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Putting Africa on the Fashion Map

As both a source of production and a consumer market, Africa is poorly integrated into the global fashion system, leading to lost business opportunity.
By
  • Robb Young

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Vast tracts of the globe have been ushered into the fashion system over the past decade. The arrival of the Far East, the Middle East, Latin America and the former Soviet bloc have helped to redraw the fashion map and turn what was once a parochial, insular and Euro-centric industry on its head.

As a result, fashion today is a far more cosmopolitan and geographically diverse enterprise than it was a generation ago. Yet there is one region that still remains on the fringes of this otherwise global business: Africa.

Brimming with culture, creativity, talent, ambition and natural resources, but plagued by poor infrastructure, poverty, corruption, protectionism, bureaucracy and political instability, Africa is anything but straightforward or monolithic. And herein lies the most fundamental issue of all.

Africa | Illustration by Clym Evernden

The very notion of an ‘African market’ can be misleading. Unlike the European Union, the 55 distinctive countries that make up the African Union are not economically integrated as a single common market. With over 50 different trading and legal conventions, ten overlapping regional blocs, a dozen climate zones and 2,000 spoken languages, this is a highly fragmented and precarious region, whether you’re sourcing, producing, selling or doing anything else along the fashion value chain. But it is one with scale and potential like no other.

Africa is home to one in seven people on the planet and occupies more real estate than China, America, India and Europe combined. In one sense, the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative that has been playing at conferences and boardroom meetings couldn’t be more accurate. According to the 2014 Ventures Africa Rich List, there are 55 billionaires in the 55 countries that criss-cross the continent. Meanwhile, New World Wealth counts 165,000 African millionaires, who together hold an incredible 28 percent of the continent’s total personally-held wealth.

At the other end of the spectrum, scores of Africans are still fighting their way out of poverty, while many more remain under its oppressive yoke. In conditions unimaginable to most of us, a third of Africa's 1 billion people live on less than $2 per day. But according to the African Development Bank, there is a new upwardly mobile mass of around 350 million people earning between $2 and $20 per day, who are driving growth in burgeoning consumer markets like fashion.

Though the business challenges in Africa can be as epic as the opportunities, things are noticeably improving. It is true that logistics and transportation networks are so poor that it costs two to three times more to deliver merchandise to an African customer than to their counterparts in most developed countries. However, The Economist calculates that over the past decade, 75,000 kilometres of new road have been built on the continent, thanks in large part to investment by the Chinese. And, although Africa’s retail sector is still overwhelmingly informal, there are dozens of new shopping malls being built all over the continent.

With competitive labour costs, Africa has the potential to claim a much greater share of the world’s apparel and textile manufacturing output, but to achieve this, significant international investment is needed to build the industrial infrastructure required to compete with the likes of Asia. Nevertheless, a few bright spots are now emerging where clothing and footwear factories are creating both competitive products and sustainable jobs, such as in Mauritius, Ethiopia and Madagascar.

You don't need to be a maverick or a first- mover to succeed in Africa anymore. According to the World Bank, the average annual growth rate across the continent is around five percent and the risk-to-reward ratio is much lower than it once was. Many African fashion businesses, large and small, are both innovative and profitable — but most will continue to underperform if they remain unplugged from the global fashion grid. Fortunately, at this juncture, support from the right international partners has the potential to pay dividends for investors and local businesses alike.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s Fashion Capitals, Industry Hubs and Centres of Style

1. Abidjan, Ivory Coast
Famed for its skyscrapers and high-octane nightlife, this Francophone metropolis is the commercial capital of a national apparel and footwear market worth $549 million.
Population: 4.8 million
Resident Millionaires: 1,100
Key Fashion Players: Alain Niava, Laurence Chauvin Buthaud (Laurenceairline), Loza Maléombho, Centre Commercial Cap Sud

2. Accra, Ghana
With a burgeoning entertainment industry, this cultural gateway to West Africa is the capital of a national apparel and footwear market worth $167 million.
Population: 2.3 million
Resident Millionaires: 2,100
Key Fashion Players: Claudia Lumar (Glitz), Accra Mall, Kofi Sekyere (West Hills Mall), Duaba Serwa, Kofi Ansah (d. 2014), Joyce Ababio, Christie Brown

3. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Headquarters of the African Union and a burgeoning manufacturing hub, this is the capital of a national apparel and footwear market worth $440 million.
Population: 3.2 million
Resident Millionaires: 700
Key Fashion Players: Liya Kebede (Lemlem), Yodit Eklund (Bantu), Mafi by Mahlet Afework, Hiwot Gashaw (Abugida), Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu (SoleRebels)

4. Cape Town, South Africa
This bohemian melting pot was the 2014 World Design Capital and is the legislative capital of a national apparel and footwear market worth $14.4 billion.
Population: 3.6 million
Resident Millionaires: 9,000
Key Fashion Players: Ian Moir (Woolworths), Emilie Gambade (Elle), Hanneli Rupert (Okapi), Callaghan, Kluk Cgdt, Spree.co.za, Laduma Ngxokolo, Lalesso

5. Dakar, Senegal
Dubbed 'the Paris of Africa', this flourishing centre for art and refreshing street style is the capital of a national apparel and footwear market worth $215 million.
Population: 5 million
Resident Millionaires: 600
Key Fashion Players: Oumou Sy, Selly Raby Kane, Adama Ndiaye (Dakar Fashion Week), Omar Victor Diop, Sea Plaza (Teyliom)

6. Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania
This upcoming East African business hub and Indian Ocean port is the commercial capital of a national apparel and footwear market worth $1.1 billion.
Population: 5.1 million
Resident Millionaires: 1,200
Key Fashion Players: Mustafa Hassanali (Swahili Fashion Week), Gabriel Ole Mollel, Ailinda Sawe, Quality Plaza, Mlimani City

7. Kinshasa, Congo DRC
Home to the legendary Les Sapeurs style movement and a vibrant music industry, this is the capital of a national apparel and footwear market worth $620 million.
Population: 11.6 million
Resident Millionaires: 500
Key Fashion Players: Okasol, Gloria Mteyu (Kinshasa Fashion Week), Tina Lobondi, Moseka, Jeampy Ombali

8. Johannesburg, South Africa
Hosting Africa's largest stock exchange and its biggest business tycoons, this is the commercial capital of a national apparel and footwear market worth $14.4 billion.
Population: 9.4 million
Resident Millionaires: 23,000
Key Fashion Players: Precious Moloi-Motsepe (AFI), Lucilla Booyzen (SAFW), Khanyi Dhlomo (Luminance), David Tlale, Black Coffee, Edcon, Surtee, Kisua.com

9. Lagos, Nigeria
Where oil money meets the Nollywood film industry, this megacity is the commercial capital of a national apparel and footwear market worth $4.7 billion.
Population: 13 million (21 million metro area)
Resident Millionaires: 9,500
Key Fashion Players: Omoyemi Akerele (GTBank LFDW), Tayo and Ayo Amusan (Persianas), Reni Folawiyo (Alara), Ikeja City, Lisa Folawiyo, Tiffany Amber, Maki Oh, Orange Culture

10. Luanda, Angola
One of the most expensive cities in the world, this Lusophone boomtown of oil and luxury is the capital of a national apparel and footwear market worth $1.5 billion.
Population: 5.5 million
Resident Millionaires: 5,200
Key Fashion Players: Hadjalmar El Vaim (Angola Fashion Week), Nadir Tati, Rose Palhares, Soraya da Piedade, Belas Shopping, Kinaxixi

11. Nairobi, Kenya
Nicknamed Silicon Savannah for its booming technology sector, this East African retail hub is the capital of a national apparel and footwear market worth $1 billion.
Population: 3.9 million
Resident Millionaires: 6,200
Key Fashion Players: Muchiri Wahome (Deacons), Little Red, Carol Odero, KikoRomeo, Wambui Kibue, Katungulu Mwendwa, Galleria, Westgate, The Junction, Diana Opoti

National apparel & footwear market data modelled by Euromonitor International. Resident millionaires calculated by New World Wealth. Population figures according to the United Nations.

A version of this article first appeared in a special print edition of The Business of Fashion, which highlights ‘7 Issues Facing Fashion Now,’ from sustainability and the human cost of manufacturing clothing to untapped business opportunities in technology, Africa and the plus-size market.

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