Africa Fashion Guide
A social enterprise promoting sustainability within Africa's fashion and textile industry.


December 15th, 2012

Looking back – Africa Utopia – Events

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Written by: Jacqueline Shaw
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africa utopia
Sometimes its good to reflect on events past as well as present as a way to highlight important points in the industry. Way back in July – before Jessica had her gold and Ellie became a household name – Africa Fashion Guide’s founder, Jacqueline Shaw, took part in a series of talks at the South Bank Centre held in conjunction with the Africa Utopia Festival.

“All too often the conversations that happen around Africa are about how the West can ‘help’ the continent,” explained festival curator, Hannah Pool. “The Africa Utopia talks and debates salon is about flipping that around and challenging preconceptions.”

Africa is not a country?
First up, a discussion on reporting Africa, ‘Africa is not a Country,’ looked at how Africans are challenging the old assumptions that the continent is little but a Western beneficiary. Yes, poverty, famine and corruption do exist in some pockets and this cannot be ignored. These stories alone, though, do not represent the entire African population – a good 14% of all humanity.

A wider spectrum of African reality is available; there is a “perception gap,” in how Africa is viewed by the rest of the world said panel member Alexandra Reza of Africa practice.

In fairness though things are shifting, an obvious example would be Damon Albarn’s Africa Express, which is putting African music near the top of the UK’s media agenda.

Journalist and panel member, Belinda Otas, suggested blogs were a fantastic way to express “our Africa.” Maybe this is a solution to the gap?. As technology improves and penetrates further – figures bandied around during the talk included an estimated 400 million African 3G subscriptions by 2015 – blogging and social media activity on the continent and by the Diaspora is on the increase giving voice to this huge land mass’ many different perspectives and realities.

In regards to African blogs there is, which yes, covers brutal – uncensored – truths about African politics, but also looks at the continent’s art, music, film and sport. posts dignified and inspiring stories about the Horn of Africa, replacing the old narrative of helpless famine and poverty with empowering stories about community water harvesting initiatives, chefs celebrating Somalian cuisine and posts promoting the region’s artists, photographers and filmmakers.

Let’s not forget our own Africa Fashion Guide which was noted as one of the Top 10 African Fashion blogs by The Guardian newspaper; we’re here to celebrate the immense creativity and business acumen found on the African continent.

Finally, the panel mentioned Africa is A Country,, a film, which celebrates the continent’s diverse voices.

Of course, few rural African have access to the Internet and illiteracy is still high. Many media professional though, will read and be influenced by these blogs. Radio has a huge penetration throughout Africa; panel member and BBC Africa Current Affairs Editor, Stephane Mayoux, spoke about a refugee camp that petitioned the BBC’s Swahili Service not to close.

AFG’s founder, Jacqueline Shaw, took part in a discussion on environmental sustainability in Africa a topic that is top of the agenda for AFG.

Eco-Africa: Why green is the new black

The environment is a painfully real issue for a continent living at the sharp end of our collective planet trashing.

Troubles in Darfur are partly due to conflict over water resources; the Sahara is shrinking and deforestation, continent-wide, sees topsoil washed away leaving the land barren, and let’s not forget the snow, or lack of, on Kilimanjaro.

Rural Africans though cannot be blamed; their priority is survival not sustainability. Solomon Mugera, panel member and BBC Africa Editor, underlined this. Talking about his boyhood in Kenya, every evening he collected firewood to keep his family was fed and warm that night: things that most of us take for granted.

Blogging and the environment

Again, it is all too easy to slip into negative stories. Thanks to Africa’s homegrown blogging media though, community initiatives (Hornlight’s water harvesting for example) and new ideas are seeping into the continent’s general population.

This is a population who, according to Mugera, are far more conscious about the environmental affects of world-wide issues, such as population growth, than the British general public who worry only about the affect an increase in our number will have on pensions and social welfare. Put succinctly, the land is both social welfare and pension for many rural Africans.

Sustainability and spirituality

Jonathan Bhalla of the Africa Research Institute and fellow panel member expanded,

“historically, Africans have a good relationship with nature. Ceremonies are constructed around trees, streams and so on. Conservation is not alien to African culture.”

Bhalla explained that frugality is embedded into many African cultures, something this writer witnessed in Tanzania where children made toys from palm leaves and coke cans and on every corner, craftsmen soldered tools or mended clothing.

Bhalla went deeper, claiming that Africans are generally quite happy, content people who are connected to their spirituality. This contentment, he suggested, goes hand-in-hand with sustainability.

The desire for more stuff – leading to more stuff to throwaway – is only in its infancy in Africa. In contrast, he continued, many Western cultures have lost “sublime esoteric value,” and their very identity is connected with the cars and clothes they own: ‘I am because I shop.’  “Learn from Africa,” Bhalla concluded.

The combination of an expanding collective consciousness fuelled by online media and a ‘green’ outlook embedded in the culture has even affected government policies.

Government and the environment

Mugera flagged up Rwanda as an example. It is a hilly country with the second densest population in Sub-Saharan Africa. When it rains you would expect soil erosion. Not so. It is illegal to cut down trees without a permit.

Ultimately, unless an alternative to firewood is found this policy is on shaky ground. People must eat and they must keep themselves and their families warm at night: sustainability and poverty make awkward bedfellows.

Financial and environmental sustainability

Arguably then, if firewood gatherers had the financial resources to access all the ideas on the Internet, they might discover a more sustainable alternative to firewood, or even create their own (it happened in Malawi (

Failing this, with a regular income, they could access mains electricity. Whatever the outcome, debatably, the pressure on the land should ease if the population was financially secure enough to think beyond day-to-day survival.

So how can this financial security come about?

AFG founder Jacqueline Shaw at Africa Eco talk at Africa Utopia

Textiles and the Environment

At the end of the last post this writer argued that without economic sustainability, environmental sustainability could not exist.

The discussion turned to the continent’s ailing textile industry, which BBC Africa Editor and panel member, Solomon Mugera, explained is “on its knees,” felled by an unholy trinity of cheap imports, lack of government support and privatisation.

Revitalising cotton manufacturing would be one small step towards financial security for many Africans – as long as the environment and working conditions are prioritised in all stages of the process, which is what AFG calls for.

Opportunities on the Horizon

As it turns out this isn’t just a pipe dream, “a change is happening,” believes Jacqueline. Huge corporates, including Walmart and Mango, have noticed Africa’s burgeoning, cash-rich middle classes and are falling over themselves to open stores in major African cities.  Although does this sound warning bells, remembering Bhalla’s ‘I am because I shop’?

But fashion consumption can be a positive thing. Imagine if some – or all – the fashion sold in these shops was from cotton processed on the continent, what a way to kick-start the textile industry.

With the global fashion industry worth a staggering $36 billion, even a tiny slither of this could make a huge difference to many African families.

The first battle is to win over the consumer lobby, to ask African shoppers to demand that the cotton in their clothes comes from African factories.

Fashion made in Africa

Going further, Jacqueline questioned why African women prefer foreign clothes instead of celebrating what is African and making space in their wardrobe for beautiful, traditionally crafted clothes and textiles.

Conversely, there was also discussion around the textile industry needing to produce a variety of cloth, not simply the tribal prints synonymous with the continent. Some factories are already doing this, Sunflag Tanzania springs to mind.

So what did this AFG writer come away with after the discussions?  That at last, with the means of technology, Africans are talking directly to the world, and not via the Western media’s prism; that sustainability is deeply embedded in many of the continent’s cultures and that the West has much to learn from them.

Author: Mary Malyon



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