Fashion, culture can be the next oil

Brightly coloured African vitenges, those fabrics found all over Africa and often associated with the exuberance of Congolese culture, adorned the western tourists' lithe bodies. "I only paid Rwf15,000, that's like 20 US dollars", one giggled, somewhat embarrassed.

Brightly coloured African vitenges, those fabrics found all over Africa and often associated with the exuberance of Congolese culture, adorned the western tourists’ lithe bodies. “I only paid Rwf15,000, that’s like 20 US dollars”, one giggled, somewhat embarrassed.

Another traveler on visiting Kimironko market declared, “I don’ t understand why we pay so little for these beautiful things”, as she held a pair of gracefully, playful earrings made from acacia-green, kitenge fabric.

If we take the last as being the most important, than at the just concluded Services Investment Forum (SIF), the ‘creative industry,’ as the last panel discussion of the two-day event, may have had its rightful place.

The Minister for Sports and Culture, Joseph Habineza, along with cultural and fashion icons from Ishyo Arts Center and Made in Kigali fashion label were the panelists eloquently articulating the importance of cultural products for the economy.

The minister questioned why the government doesn’t give incentives to people who are “investing their brain” like artists, musicians and the like, and not just to investors in hard infrastructure.

At a fashion event at the Petit Stade in Kigali in September, the same minister had lamented why we should wear clothes from abroad when we have such fantastic Rwandan fashion.

He added that our local designers were “stars” and should be “celebrated as are fashion designers all over the world”.

Kimironko market has been touted as a tourist attraction by some. The locals take it for granted and go there to buy practically everything under the sun.

Strategically placed in the main aisles and along the inner periphery of the covered market, sit the dozens of tailors that are churning out these beautiful jewels of African design; so treasured by some of the tourists that come to Kigali.

On the other hand, the designers when challenged on the high price of their products responded that the cost of production is high because most of the materials used are imported.

Additionally, using stand-alone tailors means that growth potential is limited and production can stop if the tailors are not available.

Economics, manufacturing expertise and economies of scale are all tied into the history why most so-called “African fabrics” are not made in Africa. But there may be more a practical solution to creating African-inspired fashion.

Take, for example, Aminadabu Nyagatare, a tailor at Kimironko. He secured a loan of Rwf70,000 to buy the sewing machine, he now talks about his dream to have his own stall selling various wares because his income from sewing is limited.

When asked if he ever works together with the other tailors he said that people were not used to sharing income because they pay taxes as individuals and there were issues of trust.

Well-performing groups may be a challenge to form but benefits accrue from economies of scale. Banks prefer to lend to a group and the borrowers can thus get access to credit at better terms. Tailors could team together to provide services to the designers or even manufacturers of fast moving items, such as uniforms.

Several things need to happen. Some ideas include: proper organisation, clear guidelines on individual responsibilities as well as tangible incentives and also train tailors to produce consistent quality garments.

Designers can provide the creative inputs and the market while getting quality tailoring services.

Tailors will be consistently busy and not sitting idle in the markets waiting for the odd tourist or the odd repairs to be done. Controls need to be put in place to protect designers’ creative works and limit side-selling.

Travelers to Hong Kong marvel at the service that some hotels provide linking guests to local tailors who come to the hotel, take measurements and deliver, high quality clothing.

All this within 24 hours! Similar services can be found in certain West African cities. With all the conferences that Rwanda now proudly hosts, why can’t this too be part of the conference package?

SIF took this idea to heart and had one such stand with the luxury brand, Made in Kigali. Much of the lessons shared above are being done by this label which currently employs over 50 tailors. But more can be done to bring other designers, tailors, and more broadly other creatives, into this untapped, economically productive space.

We can learn from African success stories. Kenya recently rebased her economy. What this means is that the country re-looked at all the activities that go into calculating the Gross Domestic Product, (GDP), and updated it to reflect the current reality.

The result was a 25% increase in the GDP. Nigeria rebased its economy in 2013 which resulted in the economy increasing its GDP by an impressive 89% to USD 509 billion.

Rebasing aside, the real story may actually be that the main contributors to Nigeria’s economic leap were telecommunications, music and Nollywood. It is the service, artistic and creative skills of the Nigerian people that are making the greatest contribution to the economy; making it by far the largest in Africa.

Perhaps, this is the glimpse of the future that will lift millions out of poverty in Africa; not the manufacturing of yore, but services, artistic skills and creativity.

The writer is passionate about people, organizations and countries whose stories create a chrysalis for ideas.