For as long as we can remember, Africa has been a perennial onlooker at World Fashion. The best role we could play was to be the dumping ground for second hand clothes coming from the first world.
However, the tide is turning, and the opportunity for Africa to go ahead is now more than ever. This has been mostly due to an organic, unexpected shift in perception that has happened over the past decade.
A report titled ‘The Fashion Sector in Africa: Trends, Challenges and Opportunities for Growth’ released by UNESCO argues that the continent has all it takes to become one of the next global fashion leaders.
In the foreword of the report, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay expressed confidence in the trajectory that African fashion is taking. “Fashion is really taking off in Africa, and this report shows that it can be developed even further,” reads part of the foreword.
She however reiterated the need for public decision-makers to offer greater support to all those who work in the sector and play a role in the fashion ecosystem. She continues, “In order to achieve this, designers, professionals and the entire production and distribution infrastructure need more support from public decision-makers. The potential is enormous, not only for the economy, but also for young people’s inclusion, women’s empowerment and for African culture to resonate globally.”
The report shows that the continent holds all the cards to become one of the next world fashion leaders. It is a major producer of raw materials — 37 out of 54 countries produce cotton. Africa exports textiles to the value of $15.5 billion a year, and an importer of textiles, clothing and footwear to the value of $23.1 billion a year.
There is a growing consumer trend on the continent for fashion Made-in-Africa, particularly among young people – the under-25s account for 50% of the continent’s total population – and among the burgeoning middle class – which already make up more than 35% of the population opening up new consumer markets. Africa is also experiencing very rapid growth in the digital sector, which is facilitating intra-African trade and the emergence of young talent.
Thirty two Fashion Weeks are held each year across Africa, from Cairo, to Lagos, to Kampala to Johannesburg. This is a clear indication of the talent and demand for haute couture and avant garde brimming among the populace. A 42% increase in demand for African haute couture is
expected over the next 10 years.
What can governments and decision-makers do for African fashion?
The report highlights an insufficient implementation of intellectual property rights as a major hinderance to the growth of the African fashion industry. Other ecosystem challenges include policy inconsistencies, a lack of material private and public investment, gaps in fashion education and training as well as the cost and availability of raw materials.
The report then proffers specific and general suggestions to players in the African fashion space on how they can contribute to the improvement of the sector, as well as effectively take the opportunities that are presenting themselves. The major points made in the report are:
- Legal protections for designers and professionals need to be strengthened, in terms of intellectual property rights, remuneration levels, working conditions and the ability to organize into professional unions and social rights. With this aim, UNESCO is already helping 23 African countries to improve the status of artists through legislation and regulations.
- Investment must be made in small and medium-sized enterprises, which today account for 90% of businesses in the fashion sector in Africa. Covering the entire continent, they are the gatekeepers of the diversity of cultural practices and expression. Generators of local employment, they are also a powerful lever for giving young people who want to enter the sector a chance.
- Environmental standards need to be set. While the fashion industry remains one of the most polluting industries, Africa can make greater use of local materials, innovate around sustainable textiles, and raise awareness of sustainable consumption patterns. Production of organic cotton fibre in Africa has already risen by 90% between 2019 and 2020, and now accounts for 7.3% of global production. The second-hand clothing market is one of the most dynamic in the world – representing a third of global imports – but still suffers from a lack of recycling channels, with 40% of these garments ending up in landfill sites, or even in oceans and rivers.
- Both the transmission of savoir-faire, and formal training need to be improved. Africa is rich in traditional skills and unique textile techniques, some of which are already protected by UNESCO. The report encourages countries to set up mentoring schemes to ensure that these practices are passed on from generation to generation and can continue to inspire young designers. At the same time, UNESCO is calling for an increase in the number of qualifications available in key related professions – quality control, commercial law, marketing – and in training in new technologies, such as 3D printing and e-commerce.
Across the continent, people are increasingly looking for products ‘Made in Africa’ which they see as a symbol of pride and a way to affirm their identity. A wave of pan-Africanist ideology is sweeping through Africa, and it has trickled down to fashion. This creates a fertile ground for bonafide, homegrown progression of a sector which contributes 3.2% to Africa’s total Gross Domestic Product.
In order to meet this growing demand, the entire production chain needs to be strengthened. This UNESCO report is useful because it maps out the path to achieve this, and it will increase the awareness of public decision-makers.
Read the full report here.