‘My mission is to preserve, share and protect African textile legacies’
Ifebuche Madu is a fashion entrepreneur. She is poised to bring her vision for the Nigerian dream to life. A strong supporter of ethical fashion, she has over seven years of experience as an Adiré textile designer and manufacturer. She is the founder and Creative Director at Afrikstabel – a textile manufacturing company with the goal to preserve, share and protect the African textile heritage.
She holds a degree in Fine Arts and Designs from the University of Port Harcourt, with focus on textiles and fashion. Her design aesthetic blends traditional methods with cutting-edge modern techniques. Afrikstabel has evolved from being into fashion design to a textile company to harness artisans’ potential to create sustainable textiles for fashion and interior designers.
In 2017, Madu was recognised by BMC Bank of Africa as one of the top 50 entrepreneurs with the most significant and sustainable impact to create jobs and improve lives in Africa. In 2021, she also won the prize for best textile designer at the African Creative Exhibition and Awards. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her drive for creating change in the textile industry.
You are a strong supporter of ethical fashion. What fuels your passion?
It is the people – artisans – behind the production of textile products. Let me tell a short story around this. I hired a local weaver known as Iya weaving (The Weaving Mother) to create woven designs for me while I was visiting Ondo State in Nigeria. A few days later, I traveled to see her to check how far she had gone with the project, only to experience the shock of my life. I personally saw the deplorable conditions that were all around her. She had two underweight children who appeared to have gone without food for days. And the residence they occupied could only be characterised by a ‘literal roof over one’s head.’ This was as horrible as it could possibly be, believe me. I brought up the subject and Iya started to narrate how she gets calls from all over Ondo and even outside the state to make woven designs. This did not make any business sense to me, but, at the same time, I could see how her deplorable state all made sense. On average, it would take about two weeks to finish a weaving job. Within this time, the profit from that job would have been totally used up simply because she was underpaid and undervalued. That encounter alone reshaped my perspective and further strengthened my conviction to help these artisans. Why am I in business if the neighbourhood of local artisans can’t even afford to raise their children healthily? I brought gifts back a few days later, and I’ve been doing that since with the artisans I collaborate with. Afrikastabel is dedicated to the people who produce these textiles. My business plan went beyond simply trying to get these ladies to work for me, it include education as a means of emancipation.
How are you driving economic development through fashion?
At Afrikstabel, we have created over 2000 direct and indirect jobs throughout our value chain, from artisans to designers, tailors, merchandisers, illustrators, and retailers, locally and internationally. We have a partnership with over 150 artisans across Nigeria, contribute to the development of whole new economies and communities, and give them access to the market beyond their localities. We are building the needed bridge for the international fashion trade, creating sustainable alternatives for fashion production, and encouraging ethical practices in the African fashion industry.
You run a textile manufacturing company. What informed this and what stands your brand out?
I was raised believing that Ankara print originated in Africa. When I was studying textiles at the University of Port Harcourt, I discovered via research that the fabric I had come to accept as having an African print was actually not from Africa. This heartbreaking realisation prompted me to conduct additional research. Nigeria, alone, has hundreds of different indigenous textiles that have been abandoned. These textiles used to be a means of livelihood for millions of families in Nigeria. I made a decision to revive, promote, share and protect original African prints, starting with original Nigerian prints. For us, we are creating a truthful narrative about what made-in-Africa means today. So, when clients meet us, I am constantly thinking, how do we ensure that it remains an authentic story while bringing their ideas to life? This generally guides my conversation and helps us reach an amiable conclusion. So, for us, every detail, every stroke is done with the belief that we have to retain the African textiles-rich history. This intentionality makes us unique.
The Adiré textile design used to be our own. Today, almost all materials needed for production are imported. What went wrong in your opinion, and how are you coping?
Adire textile is still our own and will always remain an original Nigerian print. The challenge is in accessing the desired fabric. The first Adire material was made with Teru (local white attire) and Elu (local Dye). By the 1960s, a revolution in colour and textiles was brought about by the expanding availability of chemical dyes from Europe. Naturally, this heightened people’s curiosity about different types of fabric (like silk, chiffon, linen, and cotton). Unfortunately, Nigeria only has one recognised textile factory that produces cotton fabrics that are appropriate for our operations (Funtua cotton). About four per cent of the fabrics used by designers are created in Funtua, Katsina State with the remainder being imported. For me, this is not really a problem because at Afrikstabel, 60 per cent of the fabric is Funtua cotton, and this is because we have been able to educate designers on the benefits of supporting our own, especially our international clients. This decision has seen a tremendous effect: the authenticity of Funtua always gets accolades.
You are a strong believer and an advocate for helping local designers find a market for their products globally. How are you achieving this?
We are achieving this through structured empowerment programmes. We understand the demand for these textiles in the multi-billion dollar fashion industry, and we were losing these artisans who have abandoned the crafts for other means of livelihood. Initially, the focus of my business was on using beautiful African textiles to create beautiful garments. That has not changed, but as I made progress in the business, it evolved to focus on the people who make the textiles. When I started my textile business, I would go to rural areas in Nigeria in search of artisans. Most of these textile artisans are women. These women make the most beautiful textiles by hand. During this course, I learned that many indigenous textile artisans in rural areas earned meager wages because they could not only barely feed their families but also pay for their children to attend the local public schools. Generally, they had little access to other markets beyond their environment and no access to digital markets, which caused and inspired me to want to improve their livelihoods. I also noticed that most of these skilled craftsmen abandoned their craft to look for other means of sustaining their families. Because of this, I switched my business model to partnering with artisans who make these textiles to help them live better lives. We source the services of artisans across different communities in Nigeria, making sure that they stay in business and earn a decent income. Creating jobs in these communities has had a significant positive impact on the families living there and the community at large.
Share with us some of the challenges you have faced running your business and how are you able to pull through?
There are three key challenges I face or I have faced running my textile business. As an Igbo woman from the Eastern part of Nigeria striving to make a difference to revive indigenous Nigerian textiles, I was faced with language, cultural, and ethnic barriers. Understanding their local dialect proved to be a daunting challenge because we source the services of artisans in the rural Yoruba-speaking communities. Fortunately, I was given an opportunity to make an impact after earning their trust to preserve and promote these textiles. Today, I am paying it forward by continually ensuring that people from other tribes and countries can engage in the business of making Adire with fewer barriers. The second challenge is in managing people- especially because I have full-time staff from Senegal, Guinea, Togo, and different parts of Nigeria. We are faced with language and cultural differences sometimes. This requires that we get an interpreter to better pass down information. Finding qualified full-time craftspeople is a significant obstacle as well. As part of their normal working practices, artisans typically labour from the comfort of their own homes. By giving them free lodging in Lagos, we contributed one significant benefit that helped them change their perspective. I noticed that this has prevented them from relocating to more developed cities to advance their craft. In general, Lagos residents cannot afford the high cost of housing. Our staff members from Nigeria and other African countries live in staff quarters that are near to the studio. Additionally, it makes people more focused in their thinking.
What lessons have you garnered over the years?
My biggest lesson learned from running my business for the past six years is to never give up. There will be times when it will seem like everyone is against you, but I really think that after the rain will come the sunlight.
You also teach textile designs and production. Is this your way of passing on the knowledge? What is your reach?
Yes. I consider it my mission to preserve, share and protect African textile legacies. This is because I believe that we must conserve Africa’s textile and artistic traditions if we want to share them. To sustain, teach, and pass on these techniques and traditions—which we may have developed for our time—in these new ways, I believe that we must create with regard, recognition, and responsibility for them. This will allow us to give them as our own landmarks in the sands of time. We have succeeded in training over 560 youths and have exported to eight countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Morocco, and Kenya where over a dozen fashion and art companies are developing collections using our textiles.
How do you get inspired and stay motivated?
I meditate a lot of the time. It has a calming effect and helps me stay focused.
How can more women rise to the top and live their dreams?
It is by having confidence in ourselves. As women, we often have self-doubt, but it’s time to start thinking that we can succeed on our own. Women are more powerful than they realise, but lack of confidence causes many to put their aspirations in the back burner.
How can we get more women to become successful and rise to the top as you have done? What tips do you have for other women?
We need to start encouraging women to raise their hands not only when it’s convenient for them but at any given opportunity, encourage them to let go off the limiting beliefs they might have about themselves. This can be achieved by educating them through discussing success stories, reading books written by successful women and even organising entrepreneurial summit for women.
How do you unwind?
I do yoga to de-stress and spend quality time with family and friends.