Manufacturing in Africa Could Transform the Fashion Industry. But Who Would Benefit?

Several of the continent’s top fashion minds weigh in on the exciting opportunities and legitimate concerns that come with making clothes in the region.

BY LAUREN SHERMAN

OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — African manufacturing is on the rise.

With the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) now in its operational phase, the continent is poised to take on more production in the midst of global trade wars and rising wages in China. Once the trade agreement is fully running, Africa will be the world’s largest free trade area by number of countries as 54 African nations will constitute a single market for goods and services.

Right now, the manufacturing sector is only a small proportion of economic output for many African countries, but it is poised to grow fast in leading markets. “As the world is increasing barriers to trade, Africa is breaking them down,” Kenyan-born journalist Zain Verjee said on-stage at BoF’s VOICES event, joined by three of the continent’s fashion leaders: Lagos Fashion Week founder Omoyemi Akerele, Made in Africa Executive Director Matt Liu and Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede, founder and designer of the made-in-Africa label LemLem.

“When the value chain is functioning properly, it has the potential to create hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of jobs for women and youth in Africa,” Akerele said. But getting there won’t be easy. Right now, the fashion industry is incredibly fragmented: major corporations like PVH are opening factories in select African countries, but emerging local designers aren’t able to benefit because they can’t meet the minimums required by such big manufacturing outfits. (PVH’s factories also tend to make basic products like underwear and t-shirts, and would not be set up for high-fashion handiwork.)

As the world is increasing barriers to trade, Africa is breaking them down.

While real progress is being made to loosen intra-African trade barriers, cross-country logistics remain an impediment. Shipping something from a country in West Africa to a country in East Africa, for instance, can be more expensive than importing a product from India or China, said Liu, who is part of a growing contingent of Chinese manufacturers setting up shop in the region. He cited a shoe factory in Ethiopia that opened in 2011 and now employs over 4,000 employees, the large majority of whom are from the country.

Kebede, however, sees an opportunity that goes beyond mass production. Since founding LemLem in 2007, she has worked with local artisans, offering community groups a consistent, sustainable income, while showcasing local expertise. (Other labels, including shoe brand Brother Vellies, have similar operations.) But not all of these efforts to bring scale to upscale manufacturing on the continent have worked. In 2018, French luxury group LVMH pulled out of its investment in Edun, the Bono and Ali Hewson-founded label that started with the mission of making goods — and creating jobs — in Africa.

Outdated perceptions and stereotypes about manufacturing on the continent by international fashion industry counterparts continue to limit opportunities too, the panellists suggested. “When you see a wonderful artisan and [realise] he’s African, the context completely changes because the minute you think African…” Kebede said — “You think cheap,” Akerele added, finishing her sentence.

But there was hope that things could, and will, change. “Apparel manufacturing can thrive in Africa,” Akerele said. “This is also where we need to be extra careful. There must be a balance [between mass and more localised manufacturing]… so that everyone can benefit.”

To learn more about VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering.

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