By Jeremy Bamidele
Traditionally, Africans have remained offline and uninvolved in the digital world, which has made it virtually impossible for many companies to directly communicate with African markets.
Consequently, companies have avoided the continent altogether. But with the proliferation of smartphones, Africans have suddenly become accessible via the Internet. With Facebook opening up its first office on the continent last year and Essence Magazine expanding its Essence Festival to South Africa; many companies are seeking to establish themselves in the new frontier.
While Africa has long inspired the entertainment worlds of movies, television, books and fashion, its clout has not greatly benefited the continent. With Africans now online, the continent’s ability to monetize its newfound accessibility remains to be seen.
Africa, via apparel manufacturing, is particularly poised to take advantage of the opening of its markets. With a skilled workforce and money exchange values positioned in favor of foreign conglomerates, will Africa become the next China?
Africa has a very skilled workforce and a long history in apparel production, especially regarding difficult to find skills including hand beading and creating structural pieces. It also has some of the lowest prices on the most beautiful fabrics and prints in the world. Many large brands have opened up factories to import African fabrics to other countries where the pieces are sewn. Many consumers don’t even realize that the fabrics that make up their “Made in Italy” gowns are actually from an entirely different continent.
But why do brands have their pieces sewn elsewhere when the human capital needed to generate the pieces is right where the resources are? The reason is partially perception related. Many consumers around the world have a preference for goods made in Italy and other European countries, especially western ones. This is largely due to a perception that high exchange rates are indicative of a more skilled workforce that can produce higher quality goods. Even the Chinese elite is hesitant to spend high amounts on made in China designer apparel.
The irony becomes that much of “Made in Italy” garments are not produced from textiles created by the old artisans that people believe, but rather by those from Asia and Africa. These are some of the only people left with the skill to do hand beading and other difficult maneuvers with the speed and finesse needed to produce a profit.
Africa will become a production powerhouse, but like China, its reputation as third-world country will likely continue to leave consumers with the idea that their products are second-rate.
Furthermore, “When we turn to places like Ethiopia where the wages are $21 a month, we’re not only taking advantage of that economy but we’re siphoning off the GDP of America,” said Gio Ferrigno, executive producer of “Fashion Week Los Angeles.” “It (the money) will never be put back into the economy.”