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Could Africa Be the Next Sustainable Sourcing Market?

The thing about sourcing in Africa isn’t just that its trending or that it’s cheap—it’s that building the garment sector from the ground up means it can start out sustainably.

“This is the next great region for textile sourcing and it’s exciting,” said Jeff Wilson, Textile Exchange’s director of business value, strategy and development, during a talk titled “Responsible Africa” at the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference Tuesday. “We have a new opportunity here to deploy and execute our industry in a whole transformed way.”

Because manufacturing infrastructure is still in the nascent stages in many nations brands are looking to to source from, the opportunity is to build sustainability into the sector from the start.

The thinking for brands and retailers interested in what’s available on the continent should be: “How do we as a textile sector create something new for the textile sector in Africa and make it truly responsible?” Wilson posed.

Africa could hold heaps of potential for companies willing to invest in setting up there and growing the garment sector for the long haul. For one, Africa has the highest projected growth in working age population over the next 20 years, which is expected to swell to 900 million by 2035, or roughly the same as China today.

In South Africa, members of the Sustainable Cotton Cluster are trying to add a margin for sustainability to each link in the value chain.

The non-profit organization unites public and private sector organizations and other cotton supply chain stakeholders with the aim of moving the industry toward a fully sustainable cotton value chain. Vertical integration of factories in Africa has been a focus and a cotton traceability tool to maintain transparency and protect the integrity of sustainability claims.

Woolworths South Africa—which isn’t associated with any other Woolworths—operates David Jones and Country Road Group (brands include Country Road, Trenery, Mimco and Witchery), is already the eighth biggest user of recycled polyester globally and 23 percent of the cotton it uses comes from sustainable sources.

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“There’s a lot of sustainability in Africa and I think Africa is ready to assist brands and retailers across the world in order to make that informed choice of sourcing responsibly in Africa,” Heinrich Schultz, managing director for the cluster, said.

In Tanzania, Prama Bhardwaj, founder and CEO of Mantis World, which manufactures apparel in the country out of its fully vertical Sunflag Tanzania facility, said that apart from focusing on cotton-related initiatives when it comes to sourcing out of East Africa, it’s important to consider the entire strategy.

Right now, Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for less than 1 percent of global garment supply. The average age of the population in the region is 18, but that opportunity isn’t yet being tapped, and the continent rich in raw materials is exporting more than 90 percent of the cotton it grows and leaking all of that value addition with it.

“Having a complete supply chain from cotton to finished garment in one place keeps the value addition in the local economy,” Bhardwaj said.

The renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which allows certain nations duty free trade with the United States, brought with it increased interest from brands and retailers in sourcing there, but most companies are coming to compete on price, Bhardwaj explained, and that isn’t going to contribute to the sector’s sustainability.

“Think about sourcing in the region as not just what you can get from the region, but what can you give them?” she posed. “It’s not the place to go if you’re looking for a cheaper garment than Bangladesh.”

But to get a viable, sustainable apparel sourcing industry going in Africa, will take companies and countries moving from islands operating on their own accord and with their own best interest at the forefront of actions, to working in clusters.

“What would it look like if it wasn’t just each country trying to go it alone in the region? What would it look like if we could get organic cotton from Ethiopia if they had it?” Bhardwaj asked. “Then we would be able to introduce a production powerhouse on the continent.”

As Woolworths fabric technologist Eugene Lesch said, Africa has a “unique” opportunity for people to integrate.

“I think it’s got huge potential to become the next big thing,” Lesch said.