I recently came across the Ethical Fashion Forum and I went along to their event on 18/8/9. This event was promoted as focusing on sourcing from Africa.
As the discussion got under way I could not believe some of what I was hearing, “these people need educating” was one of the statements made by a couple of speakers there was too much of “them and us” too. We in the audience could be forgiven for thinking that we were listening to a report from a 19th century Royal Geographical Society journal. It all sounded like “poor Africans we need to do them a favour” type of situation. The facilitator on the other hand was fantastic, he drew attention to issues of respect and the fact that the West can learn from Africa.
As I listened I felt myself increasingly getting angry and when given the opportunity to speak I let my feelings known. In my view the speakers had failed to draw attention to the ingenuity of Africans, especially the sort of women that I work with, who turn rubbish and utterly useless things into fashionable items. What about the men in Kenya who make sandals from old car tyres?
The fashion accessories at Ethnic Supplies are the African women’s designs and have been very well received by women here in the West. I was upset too that some of what was being said was reinforcing the negative views about Africa.
Fashion provides an opportunity to lift many African people out of poverty as VALUE can easily be added at source unlike some of the agricultural products such as coffee but I felt that this had not been highlighted either. It was interesting to note that a buyer from a large retail outlet felt that unlike their Asian counterparts Africans have not bombarded her with emails regarding their fashion accessories.
The challenge with this is threefold, someone in the audience felt that the people she works with in Tanzania earn a better income selling locally than they would if they had to sell to a UK retailer along with the hoops one has to jump through!
The other is African artisans tend to work in much better conditions and get higher wages than their Asian counter parts this coupled with expensive import/export duties and freight costs.
The last reason is the buyers have a perceived idea that the supply end in Africa is unreliable and are almost always unwilling to explore the fact that this could be wrong or that it can changed.
Don’t get me wrong, they are challenges working in Africa and sometimes the quality leaves a lot to be desired. The way forward is to alongside the artisans, in a collaborative manner and where necessary adapt their designs to suit the Western market. After all it would be insane bringing in products for which there is no market because of poor design and or quality.
As an afterthought it would have been good to include a discussion about the materials used as well as the production process to demonstrate the GREEN and sustainable element of African fashion.
In Madagascar for instance, wild (raw) silk is collected from the forests and woven into beautiful fabrics. These fabrics are for instance used in the making of this bag which starts life as a plain basket made from palm leaves. Palm leaves have no use unless value has been added to them.
In Rwanda sisal, a cactus like plant is used in the making of these beautiful baskets, the same material is used in the making of these silver sterling earrings. The bark cloth from Uganda is very environmentally friendly as its extraction does not involve the cutting down of a tree; simply the bark is removed, and is allowed to grow back.
In my mind’s eye African fashion offers a real opportunity for lifting many out of poverty, is mostly kind to the environment because of the African ingenuity of turning rubbish into fashion, as well as the use of naturally occurring raw materials and offers a real chance to REBRAND the continent.
I would love to hear from anyone who has a view about the issues raised here.