Over the last decade, there has been increasing attention on the African Fashion Industry – from the emergence of our indigenous fashion weeks to the global spotlight on Africa as a possible frontier for sourcing and manufacturing and to African designers gaining international relevance by showcasing in London, New York, Milan and Paris topped with countless global features.
There has been a shift from being at the peripheries of global fashion conversations to taking center stage with the reinforcing theme of “Africa Rising”, Africa: Shaping Fashion’s Future. For Africa, the fashion conversation is in two tiers, one – how do we define for ourselves the African fashion narrative but most importantly, how do we utilize fashion as a tool to grow our economies, to create wealth, and not just at the tip of fashion’s value chain but right down to the very bottom. Fashion should be a transformative socioeconomic agent for the continent with the aim to support local producers of cultural goods and services and the potential to build high-value, profitable businesses that can grow the economy at large.
Artisanship can be characterized as the foundation of African fashion, whether in weaving cloth by hand, intricate needlework, the use of organic dyes or embroidery, these have all become strong signifiers of African fashion, even in contemporary contexts. The interplay between contemporary fashion in Africa and historic cultural reference points expressed through native textiles have contributed significantly to shaping the African fashion narrative to date. Key to the preservation of these historical cultural reference points are the artisans. They are the unsung heroes working behind the scenes, weaving into relevance ancient cultures, conserving traditional knowledge. Each culture, region, or sometimes, even families have traditional craft knowledge passed down throughout the ages.
In parts of Eastern Nigeria, it is Akwete, a unique hand woven textile made out of sisal- hemp, raffia and spun cotton. In Ghana, it is Kente, a type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips. In Kenya, it is the beadwork of the Maasai women, and the list goes on. Speaking to the Akwete weavers in Abia State, Nigeria, they recall learning the craft from their mothers and aunties, as young as the age of 10 and express their intention to pass the skill to their own children, not at the forefront, the consciousness to preserve the craft, but aware of the reality of what it affords them, an income to take care of their needs, and for their children the opportunity to sponsor themselves to university with income they can make from weaving Akwete. It is this reality that provides the greatest opportunity. In that, artisanship provides income and employment for hundreds of thousands of people, with the potential to improve their welfare and status.
The African economic landscape can be best depicted as a pyramid, with a good number of the population at the bottom of the economic ladder and fewer numbers as we progress to financial stability, security, and freedom. In Africa, a large majority of its artisans are at the bottom of the pyramid. For us to argue that the African fashion industry is impacting the economy, we must be able to demonstrate to some extent how it is transforming the socioeconomic status of individuals, their families and then more broadly their communities, how is it moving them up that pyramid?
According to the McKinsey Global Fashion Index, the global fashion industry is worth an estimated $2.4 trillion. In the report, the industry is described as one that “touches everyone” and would be the world’s seventh-largest economy if ranked alongside individual countries’ GDP. The term “touches everyone” is used to emphasize the value chain, how fashion as an industry provides financial value to the individual actors involved in the process of getting a finished garment, for example, to the end user. It is unarguably a transformative socioeconomic agent.
There are several case studies of socioeconomic impact within Africa’s fashion value chain, one of the popular ones, is the Maisha Collective, a social enterprise program based in Kenya, working with over 100 female artisans. These artisans make handbags, hand-dyed fabrics, and scarves, which are sold on Etsy. The majority of artisans who are involved in this collective – about 70 percent – go on to become
economically independent, a statistic well above the average. Here in lies the potential for the industry to create an ecosystem of thriving fashion entrepreneurs, and businesses that can impact the African economic landscape. Fairtrade wages combined with socially driven investment by the private and
public sector in bolstering artisan networks has been proven to have powerful effects, providing artisans with opportunities to climb up the pyramid and secure a better financial future for their families. In addition, technology has a major role to play in the improvement and advancement of artisanship.
Artisanship is seen to be threatened by technology, by mechanical, globalized production. However, it is not on the verge of extinction as technology creates new opportunities. In order to meet global demand, artisanship and craftsmanship will need to employ technology. It is no longer accurate to say technology is the future, technology is here and now. Global fashion brands have begun to print their collections through 3-D printing bypassing garment manufacturing. Technology is not a threat to artisanship but actually the saviour, instead of 100 craftsmen producing fabric for a thousand people; African fashion needs to seek how to clothe millions. How can African craftsmanship use technology to preserve it’s traditions but also mass-produce and export to the world, catalyzing commerce and socioeconomic impact – for individuals as well as African economies?
These are the questions we need to answer as an industry, in addition seeking technological solutions in areas such as sustainability, manufacturing, sourcing and distribution to allow the industry to actualize its potential. At the recently concluded #LFDW led platform, Fashion Business Series (FBS), conversations with key players from the Nigerian and Pan African fashion industry centered around
technology. The message was clear and reiterated severally by speakers – the world is undergoing a technological revolution that has changed the way we live, work and communicate. As human beings, we all interact with technology to help us achieve our daily tasks. The African value chain is growing but to accelerate this growth, Fashion entrepreneurs have to embrace technology. The industry as a
whole needs to addresses how to sustain and grow the creativity that exists and
technology is key to kick-starting the African fashion revolution.
This article was written by Ijeoma Balogun & Aderonke Adeola