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Comment: Building bridges with Africa's textile industry after Brexit

African fashion sourcing consultant and founder of the social enterprise Africa Fashion Guide, Jacqueline Shaw, discusses the Brexit effect and how a UK alliance with Africa could positively affect the fashion industry. 

As I stood among representatives from retailers including Tesco and luxury group PVH, industry expert McKinsey & Company and Bob Wigley, chairman of financial industry body UK Finance, listening to Conservative politician Baroness Sugg speak on the topic of Fair Fashion in Africa, it felt like quite a ground-breaking experience.

Not only were opportunities surrounding Africa’s fashion industry to play a key role in supporting African women’s empowerment, through its significant job creation in manufacturing sectors on the continent, discussed, but conversations and presentations shared on the day also raised the significant topic of Africa as an important partner for the UK, in light of its upcoming separation from the European Union.

Why the alliance?

During the event at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s Lancaster House, Baroness Sugg told us: “Over 10 years, we will help African countries to attract £1bn of new foreign manufacturing investment, and strengthen sectors such as the garment industry. This will help to create jobs and generate much wider economic and social benefit.”

As an industry giant, the UK can play a key role in supporting growth in the African manufacturing industry, while equally capitalising on the benefits the African continent as a whole can offer.

With an apparently diminishing retail industry in the UK – high street retailers shutting up shops, and UK brands suffering and struggling to stay out of the red – the industry has reached a standstill, and any opportunity for expansion is appealing. Thus, a partnership with Africa, which not only has an industry for garment manufacturing, but is also experiencing a growth in diasporans moving back to the continent from UK and Europe, could be highly beneficial.

As a young continent – 60% of Africa’s 1.25 billion population is aged under 25, and the United Nations predict that more than half of global population growth between now and 2050 will occur there – Africa presents a new and growing market of consumers for UK retailers and businesses.

Fashion is recognised to have a solid base in Chinese, Bangladeshi, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Turkish and Eastern European factories. However, Africa is showing up on the radar of sourcing agents and sourcing departments of retailers worldwide, and particularly in the UK.

The UK’s geographical positioning to the African continent appeals to these departments and fashion businesses as a result of the opportunity for a quick turnaround for the export of product from the continent to the UK.

Countries such as South Africa, Mauritius, Madagascar and, of late, Ethiopia and Kenya have been serving the US market, producing high-quality product at large quantities for many years. However, the African continent is not currently widely considered as a viable sourcing destination for the global and complex international fashion and textile industry. 

It is only since the Brexit referendum that the UK has started to open its eyes to seek new alliances and new partners. The departure from the EU is allowing the UK to then seek these new partnerships within the closely situated African continent. Agreeable trade policies and preferential trade agreements with the UK, that reduce or eliminate export duties – similar to the African Growth and Opportunity Act in the USA, or the European Union’s Everything but Arms scheme – will increase the interest in African sourcing and production.

The signifiers of change

As Baroness Sugg mentioned in her speech, “The prime minister went to Africa, and she put job creation firmly at the heart of our new partnership”. This has been reflected in African manufacturing success stories – such as Hela, based in Kenya and Ethiopia – and the work of the Department for International Trade and SheTrades, a programme within the International Trade Centre in Geneva, which has supported more than 1,000 female-owned textile companies and generated £2.5m of business leads.

The International Monetary Fund has highlighted that, within the 40 fastest-growing developing countries that are emerging worldwide, almost half are in Africa. Clothing and textiles represent about 7% of world exports and the frontier of apparel manufacturing is moving to Africa: it is becoming a top garment-sourcing destination. There are great opportunities for a post-Brexit UK Africa alliance.

Brexit’s positive impact

Sugg reminded guests at Lancaster House that “the fashion industry is vital to our economy. Exports of garments for sub-Saharan Africa alone are worth $1.7bn (£1.29bn) a year, and the size of the sector means you really can be a powerful force for change.”

The global fashion industry is estimated to now be worth $1.3 trillion (£980bn) and estimated to be worth $2 trillion (£1.51 trillion) by 2020. Euromonitor has informed us that within Africa, the entire textile/clothing market is already worth more than $31bn (£23.45bn) and accounts for the second largest number of jobs in developing countries after agriculture. In the next five years, Africa’s textile industry could generate $15.5bn (£11.72bn) in revenue.

UK etailer Asos has shown how fashion can be a powerful force for change and generate jobs. With the Asos Made In Kenya range, it has worked with manufacturer SOKO Kenya, which was founded by the UK’s Joanna Maiden, since 2010.

The financial support as well as the investment in annual collections made by SOKO Kenya has allowed the small factory that started with four people originally in Kenya’s Diani Beach region to expand to facilities in the Voi region halfway between Nairobi and Mombasa, and support the female workers with crèche facilities, meals and more, in an area where job creation was a huge need. The support of the Asos Foundation has now enabled the factory to move to even larger facilities in a new region and to continue to grow the business.

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True partnership

Although we must be aware of the need for political stability and strengthening of Africa’s leaders to deal with challenges with unemployment, food and water scarcity, large business investment coming from the UK via an alliance after Brexit will help to drive economies in Africa’s frontier markets.

Many projects that exist throughout sub-Saharan Africa focus on local textile techniques and on tailoring garments for the export market as well as for the local market and tourists. This benefits those women who have, or can learn, textile skills, and boosts their business.

It is possible to manufacture cost-competitive clothing in Africa with not just focus on quality, but also with a focus on ethical standards and capacity-building with a positive environmental impact.

Therefore, the more the UK trades with African businesses, the more trade is brought to the continent and the more decent jobs are created for African employees in the textile industry. For the UK, an alliance with Africa after Brexit will increase capacity for retailers and allow them to export with a faster market plan.

Thus, it is a two-way partnership. The fashion and textile industry is just one area where change is affecting communities.

  • Jacqueline Shaw is an African fashion sourcing consultant, and founder of the Africa Fashion Guide, which facilitates and promotes relationships between African designers, craftspeople, manufacturers and textile designers with UK and EU fashion design companies and consumer markets, as well as with retailers worldwide. 

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