A More Sustainable Future For Africa’s Fashion Industry

By Jacqueline Shaw

In January 2020, I was asked to appear on the panel of the annual Africa Investment Summit which took place in London. Attended by the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, alongside African presidents, ministers and other authorities, the event was designed to bolster relationships between the UK and Africa and encourage investment in African businesses.

With Brexit on the horizon, this was a timely opportunity for the UK to build new alliances and tap into a rapidly growing economy, which included a host of advantages within the textile industry. Most notably is the lower cost of labour and raw materials, followed closely by shorter shipping times and supply chains to Europe and the UK in comparison to sourcing from other regions. The fact that consumers nowadays are also demanding more traceability and transparency provides further opportunity for African companies, many of which are vertically integrated and have direct access to raw materials.

Such potential is hard to miss, which is why it should come as no surprise that East African suppliers have already attracted the likes of ASOS, H&M, Primark, Levis, Gap, Calzedonia and even UK supermarket, Tesco.

Yet the question of sustainability still remains, as this truly is the only solution to an industry that is broken. Valued at over 1.3 trillion USD, the demand only continues to grow, yet as the global sector value soars, working conditions, sustainable practices and wages head in the other direction with fast fashion garments reaching prices as low as 8 pence apiece.

However, as the continent did during this global pandemic when it doubled production of masks and the making of PPE – Africa acted. Its fashion manufacturing industry shifted its focus to what its consumers were calling for – sustainable sourcing – and has started the necessary journey to keep the continent at the forefront of this ever-changing world. Whilst I certainly can’t imply that Africa has or is the answer, this is an excellent opportunity to look at those who are intent on making a difference and actively taking the step to do so.

Sustainability Stories

Sub-Saharan Africa’s locally grown cotton is one of its primary exports, so when I was invited to visit Burkina Faso’s first organic cotton ginnery (an establishment where cotton fibres are separated from its seeds) in its development stage, I did so in appreciation of the vital role it plays in the African economy. The ambitious project was implemented to boost the country’s organic cotton industry, and represents a big step forward in its potential for social, ecological and economical sustainability. It was remarkable to see the measures a relatively-impoverished country has taken to champion sustainable cotton production at the source, and stands as an example of how a country’s size and GDP is not always the catalyst for change-making.

Equally commendable is the work of Mariama Carama, the founder of leading Africa handmade textiles and accessories company, Mariama Fashion Production, who is driven by a desire to bring a positive impact to the planet and empower local communities. Her workshops educate artisans on the importance of sustainable dyeing techniques and her team of researchers is continually experimenting with natural dyeing methods to ensure their handmade fabrics are ethically sourced and sustainably finished down to the last detail.

SOKO Kenya is another ongoing success story, founded by British-born Joanna Maiden. This clothes production company puts people, communities and life at the centre and has expanded into a leading sustainable fashion production hub in Africa with designs worn by Michelle Obama! It has also won support from ASOS Foundation for its efforts to facilitate real and meaningful change through initiatives such as education and skills training programmes; fair price structures; an in-house canteen to guarantee workers a solid meal each day; a creche for mothers concerned about child support; a sewing school; and a scheme that uses fabric off-cuts to create sanitary products, in a bid to reduce the number of young women who miss school during their period.

For me, it is wonderful to see how this upcycled, recycled, almost zero-waste approach can aid locals in such a multi-faceted way. They are considering their impact on the full supply chain, as well as their own social responsibility, with real emphasis placed on the lifespan of their product and its environmental impact.

Things to take away

Africa is a landscape of inspiration and a key investment opportunity, if one approaches it right. When given the opportunity, Africa will pivot to the needs of the global textile sector (as proved this year!), whether it be for fabric production, dyeing and printing, manufacturing or finishing treatments. The key lies in ensuring that we – the consumers – call for the right things: sustainable production, fair wages for employees, organic materials and a circular model. The companies mentioned above are excellent examples of those trying to respond to this, and represent just a snippet of a wider movement intent on a sustainable future for Africa’s fashion industry.

For anyone looking to tap into this land of potential, it’s important to remember a few things: Firstly, that Africa is a continent comprised of 54 countries that have differing cultures, traditions, governments, policies and languages. It is not homogenous. Be sure to get to know the country you aim to work with and research the challenges each is facing within the textile industry, such as the influx of imported, second-hand, and cheap products. Secondly, understand that skill sets vary and a lack of education and opportunity has created a need for qualified skilled labour. However, there is no shortage of those working to counteract this problem and hopefully there will be those who are able to see beyond these challenges and recognise a source of untapped potential. Africa represents a fresh landscape that is waiting with open arms.

Jacqueline Shaw

Fashion designer Jacqueline Shaw is a proud ambassador of ethical African fashion and the founder of the Africa Fashion Guide, a tool to educate, inform and retune the perceptions of Africa’s fashion and textile industry. Her 16 years’ experience in the fashion industry has seen her work in four continents and for a host of international brands, whilst further strings to her bow include African Fashion Business Coach, Author, University Lecturer and Public Speaker.