The Expert Guide: How to Source Fashion Suppliers and Manufacturers in Africa

Words by The Folklore Team

Photograph courtesy of Sandstorm

With a background working for brands such as Puma and C&A, as well as experience living and working in Turkey, China and Germany working with brand and retail suppliers within the fashion industry, Jacqueline Shaw, fashion consultant, author and founder of Africa Fashion Guide, has garnered plenty of knowledge and expertise on what makes a fashion business work.

Back in 2009, after time spent in Europe and Asia, and following a period of unemployment, Shaw found herself drawn to the African continent thanks to a love of textiles and fabrics. This led her to research the African fashion industry, during which she discovered via the World Economic Forum that “Africa is on the brink of a major transition… the outlook for the region remains bright at a time when the rest of the world is facing major political and economic challenges.”

As more and more people are still being drawn to Africa today through music, film, tourism and agriculture, so is the fashion world looking to the continent for solutions and answers to labor and supply challenges. “The fashion world is moving towards Africa in general and if you can tap into the region for your production and capitalize on this development for your business, it will have you in a good position as one of the early adopters,” Shaw says.

And more than a decade after founding the Africa Fashion Guide, Shaw has successfully developed a platform, Fashion Africa Trade Expo (FATE), that provides access to the sourcing and manufacturing landscape of the fashion and textile industry. Her work at Africa fashion Guide has seen Shaw speak at summits, conferences and panels around the world, from Cambridge University and Ghana Fashion Week to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and British Council’s Enterprise Africa summit. She has also been featured on the BBC, Vogue, WWD and Arise magazine.

Specializing in helping entrepreneurs start and build a sustainable fashion business, Shaw has made it her mission toFive myth support and promote the supply chain, local manufacturers and textile producers in Africa. For this month’s Speaker Series, a monthly webinar that empowers our community of brands with expert advice, knowledge and industry insight, Shaw shares her tips for sourcing suppliers and manufacturers in Africa, navigating the supply chain and seizing the opportunities that come with the fast-growing African fashion industry.

Five myths to debunk about fashion in Africa

  1. Africa can’t make fashion: this is clearly not accurate and it can be done. Africa has been making clothing and “doing fashion” since the beginning of time.
  2. You must travel there to meet suppliers: there are ways of connecting without having to travel across the word thanks to technology, networking and building relationships
  3. You need a degree and years of experience to start: you don’t need a formal education to succeed in business, and a lot of famous designers don’t. You can still build a brand with creativity and business know-how
  4. Business in Africa is risky: all business is risky; this is not unique to the fashion industry or the African region
  5. You can’t make money from African fashion: successful designers, retailers socking African brands and the existence of fashion platforms such as The Folklore Group prove otherwise. The African fashion industry is worth $31bn and continues to grow

Sourcing textiles

From woven to hand-printed cloths and natural fabrics such as silk, cotton and wool, some African countries are known for certain textiles, usually with varying designs, unique threads and different techniques. You have to know what you want and where to get it from. Approximately 37,000 farmers in eight countries grow organic cotton. Tanzania is the largest organic cotton-producing country in Africa, followed (in order of volume) by Uganda, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Egypt, Ethiopia and Senegal.

About 95% of African-grown cotton is exported to Asia and Europe, which means the crop loses its value on home: instead, the importing countries turn the cotton yarns into cloths and fabrics, which they then sell back to the country of origin. This breaks down the supply chain, and reduces the value addition within the local economy.

When it comes to printed fabrics from Africa, there are more options than kente cloth or Ankara. Other print textiles can make your brand stand out, from batik to aso oke and adire. And by working directly with the artisans who produce these textiles, your business will contribute to bringing trade to the continent through the vehicle of fashion.

Best moves creatives should make to source professional and vetted suppliers:

  1. Take recommendations from a qualified sourcing consultant who has experience working with export-ready suppliers.
  2. Learn to understand the market landscape in Africa: have a country selection plan in place and an understanding of the difference between Africa and other regions such as Asia. There is no comparison between 54 different African countries and China, which is just one country; the resources on offer are different.
  3. Start your business with the mentality of a business owner: be ready to invest not just your time, but money
  4. Know that even without any fashion experience, no fashion degree, no African contacts and no visits to the continent, you are still qualified to set up in Africa.
  5. Put a strategy in place for sourcing your African supplier. It becomes incredibly easy to get a steady stream of supplier contacts once you know how.

Africa Fashion Guide’s FATE platform provides brands with access to garment, shoe, textile and accessory makers, organizes frequent meetings with suppliers, manufacturers, industry experts and logistics partners. Also offers business coaching trainings, sourcing and market trips to Africa, digital courses and more. Shaw also offers assistance with how to vet suppliers, creating checklist of questions to ask and what to look out for, building workable finance plans and cost sheets for your business size and setting up technical packs. For more information on the offers available to The Folklore brands and how to sign up, please contact connect@thefolklore.com.

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