Origin Africa

Origin Africa, a longstanding trade platform for the textile, apparel and footwear industry in Africa, held its annual event earlier this month in Antananarivo, Madagascar, that followed its theme, “Changing Perceptions, Building Synergies, Doing Business.”

Now on its seventh year, the event, which takes place in a different African country every year, aims to position Africa as a viable sourcing alternative to China, Vietnam and India.

A regular visitor to Origin Africa, Matthijs Crietee, secretary-general of the International Apparel Federation, said, “If one would have asked people in 1975 if they thought within 30 years China would be the dominant exporter of apparel, people would have been skeptical, yet it happened. It may not happen as quickly as it did in China and in Vietnam, but I am convinced the apparel industry will grow significantly in Africa.”

He emphasized that “we are talking about an alternative, though, certainly not about a replacement. In that sense, saying that Africa will be the next China is not right. There will not be a next China, but the share of the African apparel industry of total apparel exports will grow.”

Belinda Edmonds, event organizer for Origin Africa, who is also executive director of the African Cotton and Textile Industries Federation, said, “Buyers from USA, Canada, Europe and South Africa met export-ready and capable exhibitors from across Africa. Connections made have already resulted in costing, sampling and other pre-order formalities getting under way.”

Edmonds noted that feedback from exhibitors was on how many regional linkages were made in ancillary products such as trims, labels and packaging, and in services such as quality auditing, testing and consulting, that are essential in the production pipeline but until now imported from Asia. A frequently repeated comment was “we didn’t realize how much is available on our doorstep — in our country or in our neighboring countries,” she said.

These linkages will increase inter-regional trade, reduce costs and lead time and could potentially lead to inter-regional investment, Edmonds added.

Suraindra Balloo, head of global production at the Canadian apparel company L’Amour Inc., specializing in socks, hosiery, intimates and performance wear, as well as at Terramar Sports, dedicated to outdoor clothing and accessories, attended Origin Africa for the first time this year.

“We are a Canadian company, but we operate in the USA and U.K. markets, also,” Balloo said. “In fact, we have more business in these two markets than in Canada.”

The company is producing in China, Cambodia, India, Bangladesh and Mexico, but production in Mexico was recently reduced. Balloo cited several problems related to quality and production. Africa seemed an enticing option.

“We want to source high-value synthetic products from Africa for the U.S. market so that we can benefit from duty-free access under the African Growth and Opportunity Act,” he said.

At Origin Africa, he was able to see “brands that we have produced being made in Madagascar factories. For example, we hold the license for New Balance and I met a factory that is approved by NB. The quality seems good from what I have seen.”

Mercedes Gonzalez, director of Global Purchasing Cos., headquartered in New York, was a repeat visitor to Origin Africa and served as a judge in the Origin Africa-sponsored design competition Project Upscale. African products, she noted, are well-received in the U.S. market.

“It has a high perception of value, much more than Asian countries, but that needs to be protected and built on,” said Gonzalez, adding that despite buying regularly from Africa, challenges remain.

For Balloo, supply chain can be a challenge because “many of the fabrics and trims come mainly from China or Central Asia. Lead time and logistics can be challenges, too.”

As yet, he has not placed any orders on behalf of L’Amour Inc.

“We have to analyze the profile of the factories — from places such as Madagascar, Ghana and Kenya — that we have earmarked first,” Balloo added. “Then, we will start with making samples to assess the capabilities of the factories. We have to go through the whole process of development before any order can be placed. In addition, to the capacities and capabilities of the factories, we have to analyze the political, social, financial and banking conditions, as well as logistics and the labor law of the countries where we want to source.”

An important highlight was the Project Upscale design competition. Crietee was a judge alongside Gonzalez and South African designer Craig Jacobs.

“Project Upscale highlighted very well the amazing entrepreneurial spirit, design prowess, tradition and quality that is present in Africa,” Crietee said.

Gonzalez said the entries were assessed on four main criteria: market share and sellability of the collection, quality and craftsmanship, costing and markup, and willingness and ability to scale.

The handcrafted bags and accessories produced by Robin Zoe from Madagascar was declared the winner of Project Upscale, followed by Kenyan women’s wear designer Katungulu Mwendwa and Nigerian footwear label KEEX.

Jacobs added, “Countries such as Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius and increasingly Ethiopia are proving that sub-Saharan Africa has the infrastructure and capability to produce export quality apparel to the global marketplace. However, for the continent to leapfrog from providing raw materials and manufacturing to true beneficiation of the African clothing and textile industry, there is a need to magnify our design assets. Thanks to ACTIF, Project Upscale marks not only an acknowledgement of the potential of design in spurring growth, but also creates a nurturing environment to produce exportable high quality products.”