Made-in-Africa Fashion Brand Pioneers Aim for Global Success

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

African fashion brands have not always been the first place fashionistas turned to when shopping for new clothes or shoes in developed economies. While Africa has long been a source of inspiration in contemporary and traditional fashion, the continent has had a weak reputation for manufacturing and selling mass market global fashion brands.

There are initiatives, such as Origin Africa (http://originafrica.org/), an ongoing campaign working to improve African trade by increasing the trade of textiles and apparels, cut flowers, specialty foods, home décor, and fashion accessories. Origin Africa matches African designers and entrepreneurs with experienced industry leaders to “facilitate, coordinate and advance ‘trade, not aid’ efforts”.

While there are many places in Africa engaged in the global clothing manufacturing outsource industry – often paying very low wages – strong African fashion brands are often absent in most developed countries. Well, at least until now.

Two recent examples have joined the well-publicized success of Ethiopia’s soleRebels, maker of rubber-soled shoes (solerebelsfootwear.co). SoleRebels became an Internet success story, harnessing the power of web-based sales to reach customers around the world.

Now another Ethiopian shoe maker is also pushing its way into the global fashion scene. Ethiopian-made sneaker brand Sawa has just been picked up by the American retailer of preppy clothing J. Crew (jcrew.com). The successful catalogue and online clothing retailer has great clout when it comes to promoting a brand, and this should be a big boost to the reputation of African fashion labels.

Sawa’s headquarters is in Paris, France (the physical home of much of the world’s fashion scene) but all its shoes are sourced and made in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and the company’s website is run from there.

Sawa says the key to its success is to be a business first and foremost – not a charity.

“Sawa project does not have the so-called generosity of brands which use Africa just to glorify themselves,” said Wendesen Birhanu, on the company website.

“Sawa is a fashion brand which has taken the challenge to fabricate shoes in Africa. All the added value benefits the continent.”

The company’s shoe factory is modern and has the workers positioned at their desks making the shoes. The brand logo proudly states “Made in Africa” on all the brown cardboard shoe boxes in a bold, red roundel stamp.

Sawa also uses the slogan “vote with your feet” to show the connection between purchasing the shoes and supporting African business and manufacturing.

The footwear, currently available in the United Kingdom, France and through J. Crew in the United States, has a distinctive rubber sole with the African continent embossed on the bottom – a clever design tweak ensuring the wearers will leave an interesting footprint wherever they walk.

The styles available include Dr Bess, a vintage canvas and leather shoe in a low-cut silhouette. The Tsague is a vintage shoe with a mid cut like that used for basketball shoes.

The shoes have been put through their paces in an independent quality assurance lab and each shoe’s details are explained on the Sawa website (http://www.sawashoes.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2&Itemid=8&lang=en).

They retail in Europe for between 75 euros and 115 euros a pair – a middle-market price – and come in eye-pleasing colours, from basic black to white to sand, dark blue, grey, brown, red and light blue.

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_and_medium_enterprises) have been identified as an essential part of Africa’s future prosperity and key to its ability to reduce poverty and achieve development objectives like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (www.un.org/millenniumgoals).

Obstacles to growth for SMEs include poor infrastructure, unreliable power supplies, unscaleable business models, low quality standards and poor quality branding and design.

Developing manufacturing in Africa is key to improving incomes and wealth. Creating unique, branded products for overseas markets makes it possible to earn foreign currency and be able to benefit from consumers in other countries. The math is simple: once you have saturated the local market for your product, the only way to boost sales and profits is to seek new customers elsewhere. By selling to people in a country with a higher national income, it is possible to charge more and in turn earn more money for each product. In time, this can lead to significant income rises and in turn, human development gains as the spare cash can be put to improving local living conditions, acquiring education or better health services and consuming better quality food.

Another important feature of selling to overseas customers is competition. Having to compete with the pick of the world’s top brands means a company must raise its game to stand a chance. The pressure forces the company to sharpen its product line, become more efficient, stick to strict quality control and embrace the latest thinking in design, marketing and information technologies.

In short, an African company that can weather a few years successfully selling to overseas customers is going to be a fierce competitor back home.

And, as has been forecast many times, the rise of Africa’s middle class consumers will be a big driver of economic growth in the next decade. If this middle-income consumer class buys lots of African-made consumer products, then the impact on job and wealth creation on the continent will be significant.

Another fashion initiative boosting brand Africa is a partnership between Italian fashion lifestyle clothing retailer Diesel (diesel.com) and the Edun ethical fashion label (edun.com), founded by Ali Hewson and her husband Bono, singer with rock band U2.

The collaboration offers a contemporary take on retro street wear from Africa’s past, while having all the garments made and sourced from Africa.

In March 2013, Diesel+EDUN launched a 25-piece denim collection drawing its inspiration from African creativity. The collection uses raw, untreated denim sourced and manufactured in Uganda. It mixes up Malian textile prints for linings, with outside embroidery drawing on traditional Zulu weaving patterns. It also includes a denim jacket inspired by street wear from 1970s South Africa.

Edun was originally set up to encourage greater trade with Africa as a way to address poverty and boost incomes. Begun in 2005, the brand has tried to overturn the perception that ethical and ecologically sound fashion can’t be fashionable and desirable too.
Edun has sought to be “a creative force in contemporary fashion”, according to its website. In 2007, it launched a line dedicated to making t-shirts entirely made in Africa called Edun Live. Edun Live t-shirts “are entirely ‘Grow to Sew’ African. From cotton to finished tee, all production takes place in Africa.”

Edun has the goal of producing 40 per cent of its fashion collection in Africa by 2013. It does this by “supporting manufacturers, infrastructure and community building initiatives”.

All of Edun’s cotton is harvested to CCIU cotton standards. The Conservation Cotton Initiative Uganda (CCIU) is a cotton-farming program that helps to build sustainable farming communities in Northern Uganda.

Edun is currently working in Kenya, Morocco, Madagascar, Uganda and Tunisia.

The Diesel+EDUN (http://www.diesel.com/diesel+edun/) collaboration had its start at the beginning of 2012. After trips to East and West Africa by Diesel founder Renzo Rosso and Edun founders Ali Hewson and Bono, the idea was hatched to work together to “further apparel trade and development in Africa”. The goal is “bringing business to the continent and highlighting to the fashion world the possibility for sustainable trade and creative opportunity in Africa.”

More than 5,000 farmers participated in the 2011/2012 CCIU program, and more than 8,000 have already enrolled in the 2012/2013 season, the website states.

Edun is also working with Mikono Knits (Mikonoknits.com) to promote traditional African knitting techniques.  Founded in 2005 by Froydis Dybahl Archer, Mikono makes and sells hand-crocheted sweaters and tank tops from its Nairobi, Kenya workshop. The plan is to use the success of Mikono Knits to expand the number of underprivileged women the firm can hire to work for the business. The business currently employs 10 women and uses locally sourced organic cotton and wool, supporting the local economy.

Beyond the actual clothing partnership and African-inspired fashion, there is a clever promotion campaign to raise awareness for the Diesel+EDUN line. Called Studio Africa (http://studioafrica.tumblr.com/), it is a marketing and perception-shaping initiative, “celebrating and promoting creativity in Africa”. It is doing this by promoting nine African artists to better communicate the African vibe of the collection and give the artists’ careers a boost. It is curated and edited by Okay Africa (http://www.okayafrica.com/), a cultural guide to “all the latest music/culture/politics coming from Africa and the Diaspora”.

Resources

1) Africa Fashion International: African Fashion International (AFI) is the leading Fashion authority on the African continent and is committed to the promotion and development of the best South African design talent. Website: http://afi.za.com/

2) Origin Africa: Origin Africa is an ongoing campaign and initiative dedicated to improving African trade. Comprised of producers, designers, small businesses, exporters, buyers and retailers, it is working to develop, guide and promote African trade in the following sectors: textiles/apparel, cut flowers, specialty foods, home décor, and fashion accessories. Website: http://originafrica.org/

3) SoleRebels:  Ethiopia’s soleRebels profiled in Southern Innovator Magazine Issue 2. Website: http://www.scribd.com/doc/106055335/Southern-Innovator-Magazine-Issue-2-Youth-and-Entrepreneurship

4) How we made it in Africa: A great website packed with inspirational people and stories on business success in Africa. Website: http://www.howwemadeitinafrica.com/

5) Nigerian shoe and garment maker Fut Conceptus has been taking raw Nigerian leather that was once just sent overseas for export, and instead is turning out high-quality shoes and bags made in Nigerian factories. Website: futconceptus.com

6) SME Toolkit South Africa: A website packed with resources and support for anyone starting a small business in Africa. Website: http://southafrica.smetoolkit.org/sa/en

7) African Guarantee Fund for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises: The AGF provides guarantees and technical assistance to financial institutions in Africa with the objective of generating enhanced growth in the SME sector and increasing employment opportunities in the economy, particularly for youth. Website: http://www.afdb.org/en/topics-and-sectors/initiatives-partnerships/african-guarantee-fund-for-small-and-medium-sized-enterprises/

8) Small and Medium Enterprise Support, East Africa: A blog promoting events and support for SMEs in East Africa. Website: http://smeseastafrica.blogspot.com/

9) Integrating Developing Countries’ SMEs into Global Value Chains: A paper from UNCTAD (2010). Website: http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/diaeed20095_en.pdf

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London Edit

31 July 2013

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