This month we have a new guest contributor, freelance journalist, copywriter and experienced in ethical fashion and textile projects specifically in Africa. We invited her to question to area of Fashion Made in Africa as a concept, and particularly to her in depth experience in Africa. Her focus takes you the reader to investigate and consider the impact of African cotton to tie into our African Cotton Campaign.
Read on and let us know your take on the subject.
Cotton. We all know Africa grows it so why do we never see, for example, ‘Made in Mali’ on our swing tags?
Right now, bail upon bail of African grown cotton is heading to Asia where it’s ginned* and manufactured into jeans, dresses and tees: white gold hemorrhaging out of the African continent before its true value is realised. To stem the flow, Africa Fashion Guide launched its African Cotton Campaign.
Like the humble cocoa bean compared to a bar of chocolate, raw cotton fetches a far lower price than your average dress. A kilogram of cotton bolls costs around £2.20 in Malawi, the skirt or trousers you’re wearing probably cost a little more?
A quick look through my wardrobe and my motley collection of cotton dresses set me back, on average, around £50. That’s a whooping £47.80 mark-up, eye watering even if you do take the cost of shipping and labour into account. Sir Alan Sugar, take note.
And the time is right: Africa’s financial and social problems are well documented, but what many fail to realise is that as Europe falls into financial gloom many African economies are growing fast. Mozambique’s GDP grew by 7% in 2010 compared to the UK’s 1.3% (according to www.indexmundi.com). Fortunes have been made and new opportunities have arisen from the rapid introduction of Africa’s new watchword: accessible Telecoms, or mobile phones to you and me.
When I arrived in an impoverished town in rural Southern Tanzania during the early noughties, you made calls via a laborious and expensive fifties phone exchange system: plugs, wires and all. Only those with money and influence could use it which was tough on the rest of the town’s business owners, especially during the rainy season when impassable roads meant they were virtually cut-off from the world. Growing your business beyond the confines of the village was virtually impossible for the average inhabitant.
When I left two years later, nearly had access to a Nokia. The effect of this virtual connection was immediate. For the first time small-scale fishermen could communicate with wholesalers and anticipate demand in far-away cities, and vice versa local seamstresses could contact textile suppliers without using the long winded postal system or unreliable word-of-mouth. Ever entrepreneurial and mindful that few houses had electricity, small time business men (it was mostly men) set up charging points that became a common sight.
Although it’s impossible to generalise such a vast geographic and demographic area, a decade on many Africans (especially in urban areas) have upgraded to Internet-enabled phones – a tablet especially designed for the African market has also been developed in Brazzaville, Congo.
With this improvement in communications and easier access to knowledge and new ideas via the Internet, business is booming in some African countries. Reuters talks about a consumer boom on the “fast-growing continent”.
A word of caution though, as labour costs increase in Asia, unscrupulous manufacturers may plan to relocate their (let’s be honest now) sweat shops to Africa. Sunflag Tanzania, where cotton is processed from boll to garment in Fairtrade conditions, highlighted this risk during a talk given at the Ethical Fashion Forum’s Source Expo last year.
Luckily, ethical factories and production units such as Sunflag and Mayamiko in Malawi are already established on the continent setting a positive precedent. Fairtrade initiatives like Cotton Made in Africa also ensure that member-cotton farmers get a fair price for their crop (http://www.cotton-made-in-africa.com).
What is really exciting is that thanks to money made from improved communications, education and access to knowledge there’s a growing African middle-class with money spare at the end of the month – Reuters’ consumer boom. This includes women, traditionally fashion’s largest consumer group.
African fashion is fast becoming big business and it’s big news as well with Fashion Weeks across the continent: Dar-Es-Salaam, Lagos, Soweto and many more plus Africa Fashion Week itself, hosted by Johannesburg, which is “becoming an established part of the international calendar,” according to the British broadsheet’s Telegraph Magazine.
Whether the cotton used in these designs is grown in Africa remains to be seen. A quick look at websites suggests not, which is hardly surprising when such a small amount of African cotton is actually processed into textiles on the continent.
Imagine if another 60% of African cotton could be grown, processed, manufactured AND purchased on the continent. Jobs and profits would – hopefully – be enjoyed all along the supply chain from the farmer in Benin, to the upmarket boutique owner in Lagos, ensuring this happens of course is a different article.
Aside from domestic demand, the international market for clothing grown AND manufactured fairly in Africa grows daily spurred on by fashion’s current love of bright prints, consumers who demand their clothes be made fairly (for more on this read Lucy Siegle’s excellent book To Die For) and growing media exposure for fashion made in Africa.
The label FAIR+true recently saw its super-funky and oh-so S/S 2012 peplum top featured in Vogue. FAIR+true manufactures in Malawi with Mayamiko using traditional Kitenge printed textile sourced from the region and as far as possible made from cotton processed in Africa.
A Mayamiko stable-mate is the Ethical Fashion Forum’s Innovation Award Winner Feng Ho, who creates beautifully crafted pieces in a range of textiles including African cotton.
Elsewhere, the new site Styles Afrik curates Africa-inspired designs, gorgeous patterned tea-dresses and chic wedges with quirky African printed heels, whilst the ethical fashion world’s answer to ASOS: Fashion Conscience Fashion Conscience includes beach-ready designs from Lalesso using Kenyan khanga fabric manufactured in the Kenya-based SOKO workshop.
For children, Mayamiko launch a childrenswear line soon and Sunflag spin-off Mantis World has a logo-free range of organic, Fairtrade babywear. And finally for lovers of make-believe young and old, there’s my company Malawi Baby, which launches soon with a range of Kitenge fairy-wings, wands, tutus and headbands manufactured again with Mayamiko.
Fashion is exciting and powerful – it can be a force for huge positive change in Africa. Spread the word, share this article, tell your friends. If we all had at least one African grown and manufactured piece in our wardrobe, and asked our friends to do the same, imagine what an impact we could have.
*ginning is the process where cotton fibres are separated from their seeds.
Author: Mary Malyon
Mary is also the founder of Malawi Baby.
You can follow her adventures in Fairtrade on the company blog: Malawi Mamma