Our fashion designers shouldn't just target the rich

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Last week there was an interesting event organised by Hivos, Equity Bank and leaders in the Kenya fashion industry.

It was the launch of a report that showed the challenges and opportunities for Kenyan textiles including cotton farmers, ginners, fashion designers and clothing makers and sellers.

The most shocking fact in the report was how small the textile industry is in Kenya.

While its companies, among them 75,000 micro and small ones, provide great employment and have a substantial impact on the economy, they account for less than 0.6 per cent of GDP.

But the apparel industry, which retreated in the 1990s when rapid Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) brought on second-hand clothes, now has a chance to take advantage of the growing cost of labour in China, which has driven garment manufacturing to other countries.

Kenya has comparable costs of garment production, but the electricity, logistics and infrastructure costs are still far higher than in Ethiopia or Asia.

At the World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference in Nairobi last year, Bangladesh was cited as a success case for the garment industry, for halving its share of poor people in just two decades mainly due to clothing production.

This is something Kenya can do, but with a caveat; as modern buyers are conscientious consumers who want to buy products that are responsibly and ethically produced.

While global brands demand efficiency and low wastage through computerisation, local production is still primarily by hand.

Still, Kenya has shown that it has the machinery and technology in the export processing zones (EPZ) to produce high-quality garments for export.

But the report also cautioned that AGOA, which accounts for 95 per cent of the garment exports from Kenya, will expire in nine years.


One of the authors said that the European Union was a more substantial market for Kenyan garment exports, yet as he said this, a Brexit vote was just 48 hours away.

He challenged garment makers not to race for the two per cent of Kenyans who can afford to buy goods overseas, or to dress the First Lady, but to instead focus on the middle class, the six million Kenyans with buying power, many of whom now buy the two highest grades of mitumba.

One of the main reasons they buy mitumba is a dearth of local choices for children’s clothing.

Still, there have been a few success stories that were represented at the event, including Vivo Activewear, which sells affordable garments to local buyers in malls.

The event brought out four main points. First, that entrepreneurs need to be ready for the coming global changes both the unknown and the known including the end of mitumba (in three years) and the end of AGOA.

Second, business people need to cultivate links with government and also with each other. The study found few linkages between entrepreneurs in the garment business, and that most were unregistered and informal.

Third, funding is a challenge, which was why Equity Bank, one of the event sponsors, used it to roll out the “Maridadi” business product to educate and finance textile and fashion industry entrepreneurs.

Fourth was the challenge of producing goods for export but which local consumers cannot buy.

That may soon change as Export Processing Zones can now sell up 20 per cent of their products locally. In addition, the government plans to set up a garment city, where tourists can come and shop, duty-free, for the best garments in Kenya.

Twitter: @bankelele

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