The role fashion plays in the hopes, possibilities and realities of Nigerians
For consumers, fashion is how we express ourselves, a tool we use to stand out, make a statement or even on occasion cause a scandal. Our love of fashion is not limited to a runway but our daily lives, you only need to look at instagram to see the role fashion plays. If you have a unique sense of style and share pictures on instagram, you are likely to have at least ten thousand followers at the end of 6 months. Yet behind all this, is there a substantive fashion industry? Does the industry generate value for its stakeholders and the country? Beyond the hype, is there money in fashion? Unfortunately these questions cannot be answered with a straightforward yes or no.
There is not sufficient data to make assertions because fashion exists largely in the informal economy. Stakeholders in fashion such as designers, fabric sellers, stylists etc may not have registered businesses. Therefore transactions in fashion are impossible to track. Yet it is very evident that there are daily transactions in fashion, examples such as Aba and Balogun market are testaments to this. The head of the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FADAN), Funmilayo Ladipo-Ajila has estimated fashion contributes 0.47% of Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is a small number but is encouraging for an industry that is unstructured and receives little to no support from government or the private sector.
The most visible part of the fashion value chain is the design, the finished product – the clothes. There are billion dollar-marketing campaigns to keep clothes on the forefront of our minds. Consumers want beautiful and trendy clothes to reflect their taste and sometimes their status. In Nigeria our creativity is our strength, we have been featured prominently around the world, from Vogue to the New York Times but this is where our strength ends. The struggle has always been channeling this creativity to money. There are so many talented young Nigerians that are drawn to the fashion industry but this ‘industry’ does not exist. Not at least in the way it should.
In the past 10 years, Nigeria’s fashion industry has been revolutionized by world-class fashion shows such as Arise and Lagos Fashion and Design Week that have drawn attention to the sector. There has also been a fashion retail revolution with many malls being built in Lagos, Abuja, Enugu, Ibadan and other population dense cities in Nigeria. In Nigeria high fashion is very designer focused, designers are the celebrities. They are the creatives’, in an ideal setting they are meant to create samples and then produce volumes of their designs with either a garment manufacturer for the masses or an atelier for the premium or the luxury market. Unfortunately designers in Nigeria design and produce internally, this is not only inefficient but also costly.
Nigerian designers are often criticized for high prices; sometimes this is warranted but not always. If a designer is charging N50,000 or any amount for an item of clothing, it should be well made and designed, if not it thoroughly deserves to be criticized. The challenge for designers is that it is expensive to produce collections in Nigeria, it is costly to find well-trained tailors and pattern cutters and also to power machines. It is even more difficult to find trained tailors or pattern cutters; our education structures in Nigeria are outdated. This has led many designers to create their collections abroad in countries such as Ghana, China, India and Turkey. This leads to much better quality but since they pay in foreign exchange, prices sharply increase. Affordable clothing stems from mass production through garment manufacturing. This is more or less the biggest reason Nigerian fashion is expensive. Garment manufacturing is how Primark can sell dresses for $10 or less; it is the process of mass-producing clothes, using efficient industrial methods to drive down the cost of production. We do not have enough garment manufacturers in Nigeria.
Those that exist such as Crown Nature and Sam and Sara specialize in school and work uniforms. Another deterrent to invest in garment manufacturing for everyday fashion, is the flooding of markets with cheap imports. Countries like China are aware of our large population and are able to mass produce affordable clothing that is suitable to our budgets. They illegally bring a wide array of low-priced clothes that Nigerians purchase because they are very cheap, ranging from N500 to N10,000. At present, no Nigerian designer or garment manufacturer can compete, if they are able to compete in price, they cannot compete in volumes. Garment manufacturing requires power and Nigeria’s power situation is problematic. If Nigerians are supposed to ‘Buy Nigerian’ the clothes have to be affordable and the only way to make them affordable is to invest in garment manufacturing. We need garment factories with industrial sewing machines and industrial pattern cutting machines. We need training schools to train machine operators, production managers and the various personnel that will maintain the machinery. The investment will be capital intensive but the benefits of building businesses and creating jobs outweigh any disadvantages.
The high cost of running a fashion business limits the profitability of the entire value chain. Since it is expensive to produce, it is hard to pay salaries and therefore build a team of competent employees. In fashion you need the creatives such as designers, bloggers and stylists. You also need the business people, who will help build business development, sales, personnel that will help you draft contracts and keep accounting records. You will often see a fashion business with a designer, tailors and perhaps a brand manager, that is an incomplete team. Who is focusing on sales and creating business opportunities? Who is looking internally at your business operations to ensure efficiency? Again, limited revenues prevent designers hiring competent staff; they are forced to play all the roles themselves. Designers could give up equity to attract competitive business savvy individuals but most business people run from fashion because of the lack of structure. There are no government policies to protect the industry. Designer entrepreneurs tend to neglect the business side and therefore their businesses rarely scale up or even worse they run into financial hardship and have to stop operations.
In the seventies Nigeria had a larger and more profitable fashion industry, our strength was in industrial textiles manufacturing and to some degree garment manufacturing. During that period, we had almost 200 textile mills, furthermore textiles was the largest employer of labour. Our textiles were consumed locally but also exported to generate foreign exchange. In 2016, there are barely 30 textile mills still functioning and they certainly do not export. Our textiles industry has been in decline due to the discovery of oil. The government neglected the sector; there were no industrial policies to protect the sector. This led to the reliance of imported fabric. The textile industry needs a revival and this will be no mean feat. It is beyond powering textile looms and finding trained technicians, textiles begins in the agriculture sector. The industry needs to invest in good cottonseeds; cottonseeds grown locally are not of competitive quality. After cultivating good quality cottonseeds, they will need to be planted, harvested and then milled into fabric. It is a capital-intensive process but the investment will yield in revenue, more businesses, more jobs and the possibility of generating foreign exchange through exporting.
In 2015, Buhari announced that his administration would prioritise rebuilding the Cotton, Garment and Textile industries also known as the CTG directive. This has resulted in committees and sub committees; we await countrywide initiatives and concrete action. The Ministry of Trade and Investment parastatal – Nigeria Export Promotion Council launched their garment manufacturing training courses in Lagos earlier in the year. They have trained over 70 people, this is certainly a drop in the ocean, more facilities like this are needed but it is a small step in the right direction. On a state level, Kaduna and Cross River have invested in building garment factories and the factory in Kaduna is presently operational.
Garment manufacturing and textiles are the least glamorous part of the value chain but to grow the industry we have to start producing large volumes. Once we are able to produce affordably to suit our local market, this industry may surpass Nollywood. Fundamentally, the ingredients for a thriving fashion industry exist in Nigeria; we have a large population of 170,000,000, if the industry aims to sell to 5% of our population then that is potentially millions of dollars in revenue. Creating large volumes will allow us to export and price our clothes competitively. Low production costs will enable competitive pricing and help to increase revenues for fashion businesses.
In addition to manufacturing, lack of adequate education is a major problem; our tertiary and vocational institutions are not in good shape. There is no access to affordable financing; loan interest rates are too high, most fashion business are not even eligible for loans. There are many problems facing the industry that stem from the lack of government support but all is not lost. Aba is an anomaly in Nigeria’s fashion narrative; they have a self-sustaining business model. They mass produce already existing popular styles and sell them locally and internationally, the quality is not on par with the likes of China but they compensate with low pricing. Aba is filled with garment and leather factories, they employ dated technology but are still able to create thousands of jobs and earn foreign exchange through export. Aba is a sound model that should be emulated across Nigeria.
The Nigerian fashion industry is often the source of mockery and disdain, it is sometimes accused of snobbery and elitism but that is a limited view of what the industry is. Fashion extends to tailors sewing aso-ebi and extends to market women in Balogun market selling fabric. Since there are no governing bodies the industry can be seen as wild and unstructured but it exists. Stakeholders are not protected and neither is the customer but the case for fashion is undisputable. Globally it is a $1.2 trillion dollar industry, 1% of that would elevate the Nigerian population. Even internally we have an underserved large population. The ingredients for a successful industry exist in Nigeria but the government has to make the necessary investment. Fashion stakeholders also have to galvanise, especially in the midst of the recession, synergizing and collaboration is the only way to grow this industry.
Leaders of No-Morrow: The Hopes, Possibilities and Realities of Nigeria is a special series brought to you by The Naked Convos in partnership with The Guardian.
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