naledi Fashion Incubator to help young designers become more effective in their careers. It was also Kemi who rallied a number of Tanzanian ready-to-wear designers to collectively exhibit at Origin Africa 2019. Another confident designer, Herriet Mkaanga, founder of Moro Batiki Group, motivated a number of batik artisans to join her for exhibiting at Origin Africa as well.
The star motivational speaker at Origin Africa was Mariama, a fashion designer from Guinea, West-Africa. Her company, Mariama Fashion Productions, with headquarters in New York, boasts being the leading supplier of African handmade sustainable textiles and accessories. How Mariama got in contact with the American billionaire and designer Tory Burch, with the fashion brand Edun (founded by Bono, from the rock group U2, and his wife) and a customer like Michelle Obama, is a nice story to tell, especially to an African audience. A few hundreds of female artisan tie-dyers from West Africa get orders from Mariama. That's not all. "I have this vision of helping so many more people… my goal is really to help more than a million people", Mariama said in an interview early 2018.
Strong action needed
Just like the other African cotton-growing countries, with the noticeable exception of Ethiopia, Tanzania is exporting the bulk of its cotton lint, without further value added. This implies that Tanzania and other African countries have to import most of the yarns and fabrics needed to manufacture clothing, mainly from China and India. This is why there are few opportunities for designers to get involved in the world of apparel creation on an industrial scale. Thanks to the textile policy under legendary President Dr. Julius Nyerere (President from 1964 to 1985), Tanzania has a complete cotton-to-clothing supply chain. However, the Government seems hesitant to follow the example of Ethiopia to invest heavily in the textile industry, manufacturing skills, fashion training, etc.
Adam Zuku, CEO of Tegamat, the Textile and Garments Manufacturers Association of Tanzania, says: "The Government has the intention to boost the sector. Now, action must follow. And action means money." Also Marco Mtunga, Director General of the Tanzania Cotton Board and current Chairman of the African Cotton Association (ACA), confirms that the Government is ready to take action.
Written by Jozef De Coster
Photo’s: Courtesy of Kemi Kalikawe, ‘Naledi Tanzania’