Sourcing & Producing in West Africa with AFIA
With widespread labor malpractices and polluting manufacturing processes, textile and apparel designers are looking for new frontiers to source, produce, and operate as a social business. Many are looking to African countries for a story and process that can be altruistic in social impact while also strategic in building a profitable business. As my line AFIA is both sourced and sewn in Ghana, I often get asked how I got set up and continue to operate there. I speak with experience specific to Ghana, but I hope to provide a general roadmap for sourcing and producing in West Africa. West Africa has a wealth of artisanal textiles, an abundance of skilled production talent in need of orders, and a legal framework that encourages export. The combination of the inspiration of the culture and textiles with the impact of your venture on the economic growth of individuals is an excellent climate for a social business.
The first step you should take wherever you are in your process, is to get in touch with a USAID project- they exist to connect people like us to the local artisan industries. In Ghana’s situation, the project is the West African Trade Hub. I owe much of my success to their team, as they assisted with customs, invoicing, connection to sewing facilities, housing, and beyond.
The second step is that you must go there physically, build a network, and feel things out for yourself. For me, that’s really the perk: I GET to go to Ghana twice a year. The more you understand the culture of the place where you work, the better you will connect with the people you work with, and the smoother your business will run. Cultural differences are real.
Choosing fabric depends on your angle – whether you are designing the textiles or making a finished product, and what you want your story to be. The opportunity within artisinal printing is that you can bring along fabric of your choice – organic cotton for example, if that is your story- and design your own prints with the traditional methods. If artisinal, hand-dyed, handmade fabrics are your jam, I would also look into going to Mali.
Source4Style has a leg up on sustainble sourcing in West Africa, and they are a great resource for designers. A brief rundown of the primary artisinal textiles in Ghana:
Batik – A tie and dye method. The options for creating your own wax prints and color combinations are limitless.
Kente- The distinctive national cloth of Ghana. On extremely complex looms the cloth is woven into strips about 4 inches wide and worn on festive and official occasions.
Batakari - Produced in northern Ghana, Batakari is handspun threads of coarse cotton and indigo dyed. Batakari is usually fashioned into loose pullovers, or smock-like tunics worn by men and boys in Northern Ghana.
KyenKyen- A folk weave made from the bark of the Antiaris toxicaria tree into a coarse jute-like cloth.
Getting the most attention on the international fashion scene are the cotton wax prints. Though not as romantic as someone hand-spinning on a loom, the cotton wax textile industry is iconic to the culture and extremely economically important. The colors, patterns, and motifs in these textiles are visual representations of history, proverbs, moral values, and social codes. Ask the shop owners to explain the adinkra symbols, it will give you a much greater appreciation of the fabric.
The challenge within the cotton wax industry is that foreign imitation is rampant; Chinese textile companies will literally take a design, slap it onto cheaper fabric, smuggle it into the country, and sell on the market at a cheaper price. It’s inflated the price of the authentic Ghanaian prints so that they are moving towards special occasion rather than affordable everyday wear. Also, brands printed in Holland such as Vlisco are merely marketing – their ads are beautifully African, but they are owned and operated in Holland. No Ghanaian is economically impacted from their operations; in fact, it’s the opposite as the Ghanaians are merely consumers. I find the imitation situation and marketing angle unfortunate, and this was the seed that AFIA grew from. Supporting this industry preserves the culture and the economy. Learn the brands sold in the street markets to know which are printed locally. Ask the shop owners when in doubt.
Ghana has a range of small, personal cooperatives and large-scale facilities. Because of the exchange rate, you can pay your people well above the local wage and still run a cost-efficient business. Choose your facility based on your story and size. If you have the capacity to do so, why not use a combination.
AFIA works with the Dzidefo Women’s Cooperative in Kpando, Ghana. I found them on google. I am not tech-saavy, so if I can find a rural cooperative this way, I am confident that you can too. After a few phone calls from the states, we took a bush van four hours from Accra, showed up at the cooperative, and went to work.
Working with cooperatives requires constant communication. I’ve found that the biggest challenge is communicating what it takes to sell to the US market - explaining what buyers look for, how important the details and execution of one garment is in style, consistency, and uniformity. Most Ghanaians have their clothes custom-made to their own measurements, so mass production of the exact same piece over and over again isn’t common for your local seamstress. The goal is to empower them to take ownership of the project and take pride in their work. Development is a process.
If you have had any conversations with investors on growing your business, their first question is always: how will you scale your business? If you do plan on growing, Ghana has facilities that have the capacity for larger orders. The West African Trade Hub again came to my aid, and introduced me to Linda Ampah at Cadling Fashions. Cadling is a women-owned and run production facility in Accra that can handle orders of 20,000 no problem. Their tailors are on salary, which is a very rare thing in Ghana. Regardless of the flow of orders, they get paid. The more modern and streamlined setting is not as romantic as a woman sitting in a sun-bathed room, working on an antique sewing machine, but the economic impact is just as great.
We will always take a portion of our orders to Dzidefo, and expand to work with additional cooperatives as well. Larger orders will go to Cadling. It takes more organization, but it spreads the wealth.
If you are not yet convinced that Africa is the new clothing production frontier, factor in a beautiful regulation called the African Growth & Opportunity Act. To encourage foreign business investment, no import or export fees are imposed for producing on the continent of Africa. How awesome is that.
As we move into this fashion frontier let’s make sure we do it responsibly with human respect and dignity.