LAGOS, Nigeria — As night falls in Lagos, thousands of twentysomethings regularly flood the city’s mega-clubs, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Afrobeats stars who now dominate the download charts, the airwaves, magazine covers and social media feeds across Africa.
Part of the appeal of artists such as Wizkid, Davido, Yemi Alade and Tiwa Savage is their bold sense of style, which in most cases is instantly recognisable and widely copied — a combination the fashion industry is usually fond of.
Alongside hundreds of other up-and-coming artists, these performers are driving the Afrobeats revolution, a hybrid of Nigerian and Ghanaian high life with elements of hip hop and EDM beats that is fast becoming the continent’s biggest cultural export. Among those nominated for a MOBO award in Glasgow this Friday are Wizkid and Tiwa Savage, a fact that proves not only their own crossover appeal but the increasingly powerful international following of the Afrobeats genre.
Some international brands have woken up to the fact that such artists are a potential marketing goldmine. But while banks, telecom providers, and multinational brands in many other sectors are signing them up for endorsement deals in African markets — Wizkid has a deal with Pepsi and Tiwa Savage with Pampers — international fashion brands have not. Some artists appear to be natural ambassadors for the many global fashion brands trying to penetrate or expand into the continent by tapping a younger generation of upwardly mobile African consumers. So what is the fashion industry waiting for?
A $31 Billion Market
Sub-Saharan Africa’s combined apparel and footwear market is already worth $31 billion, according to Euromonitor. Although some African economies are facing headwinds and lower revenues to due falling oil prices, three of the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. The scale of the opportunity cannot be understated. Nigeria alone has 180 million people, rising spending power and an increasingly sophisticated fashion industry of its own. Considering its growing cultural influence over many other African markets — particularly music and film — Nigerian stars would be an easy target for many fashion labels.
However, while Africa’s creative industries are undoubtedly expanding, they are less professionalised compared to those in the West, and as a result there is often a lack of structure surrounding brand ambassadorship.
“While there is a lot of money in these industries, particularly in Nigeria and South Africa, their infrastructures have been at best inconsistent,” says David Sanders, managing director of Mandela Television in Kenya and the producer of Coke Studio Africa, one of the most popular music shows on the African continent.
“In Nigeria there are comparatively few record labels for such big acts, so musicians have had to grow their brands in a very different way. The lack of structure can make commercial success short-term, which means artists feeling insecure about the longevity of their brands want to capitalise on their success immediately and make deals fast. This is not how Western fashion brands usually work. And while the system of sponsoring African sports stars is well defined, there is very little appreciation or understanding of how to profit from African celebrities outside of the sports world,” he adds.
Diana Opoti, a fashion consultant based in Nairobi has observed this discord first hand. “It’s very different here. Our celebrity culture cannot be more than 10 years old and we don’t even have celebrity agents — people who can build enough data to justify why H&M should be using person X in their campaigns. We also aren’t lobbying hard enough to international brands, saying why they should be working with local stars and models. So they don’t.”
And while that is undoubtedly true, if Pepsi and Pampers can strike deals with Afrobeats stars, why is it so much more difficult for fashion brands to do the same thing?
Understanding Africa's Fashion Hubs
A large part of the problem is that very few fashion brands have marketing teams based in cities like Lagos or Nairobi, making them less likely to understand why Afrobeats artists are worth fighting for and how the system works. Brands such as Nike, Adidas and Polo Ralph Lauren are all popular in urban hubs across Sub-Saharan Africa but most of them keep their regional headquarters in South Africa or further afield in Dubai or Europe.
“The ones who stay in Johannesburg won’t survive if they don’t understand what’s happening up here,” says Ann McCreath, the Nairobi-based owner of fashion brand KikoRomeo. Indeed, while South Africa has the most advanced fashion industry on the continent and a strong history of fashion and music collaborations, it is also something of a bubble and a significant distance from the other African market hubs.
So why has it taken international fashion houses so long to realise that they need marketing campaigns and brand ambassadors that target pan-African consumers? “I would say it is probably due to a reluctance to try something new,” says McCreath. “[And] I feel that in the fashion industry, the general cultural consensus is that people don’t appreciate black beauty [enough and]…because of an unfamiliarity with how clothes look on someone who is black.”
Another stumbling block is that many international brands do not sell directly into Africa, relying instead on a network of wholesalers to retail their goods across the continent. As a result, a brand such as Nike has far less incentive to spend money on a market that they have no control of. Local wholesalers, meanwhile, typically have neither the clout nor the financial capital to sponsor a major Afrobeats artist.
Afrobeats’ Global Following
However, by ignoring the influence these stars wield, brands are not only failing to appeal to a significant number of African customers, they are also closing themselves off from a growing Afrobeats fan base in the West.
Wizkid, who was profiled by American Vogue earlier this year, made the US Billboard charts in May this year when he collaborated with Drake on his hit single "Ojuelegba." He is almost as famous for his ability to mix streetwear with traditional Nigerian attire as he is for his music. Hundreds of fashion blogs and magazine articles in Nigeria are dedicated to dissecting his outfits.
American-born Nigerian artist Davido, who has two million Twitter followers, has a contract with Sony, numerous chart-topping singles and an upcoming tour in the UK. Tiwa Savage, a British-Nigerian musician, has 2.5 million followers on Instagram and a recording contract with Jay Z’s Roc Nation, while Yemi Alade shot to stardom with the single "Johnny" in 2014 was the most-viewed female African singer on YouTube in 2015.
“Africa is too big, too creative and too dynamic not to play a major part in the international cultural scene. Anyone who ignores the continent is going to miss out in a major way,” says Nigerian-born Kolade Adeyemo, who along with Akin Adebowale has launched Oxosi, a premium e-commerce platform delivering luxury African fashion brands to the world.
“It’s because big brands are still scared of the jungle. They have this fear of going into Africa because they’re not culturally aware and they think that if they do it, it’s going to be really expensive and [they] might fail. And sure, it’s a complex, multi-layered experience, but you can navigate it if you bring in local people.”
Global Fashion’s Loss Is Local Fashion's Gain
While the international fashion industry’s reluctance to work with Afrobeats stars largely comes down to a lack of presence and investment in Africa, the same accusation cannot be said of the local fashion industry. There is a major discord, however, between the power of these influencers and the financial strength of most Nigerian, Kenyan or South African fashion brands.
“At the moment, it is very difficult for African designers to appeal to a mass market. Which means very few of them make the kind of money necessary to work with most of these Afrobeats musicians,” says Sanders.
“Take Yemi Alade for example. She has over a million followers on Instagram and a new single out every 30 to 40 days. She has fantastic style and would be the ideal. Given her status and growth, I’d expect [Alade to have] a global deal as a brand ambassador … However, to do a deal with her you would need about $1 million, and no local fashion house makes that kind of money. And why would the Afrobeats stars accept anything less? Brands could offer say, $5,000 to Davido to wear their clothes, but he makes that from just turning up to a party in Lagos.”
It is also debatable whether local brands are even ready to cope with the increase in demand that would come from sponsoring an Afrobeats artist. Jamhuri Wear got an unexpected burst of publicity after Jay-Z and Akon were both spotted wearing its t-shirts, but the brand, which is made and distributed from Kenya, struggled to keep up with demand and failed to capitalise on what could have been an incredible opportunity to expand internationally.
“The African fashion industry is still very small in real terms with few countries having viable African ready-to-wear and high street environments that the average person can afford,” says Helen Jennings, author of New African Fashion and editorial director of Nataal, a global media brand celebrating African fashion and culture. “A generation ago, there was this mindset that international imports were somehow more desirable. But in recent years there’s been a huge swell of home-grown interest in and support for all creative industries including music, fashion, art and film.”
This growing pan-African cultural movement has made the continent’s biggest music stars increasingly determined to work with local fashion labels. "I would say that most of the musicians I work with wear local designers about 70 percent of the time when they're on stage or shooting music videos, even though they aren't making money from it. These are important relationships they have invested in over a period of time, and continue to invest in," says Kenyan fashion stylist Sunny Dolat.
Africa is too big, too creative and too dynamic not to play a major part in the international cultural scene. Anyone who ignores the continent is going to miss out in a major way.
According to Gloria Wavamunno, a Ugandan fashion designer and a director at Kampala Fashion Week, “international brands have been and still are uneducated about the potential of fashion in the whole of Africa,” she says. “But I believe that African designers will soon be of the same calibre as international brands and that we should be the ones dressing our major Afrobeats stars and making them our brand ambassadors, not them.”
Yemi Alade, for instance, has become a brand ambassador for Africa Fashion Week Nigeria while Mazi Chukz was brand ambassador for Africa Fashion Week London 2016.
A number of Afrobeats stars, meanwhile, are starting to wear clothes by local designers free of charge in order to nurture a distinctive home-grown look. “I think it is going to get to a point where African artists will think it’s uncool to wear European brands on the red carpet,” says Adebowale of Oxosi. “It’s already more forward-thinking to be wearing a label that has shown at Lagos Fashion Week than something by Louis Vuitton.”
Major stars also realise that fashion, like music, needs local consumption and endorsements to survive and become strong enough to move onto the international stage and are willing to help.
“I believe in the preservation of the African sound and culture, but also in making new culture built in Africa,” says Nigerian singer Temi Dollface. “Fashion in Africa has come along in leaps and bounds and can be quite progressive aesthetically. But with this newer mainstream sound, this [African] aesthetic is becoming more acceptable and hopefully it will soon become interesting to the world.”
With local fashion and music collaborations looking increasingly probable — and with the likes of Wizkid and Yemi Alade already talking about designing their own fashion lines — international brands will have to rapidly change the way they approach sales and marketing in Africa if they want to profit from this increasingly lucrative market. Otherwise the immense influence these Afrobeats artists currently wield will be channelled elsewhere.