Despite the relative infancy of fashion retail across the continent, sub-Saharan Africa’s apparel and footwear market was reportedly worth $31 billion in 2015, according to Euromonitor International.

Africa: Fashion’s Next Frontier

With increased interest in African art (e.g., Sotheby’s record-breaking first-ever Modern and Contemporary African Art sale), the continued rise of African cinema, and the “rapid growth of the African music industry,” African culture appears to be increasingly popular among global audiences. And with celebrities and public figures including Michelle Obama and Beyonce embracing it, African fashion is also enjoying a global renaissance of sorts.

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Indeed, since 2011, global interest in African fashion has ballooned. According to Google Trends data, search queries for ‘African fashion’ (as a proportion of all searches) have grown dramatically over that time frame.

Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise then that various entrepreneurs are seizing opportunities to leverage the internet’s reach to commercialize African fashion globally.

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The Dawn of Digital Drapers

Multi-vendor Marketplaces

In 2016, Oxosi.com, an e-commerce platform offering ‘Afromodernist’ luxury design, raised a seed round from Kupanda Holdings, a joint venture between Kupanda Capital and TPG Growth. Kolade Adeyemo, co-founder, said at the time:

“…A large opportunity exists internationally for leading luxury and contemporary African design brands seeking to sell products to consumers outside of their home markets. By helping these brands export, we can finally tap into this large global market opportunity to help commercialize their creative talent and share their unique stories.”

Today, the top 10 apparel exporting countries in Africa represent only 0.55% of world apparel exports.
Source: AfDB’s Fashionomics Report (PDF)

Similarly, Onychek.com, founded in 2016, also focuses on exporting luxury African fashion to international consumers. But unlike Oxosi, which features both African and Africa-inspired brands from around the world, Onychek’s focus is exclusively on design made in Africa.

Both players are essentially multi-vendor marketplaces, offering wares from selected designers & brands to consumers around the world and taking a cut of each sale. The model is popular, and among the various leaders is Zuvaa.com, a platform which reportedly did close to $2 million in gross sales in 2016. (The platform takes 15-17% of revenue from each sale of a designer’s item.)

Integrated Brands

Other models exist however. For example, Kisua, launched in 2013 and backed primarily by private African investors, sources materials from across the continent and completes the production process in Africa. While it works with external designers on collaborative ‘capsule collections’, its focus is on developing an authentic African fashion brand of international repute.

“Africa has a population of over a billion people, yet not a single international fashion brand comes from the continent. This never made sense to me.”
Samuel Mensah, Founder, Kisua

To do so, Kisua, although it recognizes the importance of design & style, focuses more on core business functions (i.e., production, warehousing, distribution, marketing, customer service, and technology) to ensure a seamless experience for its customers around the world.

Since launching in 2013, Kisua has dressed Beyoncé, Estelle, and other public figures; has secured partnerships with notable players like Milan’s Yoox SpA, the owner of high-end fashion site Net-a-Porter; and has opened distribution centers in the US, UK, and South Africa, along with physical retail locations in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Conscious Couture

While Africa’s fashion industry holds great commercial potential, it also holds strong potential for economic development.

With more than half of sub-Saharan Africa’s population under the age of 25 and 13 million young Africans joining the labour market every year, the development of labor-intensive sectors such as the textile and fashion industry is imperative for a stable and prosperous Africa … Africa’s fashion industry is a largely untapped sector.Geraldine Joslyn Fraser-Moleketi, Special Envoy, African Development Bank

Across the continent, youth unemployment is a challenge, and as a labor-intensive industry, fashion is well-positioned to make an impact. In Malawi, for example, the youth unemployment rate (ages 15-34) is as high as 23%, according to the country’s National Statistics Office (PDF).

For some ventures, creating jobs, empowering at-risk populations, and producing ethical fashion is embedded into their business models. One such social enterprise is Malawi’s Mwayi. Launched in 2017, Mwayi offers handmade garments sewn from chitenge fabric, with each item made-to-measure by one of Mwayi’s trained seamstresses.

Through a partnership with MASYAP, a local women’s empowerment non-profit, Mwayi recruits aspiring seamstresses for six-month, paid apprenticeships under the watchful eyes of experienced practitioners. Upon completion, it offers full-time employment for select members of the apprentice class, paying wages at levels twice that of the regional average.

For Mwayi’s founder, Renata Aráuz-DeStefano, fashionable and socially-responsible aren’t mutually-exclusive:

On the consumer side, interest in traditional African prints is rising, and at the same time, the clear trend, especially among millenials, is towards a more socially-conscious lifestyle & consumer behavior. Increasingly, those two trends are colliding and we think that, with our brand values and focus on development in Malawi, we’re well-suited to meet this demand over the medium and long term.

The Democratization of African Fashion

On the whole, African fashion is being democratized and made available to the masses through the internet. Upstart brands and ventures can easily interact with a global audience and, with worldwide interest in African fashion rising rapidly, Africa’s role as a source & producer of fashion is poised to grow.

For more on eBay’s Africa move, see eBay opens U.S. platform to Africa with MallforAfrica.com partnership As the industry comes of age however, today’s digital entrepreneurs will have to respond strategically to a variety of challenges and competitive threats. As an example, eBay, a top ten website in the US, recently opened its US platform to Africa, allowing Americans to buy African fashion and goods directly on eBay.

For players of various sizes, the allure of African fashion may prove too strong to resist, and some business models may be more resilient in a hyper-competitive environment than others. Still, for the moment at least, a rising tide lifts all boats and the increased popularity of African fashion is being celebrated & exploited far and wide.

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By Emeka Ajene

Based in Lagos, Nigeria, Emeka is the Executive Editor of Afridigest and the Managing Partner of Africreate. He previously led regional operations for Uber Nigeria and customer experience & marketing for Nigerian e-commerce company, Konga. Follow him on Twitter: @eajene