It’s not a big assumption to say that there has never been a time when African fashion has grown and been on the radar as it is right now. The Nigerian fashion industry alone is worth about $4.7 billion, according to Euromonitor. This figure would have probably doubled up if we produced our textiles locally.
From adire to aso-oke, akwete, and many others, indigenous textile is not lacking in the country, nor the continent at large. Still, we import most of them. The more saddening part for me was realising that our treasured Ankara, which we refer to as traditional, is also imported.
I dare say that every Nigerian home has an Ankara fabric, and almost every Igbo woman has the ‘mkpụrụ ọka‘ and the ‘akpịrịkpa azụ.’ Finding out that these highly revered local fabrics are all imported sheds even more light on the disconnect that exists in the fashion industry.
I believe our local fabrics have more than enough potential to appeal to a wider audience. If it doesn’t, people like Emmy Kasbit who makes use of akwete, and Kenneth Ize who works majorly with aso-oke would not be getting the international acclaim they get.
I have asked questions around why the indigenous fabrics sector has not yet been industrialised, and why many adire manufacturers still have to manually dip fabrics in dyes. Some said industrialisation will reduce the authenticity of indigenous textiles, others think they lack the appeal to a large customer base and, hence, can only serve a tiny niche. To better understand the dynamics of the indigenous textile industry and what we can do to make our indigenous fabrics a staple, both in our market and around the world, I engaged Joseph Ike of JZO in an insightful conversation.
Considering the surge in Africa’s fashion industry, especially Nigeria, I believe our local textile industry is quite underproductive. Joseph agrees.
The local textile production section of the fashion industry value chain is largely non-existent. The majority of garment production relies on imported textiles, and only a very tiny sector interacts with the local textile industry.
While we are clearly in need of industrialisation to boost the production, and consumption of our local fabrics, there is a major fear: industrialisation could diminish the quality or authenticity of our local fabrics. Joseph disagrees with this; as far as he’s concerned, industrialisation is bound to happen.
Our local fabrics will lose their authenticity if we do not pioneer the process of industrialisation of their production. This is because industrialisation will happen regardless. our choice is one of how involved we would like to be in that process. Once the global fashion industry recognizes a commercial value in any of “our” local fabrics, they will be standardized and industrialized at which point we would most likely end up importing them like we do everything else. The choice we have now is to pioneer that process and begin to patent the processes we develop to protect our interests.
All over Nigeria, Africa, and the world at large, people invest hugely into the fashion industry, but it seems the indigenous textile industry is being sidelined. Joseph thinks otherwise. “It is not sidelined, it just isn’t commercially relevant,” he says.
Aso-oke is a nice fabric but it doesn’t have any mass commercial value beyond the comparatively tiny niche it serves. There is no shortcut. If we want it to be relevant we would need to develop ingenious ways to use the fabric to expand its versatility to compete with fabrics like denim, and so on. Once there is a mass commercial value to it, investors will follow. Not the other way around. We must develop the market value to attract investment.
It looks like the ball is in our court. If that’s the case, what can we do to promote investment in the local textile industry of Nigeria and Africa at large?
We must develop the market value to attract investment. This can begin here in Nigeria and the African market where these local textiles have a cultural appeal, we can build on that and expand its versatility, develop production methods that cut down production times and can deliver more quantity at a reasonable cost, to do this we may need to look at partnerships with countries like China, and then introduce these fabrics as competitive alternatives to existing fabrics and let the market decide.
Needless to say, we are missing out on a golden opportunity to increase our revenue and relevance. But, where do we go from here? The first thing is to start from where you are. As a consumer or start-up, we have an exotic array of local fabrics you can explore for your next outfit or collection. We also need to invest in indigenous brands. As this is still a ‘virgin land,’ if things go as great as expected, you will cash out big time on your investment.
Beyond that, we need to spread the word. As you travel around the world, showcase indigenous fabrics through your outfits, talk about them to your friends and wear them as much as you can.
“If we do our homework right, our local textiles will outcompete their peers and thus attract investment to grow,” Joseph says. Amen to that.