In partnership with The Junior Network, Martha Ngatchu delves into manufacturing on the African Continent, and asks whether Sub-Saharan Africa’s relatively underdeveloped textile industry could act as a fresh canvas for the fashion industry’s sustainability aims, enabling brands to embed sustainable practices into the development of an African sourcing hub.
Industry experts have long touted Sub-Saharan Africa as the next global fashion sourcing hub. Often, these discussions centre on the potential cost-saving benefits or the logistical challenges of sourcing from the continent. However, little has really been said about the potential to change the way we do things. The existing model pays little attention to who makes our clothes, how they are being treated or what kind of impact our practices are having on our planet. With transparency and sustainability becoming a key concern for the everyday consumer and news of garment workers across the globe being subjected to exploitative working conditions, could an African sourcing hub represent an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and embed more ethical and sustainable practices from the outset?
Ensuring ethical standards are met when sourcing from Africa is not without its challenges. The informal economy forms up to 66% of the employment sector in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to statistics from the International Labour Organisation. The burgeoning African fashion sourcing industry, made up of independent craftspeople and small tailoring businesses as well as larger factories, is no exception; much of the industry takes place in the informal sector. As a result, a lack of regulation can leave workers open to exploitation through unfair wages, harassment and potentially dangerous working conditions. “Craftspeople typically labour from home at the end of a complicated and dispersed web of middlemen, [they are often] paid cash and unprotected by labour law,” explains Rebecca Van Bergen, founder and executive director of Nest, illustrating common difficulties faced by workers operating within the informal economy.
Van Bergen points out that, within this part of the economy, “transparency used to ensure ethics and fairness is actually more complicated, not less so, than in a factory environment where workers are under one roof,” thus guaranteeing ethical standards are met will be a challenging but nonetheless important aspect of manufacturing on the African continent. “The same major compliance issues that brands would be looking at from factory production would apply here as well – child labor, fair compensation, transparency, worker rights, health and safety, and environment – but an effective approach to both assessing ethical compliance risks, as well as the strategies for addressing the risks, must take the unique nature of these supply chains into account” she urges.
Nest, a non-profit organisation aimed at building an ethical, global handworker economy, works hard to facilitate partnerships between global brands and artisans in over 100 countries. Having recently worked with businesses manufacturing in Rwanda, Uganda and Eswatini, Van Bergen recommends that brands wishing to source on the continent “have open and honest discussions with suppliers about their supply chains and inspire a collaborative and supportive relationship.”
Brands can also seek to work with artisanal collectives that have been certified by an ethical organisation. For example, Nest’s Ethical Handcraft Program measures compliance across a matrix of more than 100 standards and operates under a training-first approach which aims to standardise the variation found in decentralised supply chain models.
Whilst sourcing through organisations such as Nest and the Ethical Fashion Initiative really help brands navigate new sourcing markets and ensure they are working with an ethical supply base, third party accountability will always have its challenges. “A surprising 79% of the supply chains we work with at Nest are not able to demonstrate that they meet minimum wage when we first start working together” recounts the Founder. As a consequence, vertical integration may offer better guarantees of worker wellbeing and encourage local economic empowerment.
Sheeba Phillip, CEO of Akola, a women’s jewellery brand whose manufacturing operations are located in Jinja, Uganda explains that “Akola’s vision has always been to create a female empowered workforce that will be a strong contributor to Africa’s economic development.” The brand started out as a collective of 15 women making jewellery under a tree but recently made the move to switch to a vertically integrated business model. “We felt making it vertically integrated would be the best way to employ these women full time and part time and be able to pay them the living wages and benefits while empowering them to grow with the company and use the skill sets they learn with Akola for their future.” Akola now employs 200 women from rural villages in Uganda and has enabled more than 43% of its all-female workforce to become homeowners versus a national average of just 25%.
Aside from examining exactly who is manufacturing their products, brands could go a step further to take an holistic view of Africa as an ethical and sustainable sourcing hub. Jacqueline Shaw, African Sourcing Expert and consultant highlights that “studies in East Africa have shown that every job in the garment sector generated another 5 jobs.” She further emphasises the significance of creating a complete supply chain, from textile to finished garment, that “keeps value addition in the local economy” in order to create a lasting impact.
For many brands, a completely African supply chain may seem like a lofty goal as, currently, brands must navigate the technological and experiential gaps of an emerging market. “Sourcing specific materials can be difficult and importing seemingly standard materials can be costly,” Van Bergen explains. Shaw notes that this is a common misconception as brands and creatives often expect technology and textile developments to exist at the same levels of Asia.
However, such limitations can be the birthing places of innovative techniques and technologies, whilst dedicated teams with regional expertise can help close the experiential gaps. For example, Phillip highlights the strength of their local team, led by Akola’s managing director, Victoria Kiggundu, who facilitate smooth operations between Akola’s Ugandan factory and their international partners. Similarly, the Ethical Fashion Initiative sets up social enterprise hubs to manage production as well as shipping logistics and importing processes on behalf of the artisans and micro-entrepreneurs in their regions of operation.
An African sourcing hub may be in its early stages with teething problems abound but there are some incredible organisations proving that, not only can it be done, but it can be done in a way that’s better than what we have ever had before.