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Why Cameroon Is Fashion’s Gateway to Central Africa

The country has attracted global retailers like Mango and LC Waikiki thanks to a relatively diversified economy and higher consumer purchasing power than other markets in the subregion.
Cameroon-born, France-based designer Imane Ayissi showed his latest collection in July on the official couture calendar in Paris.
Cameroon-born, France-based designer Imane Ayissi showed his latest collection in July on the official couture calendar in Paris. (Getty Images)

Key insights

  • Cameroon is seen as a potential hub for the wider central Africa subregion despite geopolitical tensions and a challenging business environment.
  • The country is a promising second-tier market on the continent even if it lags leading markets in the west, east and southern Africa subregions.
  • Formal retail space remains limited but suitable shopping malls in major cities like Douala and Yaoundé have recently opened.

When reports emerged a few years ago that London-based private equity firm Actis Capital was planning to build central Africa’s largest shopping mall, many observers had Kinshasa in mind as the possible destination. The capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) is Africa’s third-largest metropolitan area after Cairo and Lagos. That, however, was not the plan. The mall was built in Cameroon’s largest city Douala.

While the DR Congo already had shopping malls of its own, including Le Premier, it was the scale of the 2020 project that provided bragging rights for retail industry leaders in Cameroon. Their counterparts in the west, east and south of the continent may get more attention year-round than any country in the central African subregion but Cameroon received a reputational boost nonetheless.

It’s true that Cameroon’s fashion market is less developed than those in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya — and some say those in the next league such as Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire — but its current ranking only highlights the market’s “huge potential” for growth, said Anne Marseille Nna, a Yaoundé-based fashion journalist who contends that Cameroon and the wider central Africa region is “especially fashion-conscious.”

Spanish high-street label Mango was among the first to set up shop at the $160 million shopping centre called the Douala Grand Mall and the brand’s presence encouraged others like Turkish fast fashion player LC Waikiki to enter the Cameroon market. Today, the mall welcomes more than 200,000 daily visitors to its 160 shops, according to spokesperson Alain Tchakounté.


“There is massive appetite for clothes, brands, logos, shoes and accessories. It’s deeply rooted and part of our culture. Take a tour across the region and you would understand what I’m saying,” said Nna.

“Cameroon [already] imports a lot of its clothes, new or secondhand, from abroad, notably Europe, USA and China… But what we observe is that fashion stakeholders have been unable to unlock its full potential.”

That there are opportunities for certain fashion brands to open in Cameroon is clear but why did Actis prioritise the country over its much larger neighbour, the DR Congol? And how should investors choose between these frontier markets in the central Africa region?

Central Africa’s Competing Hubs

“I think the rivalry between the two nations is largely social and innocuous. They are the two largest countries in central Africa in terms of economy and population,” says Idriss Njutapvoui Kpoumie, editor-in-chief of pan-African business magazine, Agence Ecofin. “Which is a better place for investors? They are distinctly different, as I see it.”

While the total addressable market size is an important consideration for any fashion brand looking to expand, it is not the only factor. The DR Congo has more than three times the population of Cameroon and a vibrant fashion culture made famous by creatives and iconic street style sapeurs, but its economy is only slightly larger and less diversified.

It’s a similar story at city level. Kinshasa, the DR Congo’s capital and financial centre and the world’s largest Francophone city, certainly dwarfs both of Cameroon’s big cities, Douala and Yaounde, but it is the latter two that are increasingly on retail investors’ radar, despite the many operational challenges that exist across the region.

“[In the DR Congo], economic inequality is high and [consumer] purchasing power is quite volatile whereas Cameroon has a solid production base and near uniformity of purchasing power between its social components, which makes it a more suitable place for retail business,” said Kpoumie.

An outfit from Cameroon-born, US-based designer Claude Kameni whose namesake brand has attracted several celebrity clients.
An outfit from Cameroon-born, US-based designer Claude Kameni whose namesake brand has attracted several celebrity clients. (Courtesy)

With a population of 27 million and a gross domestic product of $44 billion, Cameroon is the principal market in CEMAC (Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa), an organisation that includes Gabon, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea but not regional giants the DR Congo and Angola.


Portuguese-speaking Angola, which is sometimes considered part of the central Africa region, is a market with a relatively high per capita income and an influential luxury goods customer base in Luanda but that city is not as strategically located as Cameroon’s two hubs. In Douala and Yaounde, Africa’s two dominant official languages French and English are both officially spoken.

Considering all these factors, the selection of Douala for the private equity firm’s mall is less surprising than it may first seem. Not only is the city a financial and industrial nerve centre for businesses in the wider CEMAC region, but its consumer market has commonalities with cities in powerful markets in the neighbouring west Africa region, like Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, where global retailers have a growing presence.

A Market of Retail Pioneers

While the Douala Grand Mall is not the only place to go shopping in the city of three million people, its status as a relatively higher-end mall coupled with its imposing architecture has made it a mini tourist attraction for locals and visitors alike.

“It’s true that locals are cost-conscious, but they also love trends and quality. Most of the visitors to the mall go on prospection. When they spot what they like and weigh the costs, they plan for it and return for purchase,” said Stéphane Iyendjock, a Douala-based business consultant.

This is probably one of the reasons why DeFacto, another big Turkish brand, chose the shopping centre as the outlet for its affordable casual clothing, accessories and denim collections.

But who shops at 5th Avenue, the mall’s most upmarket fashion store with eye-popping prices for the luxury goods on display? The locally owned outlet, which opened last year, sells a small selection from megabrands including Chanel, Dior, Hermès and Louis Vuitton.

“When we began business there was gossip that we won’t be here for long because of our expensive offer. But we are still here and [alive and] kicking,” said director Martiale Chuinkam.

“Luxury brands are not meant for everyone, even in established markets. We have both new and returning customers. The city is massive with all classes of people,” she added.


Cameroon is classed as a lower-middle-income country with more than eight million people living in the poverty bracket, due to population growth outpacing the rate of poverty reduction, according to the World Bank.

Development efforts have also been hampered by multiple regional crises. While Cameroon has not experienced a civil war since its independence in 1960, unlike several of its neighbours, it is currently confronted with the Boko Haram terrorism crisis in the far north and a secessionist insurgency in the Anglophone regions in the west.

However, those threats do not seem to have dampened many investors’ interest in Cameroon, particularly in the retail sector.

Prior to Douala Grand Mall’s entry, the city already had a couple of shopping centres like Kadji Square, named after the late Joseph Kadji Defosso, one of Cameroon’s most powerful businessmen. It was a joint venture between Mercure International of Monaco, French symbol group retailer cooperative Système U and Kadji Group.

Since its inauguration in 2015, Kadji Square has gradually become a household name. It is the location for Mercure International’s multi-brand ventures, City Sport and Go Sport, which sell products from brands like Hugo Boss, Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, Lacoste, Puma, Nike, Adidas and New Balance.

Douala is not the only city attracting fashion retail investment in the country.

“While Douala is the commercial and industrial hub, Yaoundé is the country’s [political] capital and seat of power, where you have a lot of moneyed families and affluent neighbourhoods (in a city of around three million people)... [so] you can’t overlook its potential,” said Marc-Antoine Apam, researcher at the University of Yaoundé II’s faculty of economics and management.

CFAO Group is one of the firms targeting that city. The multinational company with French roots now owned by Japan’s Toyota Tsusho, opened Playce Yaoundé mall in July 2022. The $40 million project was inspired by CFAO’s success in Côte d’Ivoire where it operates Playce Marcory and Playce Palmeraie since 2015. In Cameroon, the group has a presence at the Douala Grand Mall through its partnership with French retail giant Carrefour.

Playce Yaoundé already houses Lacoste and Mango, the latter through local partner Baker Trading Company, and a representative confirms it is currently vetting applications from a number of other fashion brands, both international and local.

The Rise of Local Entrepreneurs

Some local designer brands have taken the bold step to showcase their products at the mall, where the minimum monthly rent for a shop is around $1000. Adel, Lux’s Under and SM, for example, can be found at Playce Yaoundé.

Local designers have found other ways to gain a foothold while overcoming the market’s limited infrastructure and challenging business environment.

Two sisters, Sharon Welang and Viola Welang, founded the brand Lakelle in 2017 following their return to Cameroon after university in the United States. Initially, they intended to franchise a well-established international brand but it proved unfruitful.

“Actually, it was H&M we contacted at the time for a franchising opportunity but the response we got was that they were not expanding to Sub-Saharan Africa [back then]. So we decided that this was an opportunity for us to create our own brand that prioritised the African consumer,” said Sharon Welang.

Lakelle produces unfussy collections for women, men and children, which are finding a receptive audience across the country. More than 30,000 pieces of clothing have been sold, mostly online. The pair plan to expand to Côte d’Ivoire in the near future.

“There are a lot of local players that are shifting the narrative of what it means to be ‘made in Cameroon’. Our capabilities are being highlighted by Cameroonian designers abroad which builds credibility for the industry and helps create global awareness of what we can do,” Welang added.

France-based, Cameroon-born designer Imane Ayissi, who has dressed celebrities including Zendaya and Angela Bassett, is one example. The first designer from sub-Saharan Africa to be named by the Chambre Syndicale as a guest on the official couture schedule, Ayissi showed his latest collection in July in Paris.

One of the other names raising global awareness is US-based, Cameroon-born designer Claude Kameni, founder of the namesake brand, who counts clients like Janet Jackson, Kelly Rowland and Tracee Ellis Ross.

“One of my missions is to redefine African print. I want people to see that African print isn’t just only used in traditional dress, nor is it only for the older generation. African prints can be worn in the workplace, during brunch with the girls, or on the red carpet. African print is fashionable, luxurious, professional, and all of the above,” Kameni said.

Changing Perceptions Around Secondhand Clothing

Like many African countries, imported secondhand clothes have posed unhealthy competition to local designers and the wider retail sector in Cameroon. But despite their continued popularity with many consumers, perceptions are beginning to gradually change, according to New York-based Cameroonian designer, Kibonen Nfi, who founded the Kibonen brand in 2011, attracting celebrity clients like Gayle King and actress Lupita Nyong’o.

“There is a slow death to the fairly-used clothes industry. Firstly, because the average African has developed self-esteem and realise we are not a dumping ground. We are worth more that,” she said. “The average Cameroonian has moved from that to being more accepting of products from China, Turkey and Dubai, etcetera. We have also realised that we can make clothes for ourselves.”

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But the available infrastructure and capacity for local production may not be able to meet the market demand in Cameroon, in the short or perhaps even long term. Kibonen admits to those challenges but remains optimistic about bridging some of the gap.

“Together with my partners we’ve set up Cameroon Clothing Company with the goal of helping industrialise the fashion industry as we help designers scale in Cameroon. We’re providing a space where designers can come get their products manufactured to global standards.”

Nfi conceives innovative garments for her brand Kibonen using Toghu fabric from Bamenda in the Northwest region of Cameroon. Originally, Toghu is a royal fabric worn by chiefs and dignitaries.

Challenging Business Climate

The political dimension of the local business environment influences the viability of any market. According to the World Bank, Cameroon’s weak governance is hindering its development and ability to attract greater numbers of investors. The country is ranked 142 out of 180 countries in the 2022 Transparency International corruption perceptions index.

However, a 2023 report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) “welcomed the important steps to strengthen transparency and governance, especially the Supreme Court’s Audit Bench.”

Both institutions have indicated that the country’s economic outlook for 2023 is favourable, with real GDP growth projected to reach 4.3 per cent this year and 4.6 per cent by 2024.

While a number of local fashion industry figures claim the authorities are not doing enough to stimulate the fashion industry in Cameroon, a representative of the ministry of commerce, who spoke to BoF on the condition of anonymity, refuted arguments “put together by people who pretend not to see the truth.”

“It wouldn’t be fair to say we are not doing enough,” they said, citing a programme sponsored by the government known as DACC (Dispositif d’Appui à la Compétitivité du Cameroun) and “favourable conditions for retail businesses to establish and flourish in the country because they also help in creating direct and indirect jobs.”

“Conditions have been made possible for potential investors in the sector to even secure loans from local banks to launch their prospective projects. Tax exoneration for newcomers is another mouthwatering incentive.”

With or without further support from the government, at its present trajectory, the Cameroonian fashion industry will continue to evolve and be a hub for the central Africa region, even if it remains less of a priority for international investors than other markets on the continent.

A few ever-optimistic locals, however, won’t give up on the idea of their country joining the ranks of the larger, more established markets.

“Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, etc, jump-started the fashion journey some years back and… are a few years ahead of Cameroon,” conceded Welang. “But if we keep the same energy we have been seeing in the Cameroonian fashion industry we will eventually close the gap and catch up.”

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