By Loren Nichole, Sustainable Fashion Analyst
Africa is the home of many of fashion’s most popular techniques and materials including mud cloth painted pillows, ankara printed fabrics, and raffia woven bags and shoes. An article published on BSR’s website noted that sub-Saharan Africa is an “attractive” sourcing destination. It’s liberal trade policies, growing youth population coupled with the fastest urbanization rate, and easy access to ‘Western’ markets makes it the hotspot for partnering with fashion businesses.
The Citizenry founders, Carly Nance and Rachel Bentley, also love the abundance of untapped, creative potential in Africa. Some of their favorite artisan groups to work with are their African partners due to the raw talent and creative flexibility many of these groups share.
1 | Creating a maintaining a long term vision
When working with African suppliers, especially ones that are not as established, a business must fully invest with developing a long-term partnership. It’s not sustainable for the supplier to have a one time collection-based production project. Unfortunately, they will accept the job because of the temporary financial benefit being offered. When entering the market, think of it as a partnership and a chance for both parties to equally benefit from the venture.
2 | Having a local presence
Failing to have a staff member reside in the production region results in unnecessary expenses. It is much more affordable to pay someone to manage the different artisan sites within a specific region than to pay for multiple samples of a single item to be shipped out until it matches the intended vision. Not to mention the time saved from having a company representative in country whenever needed that understands the overall aesthetic and vision the company wishes to execute.
Breaks Down Communication Barriers:
Africa is huge with thousands of languages and cultures represented. When a local presence is established, these communication issues become minimal because you have someone there who understands the language or is willing to learn the language. It is important to note that the staff member should have a working knowledge of French and English as these are the two main languages being communicated across the continent.
3 | Appropriate planning
TIA (This is Africa) - It's so easy to miss deadlines when planning so it's important to note major holidays, weather patterns, and other issues when planning lead times. For example, many Zambian artisan groups are closed from January to March due to the heavy rains during their rainy season, making it near impossible to dry fabrics or practice sun-dyeing. Note this in your production plan and allow for extra time to complete things that are needed in a particular collection season. Also be mindful that artisans may give a specific time frame based on what you want to hear. This can be eliminated through establishing relationships with them through that local presence but until then, add a couple of weeks for possible delays into your lead times. Remember to always prevent fires rather than having to put them out.
Packaging and shipping
Shipments arriving with broken products is one of the biggest complaints among Western businesses. Make sure to be smart about packaging in Africa and note that there may not be access to packaging equipment. Plastic is banned in some African nations from even entering ports so when packaging items for shipment, get creative! Use second-hand clothing and pack the boxes full but not heavy.
Marketing for artisanal goods
Explain to customers that artisanal goods are handmade and therefore impossible to create the exact same replicas of products. Make sure to market this well to customers allowing for slight variations in color schemes and patterns. Also, give credit where credit is due. Honor the timeless techniques used by the artisan group and showcase the traditions and culture involved in the pieces. The last thing you want is to be involved in cultural appropriation, so provide knowledge and history for each of the different products to your customers.
Being mindful of the above elements are some of the major ways to successfully mitigate the challenges that come with partnering with African suppliers. To sum it up in three phrases: practice flexibility, get creative, and open your mind.
If you are interested in manufacturing in Africa we have some great factories on our ethical manufacturing platform coming in September! To be one of the first to join email us to be included in the beta launch invitation.