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East Africa May be the Best New Bet for Sourcing Ethical Fashion

Thanks to big companies like PVH, VF and H&M leading the charge when it comes to tapping East Africa as a key new sourcing market, the region has made great strides in its offering.

With more than 50 companies represented at Sourcing at Magic in Las Vegas last week, East African makers made up more than 60 percent of the biggest ever Africa pavilion.

“There is untapped creativity and diversity in terms of products, entrepreneurs and supply chains in East Africa,” Mary Marino, trade linkages consultant for USAID’s East Africa Trade and Investment Hub, said. “This allows East Africa to present a unique opportunity to bridge the creativity of products, the transparency of the value chain standards and the growing infrastructure of manufacturing to bring something unseen to U.S. buyers.”

What’s perhaps of particular note—and something the East Africa Trade Hub took the time to highlight through its selection of exhibitors at the show—are the increasing number of buyers taking interest in products that aren’t mass produced, that come with a story, that support a cause—it’s a response to ever-informed consumers seeking those types of stories out.

And in East Africa, many of the SMEs serving up these narratives are owned by women and support women workers in their supply chains.

“Female entrepreneurs play a major role in shaping the growing apparel and textile industry in East Africa,” Marino said.

Lucy Bigham, founder of eco-friendly apparel and accessories producer Tosheka Textiles, has a history of both textile and entrepreneurship and the company was founded on improving the lives of women working in her communities in Kenya.

“We’re developing a supply and value chain, and it’s really all the way from fiber to fashion,” Bigham said. “And we are tapping traditional skills and making them contemporary.”

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Founding the company in 2011, Bigham was working with 200 women suppliers and that number has now grown to 3,000. The women are part of the Wote community development organization, which mobilizes the workers. Tosheka makes its own hand-woven fabric, using organic cotton, dyed with natural dyes that are chemical free and its product has already made its way to Anthropologie shelves.

“Africa has become a focus right now,” Bigham said. “Many buyers have become conscious of what they’re buying and what they’re selling.”

Sylvia Owori, managing director of an apparel and accessories company of the same name, has also seen evidence of the uptick in demand for Made in Africa merchandise.

“When I started, nobody took African prints or African designers seriously,” Owori said. “It’s only in the last three years that the whole world is looking to Africa for inspiration. This is the right time for the United States to partner with African brands and manufacturers.”

Launching her line of ethical fashion in 2004 in her home nation of Uganda, Owori started out producing garments styled in African prints and has since launched a T-shirt line that draws inspiration from Ghanaian adinkra symbols and a collection of bags made from recycled denim.

“I wanted people to identify with the Sylvia Owori brand as an ethical brand, and on top of that, one that uses local women,” Owori said. “It was about creating and empowering women through creating employment and thus giving them a chance to have economic stability.”

Owori works with 300 women to produce product, but has access to additional available labor for outsized orders. She also operates without minimum order quantities, opting instead to work on partnerships with buyers to create more tailored offerings.

For Robin Zoe Madagascar, it’s all about organic. The company has been around since 1995, producing beachwear accessories made from organic materials like woven straw and raffia and handmade 100 percent cotton children’s dresses.

Production is done by mostly women in the rural area of Tsarafara, Madagascar, and owner Narindra Robin, has taken special effort to employ disadvantaged women, like those who gave birth at a young age and were without a viable way to make a living.

“The goal is to take care of all the village and provide them education and skills so they can be more independent,” Robin said.

Africa’s bigger presence in places like Sourcing at MAGIC has already been a boon for Robin, who had buyers placing orders and more still with the intent to place orders in coming weeks.

“American people can trust Africa now. That’s the feeling,” Robin said, adding that U.S. buyers are putting greater emphasis on ethics. “They think first of where a product comes from and how it’s made, and they put the value on that.”

Separate from just a story they believe in, buyers have been turning to manufacturers like C&H Garments, which produces out of Ethiopia and Rwanda for their synthetic needs. For garments that could face duties as high as 32 percent when bound for the U.S., the opportunity is substantial.

C&H makes sportswear, workwear and safety clothing and its WRAP and ISO certified facilities, both of which are located within free industrial zones. As Paul Chung, C&H executive director, explained speaking on behalf of female owner Candy Ma, workers in many parts of Africa are trained well, security and safety conditions are good and labor laws meet—and in some cases even surpass—high-level international standards.

“If you go to an African country, even though they are very poor, they respect human rights,” Chung said. “It’s a different idea and a different philosophy than in some Asian countries.”

Duty free may have been the draw that got the U.S. to starting considering Africa, but it’s the region’s quality product and innovative offering that has brought on the bulk of that trust. And if Africa is having its moment, East Africa is the driving force. More than buyers, U.S. apparel organizations are taking note.

Beyond its support in getting manufacturers to the Sourcing show, the East Africa Trade and Investment Hub recently partnered with the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), to further facilitate growth for the region.