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Making the World a Better Place for Southern Projects

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

Good ideas are plentiful, but how to fund life-improving projects has always been a thorny issue. Judging how effective a project is can also be fraught with debate and contention. Over the past two decades, the number of NGOs in the global South has exploded (http://lboro.ac.uk/gawc/rb/rb144.html). The best of them offer the local knowledge and understanding required to make development gains. But unlike NGOs in the North, many lack the powerful fundraising capabilities of the big global NGO brands.

An exciting new initiative based in Germany, but already featuring hundreds of projects from across the South, is using the power of the internet to directly connect projects and donors.

Joana Breidenbach, an anthropologist, author and co-founder of betterplace.org (www.betterplace.org), says NGOs are emerging in India and other countries of the South to challenge the big Northern global NGOs.

“Why wouldn’t you want to donate to these Southern NGOs? There are more entrepreneurs and local approaches which are better.

“Betterplace gives local institutions a platform to express themselves.”

Started in 2007, betterplace is an online marketplace for projects to raise funds. It is free, and it passes on 100 percent of the money raised on the platform to the projects. The foundation that runs betterplace supports its overheads by offering additional services that people can pay for if they wish. It works in a way similar to the online marketplace eBay (http://www.ebay.com): NGOs post their project, set up an account, blog about their achievements and successes and needs, and receive donations direct to their bank account when they come in.

Breidenbach points out up to a third of any NGO’s income is spent on fundraising. In Germany, that represents more than Euro 1.3 billion out of over Euro 4 billion in private donations – money that could have gone directly into the hands of the people needing help.

With betterplace, donators can surf through the projects and pick the one they want. Already, more than 100 large corporations trawl through betterplace seeking projects to fund to meet their corporate social responsibility (CSR) obligations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporate_social_responsibility).

“I find it very exciting to introduce a good and innovative NGO to a corporate sponsor,” Breidenbach said.

Breidenbach says betterplace’s ultimate goal is “to transfer the donation market online.” It hopes to change the rules in donation and charity in the same way blogs and the search engine Google changed the way people publish and search for information.

“This provides better transparency, feedback,” Breidenbach said. “Now (with betterplace) donors and organizations can cut out the middlemen. A lot of established organizations do not like this too much.”

Over the past decade, new concepts like social entrepreneurs and venture philanthropy have emerged to straddle the delicate line between social good and private profit. Betterplace joins this wave of new thinking about how to do development better.

In the 20 months since betterplace went online more than 1,500 projects have joined. They are now averaging between 20 to 35 new projects joining every week.

Betterplace is a simple open-plan office on the top floor of a Berlin warehouse beside the city’s Spree river. The small team (http://www.betterplace.org/about_us/team) work on laptop computers. A blackboard on the wall details in bright colours a running tally of the projects that have joined.

Breidenbach gives the example of a mother in Cameroon who is using betterplace to raise the school fees for her children. The mother blogs about the children’s progress and has been able to raise the fees for a year and a half.

“People are now directly connected to somebody in need.”

“Right now the functionality (of the website) does not allow people getting in contact publicly and we want to enable this knowledge transfer in 2010. If you want to build a well in Cameroon then you could search for the best technology and to contact other people who are doing similar projects to learn from them.”

Success on betterplace is by no means certain. “The experience of the project managers has been as varied as development work is – some have done really well, raising thousands of Euros over the website – others have received no funding at all,” Breidenbach said.

But betterplace provides tools to give the projects the best chance possible. “Projects can present their work, breaking it down in a transparent way (in order to let supporters know exactly what is needed for their realization), there are sound payment processes in place and project managers can give feedback through their project blog, supporters can download project widgets etc., all supplied free of charge.”

Breidenbach has other tips for making betterplace work for a project: post details in English when creating a profile, break down the project into much smaller, low-cost goals (few people are willing to make large donations) – this also has the advantage of receiving payments straight away when they are small. Tell a good story about the project, and try and use actual testimonials from the people affected. Blog and update regularly with photos and videos to keep people engaged. Also avoid copying and pasting text from a previous grant application.

“We have the numbers to show that projects which give regular feedback and have a lively web of trust receive more donations than others, which are not very active.”

“Don’t think you can just go on to betterplace and the money starts rolling in,” said Breidenbach.

The betterplace platform places all projects seeking funds on the same level, allowing individuals and small NGOs to compete equally with the big, branded global NGOs with their websites and sophisticated fundraising operations.

“All the big NGOs have their own websites,” continues Breidenbach. “But it is the small initiatives that often don’t have a website or know how to use Pay Pal etc. (http://www.paypal.com). We are very useful for smaller NGOs.”

“Another big advantage is that we are a real marketplace: whatever your interests (as a potential donor), you will find a project tackling this issue on the platform.”

But what about fraud and people seeing betterplace as a coin-making machine rather than a way to make the world a better place?

“We have a feeling for dodgy projects. We check the IP address. We have a number of trust mechanisms in place (and are currently working on enlarging them). Thus projects on betterplace can create trust through their good name … But we also include something which I would call network-trust: In our web of trust different kinds of stakeholders of an organization or a project have a voice and can publicly state what they think of it. Thus beneficiaries of a project can say if the project has done them good or has been counterproductive, people who have visited the project on the ground can describe what they have seen etc. … we hope to give a much denser and more varied impression of social work and give donors (a terribly badly informed group of people), the basis for a much more informed choice.

“If a contributor to a project is dissatisfied with the project’s outcome … she can either directly contact the project manager via betterplace, or openly voice her concern on the project page for other potential donors to see her views.”

For now, betterplace is still only useful to people who have access to the internet and have a bank account (necessary for the money transfers). But in the future betterplace hopes to have mobile phone interactivity and more features to expand who they can reach.

“We are also re-working our site to make it more intuitive and easier to use for people without computer skills,” Breidenbach said. “In the pipeline is also a knowledge backbone, enabling people to access knowhow about development and social innovation issues and exchange views and experiences. This will be very useful for projects in the South as so many people are working on the same issues without knowing about it. They could learn a lot from each other, without the “help” of the north.”

With internet broadband in Africa set to take off, according to the report Africa Connect: Undersea Cables to Drive an African Broadband Boom (http://www.pyr.com/downloads.htm?id=5&sc=PR090309_INSAME1.6), even more people will soon be able to make the most of initiatives like betterplace.

Resources

1) CSR Wire: This is a news service with all the latest news, reports and events and where companies announce their CSR (corporate social responsibility) programmes and how much they are contributing. A great resource for any NGO looking to make a targeted appeal for funds. Website:http://www.csrwire.com/

2) Alibaba: Alibaba.com is an online marketplace started in China but is now global. It allows businesses from all over the world to trade with each other, make deals and find funding. Website: http://www.alibaba.com/

3) More photos from the Betterplace HQ in Berlin, Germany. Website: http://www.flickr.com/photos/15195144@N06/sets/72157622386871044/ and here https://davidsouthconsulting.org/betterplace-photos/ 

Published: September 2009

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

Follow @SouthSouth1

Google Books: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=uXWUyfb4MacC&dq=development+challenges+september+2009&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Slideshare: http://www.slideshare.net/DavidSouth1/development-challengessouthsouthsolutionsseptember2009issue

Southern Innovator Issue 1: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Q1O54YSE2BgC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 2: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Ty0N969dcssC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 3: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=AQNt4YmhZagC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 4: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9T_n2tA7l4EC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 5: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6ILdAgAAQBAJ&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

“A few weeks ago, David South, Development consultant and author of UNDP’s Development Challenges, South-South Solutions Newsletter, came by the betterplace office to take a look at our work. When I asked him how he had come about betterplace.org, he answered: he found me on twitter! So much for the twitter-scepticts. Read the article about how we can Make the World a Better Place for Southern Projects. (As the UNDP always publishes the newsletter on its South to South Website only months later, here is the link via David South’s blog).”

Photos from inside the Betterplace.org Berlin HQ: Betterplace.org HQ Photos

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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Texting For Cheaper Marketplace Food With SokoText

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

An international group of graduate-social entrepreneurs from the London School of Economics (LSE) is pioneering a way to reduce food prices in Kenya using mobile phones.

Answering a call to action to address global food insecurity by the Hult Prize (hultprize.org), the team members looked at how they could make food cheaper for urban slum dwellers.

The Hult Prize, funded by Swedish educational entrepreneur and billionaire, Bertil Hult, is a start-up accelerator for budding young social entrepreneurs emerging from the world’s universities. The winner receives US $1 million and mentorship to make their idea become real.

SokoText (sokotext.com) (soko means market in Swahili) uses SMS (short message service) messages from mobile phones to empower vegetable sellers and kiosk owners in slums when it comes to bargaining the price for wholesale fresh produce. SokoText makes it possible for them to benefit from bulk prices by pooling their orders together every day. Usually vendors lack the funds to buy in bulk and have to make numerous time-consuming trips to the centre of Nairobi to buy stock.

SokoText reduces the price of fresh produce by 20 per cent for kiosk owners by buying the produce earlier in the supply chain. SokoText then delivers the food to a wholesale outlet at the entrance to the slum.

This approach makes available a wider range of produce and reduces the price. And best of all, it will knock down prices for the poorest people and enable them to buy more food and better quality food.

The team behind SokoText come from a variety of countries – Colombia, Canada, Kenya, Britain and Germany.

Hatched at the LSE, the enterprise prototyped its service in Mathare Valley, Nairobi, Kenya for four weeks during the summer of 2013 with 27 users and began the second phase of testing in November 2013, working with a local NGO, Community Transformers (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Community-Transformers-kenya/119937408165671).

According to SokoText, slum dwellers spend on average 60 per cent of their daily budget on food.

Mobile phones can be transformative since they are now a common communications tool, even in slums.

On the SokoText website, respected blogger and commentator on technology in Africa, Erik Hersman (http://whiteafrican.com/about/), calls it “a fantastic low-tech approach that could really scale for decreasing the inefficiencies in urban slum markets.”

SokoText’s 21-year-old co-founder and chief executive, Suraj Gudka, explained the genesis of the project to news and technology in Africa website, 140Friday.com.

“From our research, the Mama Mboga (small-scale vegetable retailers) spend between 150 and 200 Kenyan shillings (US $1.70 and US $2.3) daily, about 25 per cent of her revenue, to buy her stock, and since they do not buy in bulk they [she] get their goods at a higher price.”

Getting the market traders to cooperate is very difficult, Gudka found, because competition is fierce and trust is low. SokoText sees itself as a solution to this situation. By encouraging bulk buying by way of the SMS text service, there is no need to build trust between the traders before the produce is purchased.

“To use our service, the interested retailers would be required to send us an SMS every evening detailing what they need,” said Gudka, “and then we will source the produce and they come pick it up from us the next morning. In this way they do not have to incur the additional costs of transporting their goods and it also saves them time.”

SokoText is being incubated at the Nailab (nailab.co.ke) in Nairobi, a startup accelerator that offers a three to 12 month entrepreneurship program, with a focus on growing innovative technology-driven ideas.

SokoText’s summer pilot test confirmed taking the orders can work but found getting the product to the market in time was difficult.

The next step will be to set up a presence in the Mathare slum.

“We will be selling about seven to 10 different kinds of produce, and from our calculations, according to our projections for how much the Mama Mbogas buy every day, we hope to get  40-50 customers within three months,” Gudka said.

Resources

1) SokoText: The website explains further how the service works. Website: sokotext.com

2) Hult Prize: The Hult Prize Foundation is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to launching the world’s next wave of social entrepreneurs. It encourages the world’s brightest business minds to compete in teams to solve the planet’s biggest challenges with innovative ideas for sustainable start-up enterprises. Annual Hult Prize winners can make their ideas reality with the help of US $1 million in seed funding. Website: hultprize.org

3) White African: Where Africa and Technology Collide! Website: http://whiteafrican.com/about/

4) Nailab: Nailab (Nairobi Incubation Lab) is a startup accelerator that offers an entrepreneurship program focusing on growing innovative technology driven ideas. This is done through providing business advice, technical training and support, professional mentoring and coaching, giving access to market and fostering strategic partnerships as well as linking them to investors. Website: nailab.co.ke

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: December 2013

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

Follow @SouthSouth1

Google Books: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=hPNcAwAAQBAJ&dq=development+challenges+december+2013&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Slideshare: http://www.slideshare.net/DavidSouth1/development-challenges-december-2013-issue

Southern Innovator Issue 1: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Q1O54YSE2BgC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 2: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Ty0N969dcssC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 3: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=AQNt4YmhZagC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 4: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9T_n2tA7l4EC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 5: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6ILdAgAAQBAJ&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

SokoText co-founder Sofia Zab (left). She oversees SokoText’s marketing strategy and manages SokoText’s technology products.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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Growing A Southern Brand To Global Success: The Olam Story

Most people haven’t heard of Olam International, but they know the brands they work for and they more than likely eat their produce. The story of Olam (http://www.olamonline.com) – a global food supply company in ‘agri-products’ that got its start in Nigeria – shows how a Southern brand can grow and go global, and overcome the difficulties of cross-border trade.

Olam supplies well-known global food brands including Cadbury (chocolate), Nestle, Lavazza (coffee), Mars (chocolate), Tchibo and Planters (peanuts).

Olam not only survived its startup in Nigeria, it has thrived, trading around Africa and across the globe, becoming a major supplier to the world’s top food brands.

The quantity of agri-products harvested in the world is 5.2 billion metric tonnes. In that market, Olam is a significant producer of cashews, peanuts, spices, beans, coffee, cocoa, sheanuts, packaged foods, rice, wheat, barley, sugar, cotton, wood, and rubber. It is already the world’s largest supplier of cashew nuts and sesame nuts and in the top three for peanuts. Olam’s cashew business in Africa provides work for 17,000 people, 95 percent of whom are women.

Olam also uses its success to play a critical role in securing the world’s food supply and has specialized in meeting the food needs of the world’s rapidly growing population, especially in China and India. Between 2001 and 2007, annual increases in the global consumption of agricultural commodities were larger than during the 1980s and 1990s. Higher incomes are leading to higher consumption of proteins like meat. And as meat demand rises, so does the demand for grain and protein feeds to produce the meat. It takes two kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of chicken, four kilograms of produce for one kilogram of pork, and eight kilograms of produce for one kilogram of beef.

Chris Brett, Olam’s senior vice president and head of corporate social responsibility and sustainability, said the company tries to blend business success with wider social goals.

“We are one of the few businesses investing in rural environments and am tackling the problem of urbanization,” said Brett in Olam’s London office – the company’s global headquarters is in Singapore.

In 2008, it won the World Business Development Award for its contribution to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/).

Olam also has been recognized for its contribution to global food security. By providing farmers with credit to help build their communities, it has also been able to revive declining rural economies and help stem the outflow of farmers to the big cities and urban slums.

“Many countries are afraid to lend to farmers,” Brett said. “We gather the farmers together in groups of 500 and Olam manages the loan while a local bank receives the money. Defaults have been low and farmers are building up a credit rating. In this way, farming becomes a business not just a subsistence existence.”

The dramatic changes taking place in African countries – especially rapid urbanization that has made the continent home to 25 of the world’s fastest growing cities (International Institute for Environment and Development) – means there is an urgent need to increase food production and stabilize rural economies to support farming.

Olam International, started in 1989 in Nigeria by its India-born CEO Sonny George Verghese has many lessons for any Southern entrepreneurs who have their sights set high.

After developing its skills in exporting cashew nuts from Nigeria, Olam moved into cotton, cocoa and sheanuts. From 1993 to 1995, the company explored ways of taking their skills into other countries and different products. It was a period of rapid expansion into other African countries including Benin, Togo, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Senegal.

Olam now operates in 26 African countries.

There has been a renaissance in South-South trade in recent years before the current economic crisis, growing by an average of 13 percent per year between 1995 and 2007. By 2007, South-South trade made up 20 percent of world trade.

Olam started with one product, got its supply right, and then started looking around and seeing what other products and services it could offer, applying already-tested expertise and supply skills – what the company calls the ‘Olam DNA’.

Olam claims its success has come from building strong relationships with farmers to guarantee high standards for the food products. The company does this by tightly tracking its stock and its quality. Olam then uses the information to analyze risks to the supply network. The company also keeps both warehouses and field managers close to the farmers. Olam estimates 65 percent of its profit comes from managing the journey from farmer’s field to factory gate.

Its selling point to customers is the ability to guarantee the entire journey from farmer’s field to factory gate, taking on all the risk and stress for ensuring the product is of the right standard and delivered on time.

Its niche is to provide the food products required by some of the world’s top food brands. The company has grown from just one product in Nigeria and two employees in 1989, to directly employing over 10,000 people worldwide and supplying 20 products in 60 countries, according to Brett. He says the company, which had a total 2008 turnover of US $5.75 billion, was “born out of Africa.”

Brett says the company is now “investing heavily in Africa in processing and distribution centres” – proof that a success story feeds back into more success and investment. It has been able to use its profits to go back and buy up failing businesses and former state-run enterprises, and modernize them. Olam now grows the food, processes it, and transports it to market.

Olam actively works with international donors, global NGOs like Technoserve (farmer business development), WWF (environmental impact of supply chain), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (cocoa and cashew farmers).

Olam, however, has received criticisms for its past practices. The global environmental group Greenpeace attacked its logging in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/tags/olam), and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) divested its holdings from Olam for it trading illegally cut timber.

Olam and the Gates Foundation project are working with 200,000 cocoa farmers in West Africa to double their incomes. In Ghana, cocoa farming has become synonymous with poverty and perceived as an occupation of last resort. The work force is rapidly aging and the industry will die out if it doesn’t become more profitable and attractive to young people.

“We want the farmers to be profitable, the transporters to be profitable,” Brett said. “We believe a supply chain does not work if one player takes too much.”

And what advice does Olam have for budding food producers and growers? “Catchy, simple brands work. Our Mama Mia pasta caught the wave of the Abba revival.”

“Our Tasty Tom brand became very popular in Africa so we extended the brand into other products than just tomato paste. You reduce the cost of advertising by extending the brand name.”

“We feel SMEs (small, medium enterprises) growth is critical because it would give us more support. If more people invested in SMEs, we would have more people to do business with. We want to be able to make deals: they could be entrepreneurs.

“If you can add extra value it costs nothing but time.”

Brett advises budding SMEs: “It’s all about quality: trust and shared business ethics like formal contracts. When you have those, the bigger brands will give you support.”

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: October 2009

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

Follow @SouthSouth1

Google Books: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=tRKYBgAAQBAJ&dq=development+challenges+october+2009&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Slideshare: http://www.slideshare.net/DavidSouth1/development-challengessouthsouthsolutionsoctober2009issue

Southern Innovator Issue 1: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Q1O54YSE2BgC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 2: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Ty0N969dcssC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 3: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=AQNt4YmhZagC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 4: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9T_n2tA7l4EC&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Southern Innovator Issue 5: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=6ILdAgAAQBAJ&dq=southern+innovator&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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African Fashion’s Growing Global Marketplace Profile

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

Tales of African global fashion successes have multiplied in the last few years. African fashion is seeing its profile rise as more and more shows and festivals boost awareness of the continent’s designs, designers and models. In turn, African fashion and design is being taken more seriously as an income and job generator, and as a sector able to weather the ups and downs of the global economy: people always need to wear clothes.

If the global fashion industry were a country, it would rank 7th in global GDP (gross domestic product) (Fashion Performance Network).

In 2011, the apparel retail industry was worth an estimated US $1.1 trillion, and that could grow to US $1.3 trillion by 2016. And the sector is expanding in the global South. It is forecast that India and China combined will be as big a fashion market as the United States by 2015.

One visible aspect of this is the plethora of African fashion weeks that have sprung up.

Launched in 2011, African Fashion Week in London (africafashionweeklondon.com), or AFWL, is a reflection of how far things have come and how much higher the profile of African fashion now is.

The mission behind AFWL is “to promote emerging and established African designers and African-inspired designers from across the globe.” The number of attendees grew from 4,700 in the first year to 20,000 in 2012.

In 2012 it partnered with Côte d’Ivoire Fashion Week (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cote-dIvoire-Fashion-Week/364950310210789), which will hold its third annual event in December 2013. This partnership has meant fashion designers from Côte d’Ivoire can benefit from the higher international profile of appearing at African Fashion Week in London. The theme in 2012 was “Ivorian Textile Products on the American Market.”

“London is one of the most important fashion capitals around the world,” said Côte d’Ivoire Fashion Week’s founder and CEO, Coulibaly Severin on the AFWL website. “It is a great honour for us and the African continent to have a professional international platform to promote African Fashion industry actors, African heritage, African values, African textiles through Africa Fashion Week London.”

The idea is to use the fashion week as a bridge to access the European market.

With the right support, African fashion businesses have huge potential for growth.

A distinctive “Afropolitan” aesthetic (http://afropolitanaesthetic.tumblr.com/) has grown as a phenomenon since 2005, influencing global urban design trends. It can be characterized as urban, sophisticated, tailored and boldly African in its use of colours and patterns. British designer Paul Smith (http://www.paulsmith.co.uk/uk-en/shop/) has been one of many designers to be inspired by the afropolitan look.

While African fashion trends have always influenced the global fashion business, the challenge has been to create viable global African fashion brands that can compete in the global marketplace and in turn create sustainable jobs in Africa.

Pioneers are showing that it can be done.

Featured at Africa Fashion Week in London in 2011, the Nigerian fashion brand Mmabon (mmabon.com) is now looking to pioneer new ways to buy and sell clothing in Africa. The company, which sells affordable casual and custom apparel, is launching a mobile phone app for all devices and is building its own Internet e-commerce website as well. Mmabon had been engaging with customers through Facebook and the BlackBerry smartphone, but realized it could offer a much better experience for customers through an app and an e-commerce website. This shows the future for fashion in Africa is going mobile and going online.

Founded by Elizabeth Idem-Ido, Mmabon is capitalizing on the fact Internet access is improving in Nigeria and is turning to online advertising to drum up customers. The fashion brand is trying to reach 16 to 34 year olds, of which 8 million are believed to be currently on Facebook in Nigeria, according to Idem-Ido.

There is a cultural change underway in the country: people are increasingly feeling comfortable doing commerce online and on mobile phones.

“Nigerian youths are now more willing to buy products over the Internet, unlike five years ago, with the likes of konga.com and jumia.com revolutionizing the online retail scene in Nigeria,” Idem-Ido, who is also a trained lawyer, told VC4Africa (https://vc4africa.biz/).

Konga (Konga.com) is Nigeria’s largest online mall. Opened in 2012, it offers a wide range of products for order across Nigeria. Jumia.com calls itself the “the biggest online shopping mall in Africa”, operating in Morocco, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Kenya. Another player is Ecwid (ecwid.com), which bills itself as an e-commerce solution for small businesses that “is a revolutionary shopping cart that seamlessly integrates with your existing website. It can also be added to your page on social media networks, such as Facebook or mySpace”.

Idem-Ido’s experience with Mmabon over the past two years shows how online marketing can be an effective – and cost-effective – way to broaden a company’s customer base.

“As a business, we have not physically met with 80 per cent of our current customers,” she said. “Orders have been achieved from referrals, BlackBerry Messenger contacts and our official Facebook page. Online marketing improves our visibility without owning a prime-location store and reminds, assures our already existing customers on why we are their preferred brand.”

Her fashion business began humbly as a part-time t-shirt printing hobby for her friends. Then people started ordering custom-designed t-shirts, and so she began a journey exploring fabrics in local and foreign markets.

Mmabon is now the official merchandiser for the Calabar Festival 2013-2015 (calabarfestival.com), the biggest street carnival in West Africa. Taking place in Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria, it attracts a million people.

Mmabon is receiving help from Venture Capital for Africa, or VC4Africa (https://vc4africa.biz/), a community of entrepreneurs and investors helping to build companies in Africa, to raise further investment to grow the brand and the business.

Another success benefiting from international exposure is Malian designer Boubacar Doumbia (http://www.ndomo.net/english/index.html), who is currently making fabrics for design-savvy British furniture and home furnishings store Habitat. The prints with African themes have proven a hit with Habitat customers.

Working from a new studio in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, Doumbia (https://www.ashoka.org/fellow/boubacar-doumbia) is a leading advocate of bogolan (http://www.malimali.org/what-is-bogolan/), a Malian traditional textile dyeing process using mud.

He uses locally grown cotton, which is first dyed using plant-based dyes. A chemical reaction occurs when the iron in the mud is applied to the fabric and turns the existing plant dye black after three applications, or grey after two applications. The mud is washed off and the fabrics are placed in the sun to dry. It is a sustainable and chemical-free approach to dyeing fabrics and also creates vibrant patterns that have caught the attention of people in Europe and elsewhere.

Other outlets who have become enamored with African patterns and themes in Britain include Darkroom Boutique, House of Fraser and the V&A Museum, The Guardian newspaper reported.

As an Ashoka fellow (ashoka.org) – Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide – Boubacar is using the craft as a way to boost skills and opportunities for youth in Mali. He has “overhauled the traditional model of youth apprenticeship in Mali by putting young people in a central, entrepreneurial role from the outset. Rather than simply train students in the methods of textile production, he teaches professional, people and life skills, and encourages his apprentices to become self-sufficient, creative, and innovative”, according to the Ashoka website.

Elsewhere, African fashion style pioneer Gilles Belinga (https://www.facebook.com/GillesBelinga) has become a fashion phenomenon in China. The former communications engineering student had a deeply personal conversion to fashion and style upon arriving in Beijing; the buzzing and vibrant Chinese capital captured his heart.

“I discovered my talent and passion for fashion in China,” he told China Daily.

“I’ve also been given many opportunities here, so I want to pursue my fashion dream in China.”

The Cameroon native has a distinctly afropolitan take on fashion – elegant, tailored suits, strong colours, and a gentleman’s manner – and this fashionable posture landed him modeling work in fashion shows.

He arrived in China in 2008 after his parents divorced and he went from being in a wealthy family back home to having to do any job he could get to survive. He started out in Tianjin, China – an industrial city with a large high-technology sector – and then moved to Beijing to study.

It was there that he fell in love with the city’s fashion scene and hasn’t looked back.

“I never attended fashion school in Africa, but in Beijing, in this fashionable environment I realized that I like drawing clothes, matching colors and mixing fabrics,” he said.

“There are so many fabrics here, which has given me the chance to try out different things. Sometimes you might have a talent in you, but you might not discover that talent if you’re not in a place where it can come out.”

He now designs clothes and has them made by local tailors.

“When I design clothes for clients, I look at the whole person and what kind of message they want to deliver to people,” he said. “Then I check their skin color and think about style and fabric.”

He defies the elitist take on fashion that can be promulgated by fashion magazines and thinks good fashion is for everyone.

“I believe the way you dress sends a message to people about how you want them to think about you.”

He finds Beijing is full of opportunities and he is regularly stopped in the city’s trendy Sanlitun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanlitun) neighbourhood and asked to be in fashion shows.

“In China, you don’t know who you are going to meet. You could be anywhere and meet someone who can change your life.”

And he plans to perfect his skills and designs in China and then take them back to Cameroon one day.

And maybe, in time, Belinga will be the next big fashion thing.

Resources

1) African Fashion Week London: AFWL celebrates London’s unique and diverse cultural heritage, topped with the flamboyant mixing of Western and African culture through fashion at the same time promoting Africa’s rich ethnic culture and interpreting it into contemporary designs. Website: africafashionweeklondon.com

2) Gentlemen of Bacongo by Daniele Tamagni, Paul Smith and Paul Goodwin, Publisher: Trolley. Website: amazon.com

The Afropolitan: A magazine and website from South Africa packed with content from an afropolitan perspective. Website: afropolitan.co.za/

Association of African Designers in Diaspora: The Association of African Designers in the Diaspora is the non-profit social enterprise arm of Africa Fashion Week London that supports emerging designers with the aim to make a positive contribution to society through fashion and creativity. Website: http://africafashionweeklondon.com/africafashionweek/association-of-african-designers-in-diaspora/

The Creative Economy: How People Make Money From Ideas by John Howkins, Publisher: Penguin. Website: creativeeconomy.com/book.htm

Creative Economy Report Website: This annual report offers a snapshot of the state of the global creative economy and its key trends. Website: http://unctad.org/en/Pages/Publications/Creative-Economy-Report-%28Series%29.aspx

7) Copyright + Creativity = Jobs and Economic Growth: WIPO Studies on the Economic Contribution of the Copyright Industries (WIPO 2012). Website: http://www.ip-watch.org/weblog/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/WIPO-Copyright-Economic-Contribution-Analysis-2012-FINAL-230-2.pdf

8) The Afropolitan Shop: The Afropolitan Shop is an online boutique founded by Beverly Lwenya, that desires to tell an African Design Story. It began as a blog in 2007 called The Afropolitan Network, which highlighted stories and images of the African Diaspora. The Afropolitan Shop is now a growing global brand, specializing in handmade and designer accessories such as jewelry, bags and shoes. Website: theafropolitanshop.com/

Published: October 2013


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021