Fabric wars: Ghana's colorful prints face renewed Chinese competition | Business and Economics

Accra, Ghana – On a weekday this December, the clothes section of Accra's frenzied Makola market was unusually quiet for the year-end period. Female traders in large woven hats sat in front of their stalls chatting and wearily swatting away flies. Behind them, colorful African wax textiles were lined up from floor to ceiling, waiting to be bought.

Vida Yeboa, one of the traders, said the shop was flooded with customers looking for the latest designs to cut and sew different styles, from wide-mouthed A-line dresses to tops and skirts, to their tailors. New Year celebrations. But Ghana's shaky economy is forcing many to shun that tradition.

„Since COVID, schools have started to reopen in December, which means most people wonder how their sons and daughters will go to school,” the 55-year-old said. Schools are usually on vacation in December, but after the long pandemic break, many schools' schedules were changed. “There is no money now. People want to spend on other things, or they go and buy smaller ones.

The 'small' brands that Yeboah refers to are very cheap versions of African wax prints that have flooded the markets in Ghana and across Africa for years, giving stiff competition to the „original” manufacturers. Imported from China, the fabrics often carry designs that mimic established brands and sell for one-third to one-tenth the price. Some are completely fake, claiming recognizable brands on labels with typos.

But while these Chinese fabrics get a bad rap, some say they are of good quality, their beautiful designs turn out to be very chic, and their color doesn't fade after washing.

„Some say it's good,” Yeboa said. „That original was so expensive, even myself, I didn't sell it,” he said, pointing to his stock. He sells Hitterjet, a popular Chinese-made brand that's seen as a high-quality, cheap alternative to the big names, and that's pushing the „smaller” range.

„It's 90 cedis ($8), people can afford it,” Yeboa said, picking up a blue and orange print with geometric designs. „If adults don't have money, that person will buy something before leaving the market.”

A piece of Ankara fabric at Makola Market, Accra, Ghana [Shola Lawal/Al Jazeera]

Made in the Netherlands, loved in Africa

Often referred to as Ankara, the origin of the colorful fabric embodies the essence of African-ness in the continent and the desire of immigrants to remain connected to their roots, not Africa.

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The material was born in the 1800s when Dutch traders attempted to mechanically mass-produce the intricate, handmade designs of Javanese batik prints native to the Dutch East Indies in present-day Indonesia. Designs made with the wax-resist dyeing method left an equal intensity of color on both sides of the plain cotton rugs, which did not catch on. But European printers soon found their invention receiving unexpected attention elsewhere—in Africa.

Several Europeans, including 22-year-old Pieter Fentener van Vlissingen, a Dutch manufacturer, began producing the goods in bales, cutting them in yards and shipping them to bustling cities like Accra, where traders from other countries would go to buy them. they. Legend has it that the name „Ankara” came from Hausa traders across West Africa who tried to call it Agra, where they bought the cloth.

In West and Central Africa, the boldly colored fabric sparked a style revolution. People, especially women, wore the stuff everywhere – weddings, naming ceremonies, burials. Soon, the new fabric brought with it indigenous materials such as the earthy blue tie-dye-tie-tie-tie-tie-tie-tie-dye-adire of the Yorubas in Nigeria and the shiny, hand-woven kente of Ghana's Ashanti and Ewes.

Vlissengen's company was at the forefront of the new era.

„It's been 177 years of ups and downs and we intend to be here for another 100 years,” Perry Osting, CEO of Vlissengen's company, now called Vlisco, told Al Jazeera from its Helmand office. The brand has become the continent's most popular wax mold maker, portraying itself as the „original” luxury brand amid counterfeit and counterfeit Chinese-made copies. Six yards of velisco can cost up to 220 cedis ($200), but imitations cost much less.

„If you're successful, you get copied,” Osting said. Vlisco has trademarked its designs using QR codes and is now training customs officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo – one of its biggest markets – to detect counterfeits. But there is still competition from the smaller ones.

„We've been through a lot over the years, and we've built resilience because of that,” Osting said, adding that the fakes aren't the worst Vlisco has seen. „We've seen coups, we've seen wars in Africa. We plan to be here for a long time.

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Ankara seller in Lagos
A man sells unstitched fabric known as 'Ankara' along a street in the Agee district of Lagos, Nigeria on June 22, 2016. [Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters]

The era of Nana Pence

In the early days of African wax print, entrepreneurial African women teamed up with European manufacturers like Vlisco to come up with beautiful new patterns that included meaning and women bought exclusive distribution rights.

In Togo, where the market moved due to Kwame Nkrumah's protectionist policies in Ghana, the „Nana Pens” were particularly adept at monopolizing prints. A team of many women traders has been key to Vlisco's success.

The Nana Benzes went on to become so successful between the 1960s – 1980s that they became the first female millionaires in Togo, only able to afford luxury Mercedes Benz cars, thus earning them their nicknames.

However, Nana Benz was forgotten as the Ankara product was shifted to China.

Thus, in the mid-20th century – Africa's era of independence – Ankara created local wax print brands in an effort to localize its production and claim it as fully African, breaking the dominance of European printers such as Vlisco. Still produced in the Netherlands.

In 1966, Ghana launched the Ghana Textiles Printing Company (GDP), with a major government stake. Around the same time, Agosambo Textiles Limited (ATL) became famous for its Adingra symbols, especially those borrowed from the Giamans. In Nigeria, United Nigerian Textile Mills (UNTL) is partnering with Hong Kong-based Saw Group to open a mill in Northern Kaduna State. In Ivory Coast, Univox was born – a partnership between the Ivorian government and Unilever, a British consumer goods manufacturer.

But a cocktail of problems, including government policies, counterfeiting, lack of infrastructure and unavailability of locally available cotton, forced many printers to close or sell, costing hundreds of textile workers their jobs.

GTP and Uniwax are now subsidiaries of Vlisco. Oostings of Vlisco says that while its subsidiaries produce locally, Vlisco itself has no immediate plans to shift production from Helmand to the continent.

Some brands aim to localize production again, but face similar problems.

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Lome's Wina Wax was designed locally but made in China due to lack of electricity, founder and Nana Benz descendant Marlene Adenlet-Zondo told Jean Afrique. Manufacturing in China is an effort to adapt at all costs while offering reasonable prices.

„Univax in Cote d'Ivoire and GDP in Ghana were definitely bought by Vlisco because of the lack of financial contributions,” Adanlet-Zondo said. „We don't want that kind of future for question wax.”

Soft to the touch

With all kinds of miniatures proliferating on the market, it can be difficult to differentiate between a good miniature and a bad one.

At Magola, young women arrange rolled „chirs” on flat plates balanced on their heads and hawk them around. All brands have words like „guaranteed” or „genuine wax” on their rims.

But Agustina Otu, an Accra-based fashion designer, said the feel of Ankara fabric, its flexibility, often tells what is high quality and what is low quality, regardless of the name, brand or wording printed on the fabric.

Most cheap imports use cheap quality cotton for production and mix cotton with fabrics such as polyester, whereas genuine loincloths are made entirely of cotton, Otoo, 26, added. Where quality Ankara fabric is soft to the touch and yields under the heat of an iron, some smaller items lack such moldability that makes them a pain to sew in the elaborate styles that customers demand.

„Some of them are like rubber, and some of them feel like paper,” Otto said, laughing at his own analogy. “I sew a lot. When you iron it, it is so hard that it crumbles. If you want to straighten it, it will be difficult. They put in some shiny stuff that fades when you wash it. It won't even last three months.

But that didn't stop customers from buying.

“Especially this season, we've seen a lot of new designs in smaller ones,” said Otoo. And there is nothing she can do to convince her customers to buy genuine brands, she added. „Me, I provide the service and collect my money.”

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