How fashion, design could be the future drivers of Africa’s economic prosperity

Rwanda is among African countries that have embraced fashion and design with a new zeal. The Kigali Fashion Week is an annual event organised by the House of Fashion and endeavours to promote Rwandan designers and help talented young people have access to education and develop into entrepreneurs. 
Oscar Kimanuka
Oscar Kimanuka

Rwanda is among African countries that have embraced fashion and design with a new zeal. The Kigali Fashion Week is an annual event organised by the House of Fashion and endeavours to promote Rwandan designers and help talented young people have access to education and develop into entrepreneurs. 

The event brings together the mainstream fashion community, and local, regional and international fashion designers.

Over the past few years, the fashion industry in Africa has undergone a number of significant developments. First of all, African fabrics and fashion became popular among Western audiences and fashion designers.

African designs are no longer perceived as a “traditional”, ethnic or original input to new collections, but has instead evolved into a rapidly developing industry which exerts a considerable impact on global trends.

Fashion blogs, magazines and on-line shops of young designers have made public recent developments in African fashion. This is an indirect but important factor of economic and social development.

Fashion merchandise stimulates local economies by providing jobs to designers, producers of textiles and tailors. Finally, the African Fashion Week has recently expanded.

While Rwanda’s fashion industry is just a few years old, there are indications that the future is bright. Already Kigali fashion designers have established a mark in Kampala and Bujumbura where they have demonstrated that Kigali could in the not too distant future be the fashion capital of East Africa.

Cultural industries are providing Africa, a hub of cultural heritage and diversity, with the opportunity to diversify its economy while at the same time stimulating social, cultural and political development.

Furthermore, the cultivation of creative and cultural industries is imperative to satisfy the demands of a labour market dominated by an ever-increasing youth bulge.

In order for creative economies to take shape in Africa, a variety of obstacles must first be overcome. With current developments of cultural industries being primarily initiated by members of civil society, it is necessary that such action is actively supported by governments through well-informed policy-development and increased investment in these sectors.

After all, government policy has an immense role to play in the success or failure of future creative economies.

A significant hurdle to the flourishing of creative economies in Africa is the lack of copyright, intellectual property rights legislation and poor enforcement, perpetuating rampant piracy. 

Furthermore, censorship and excessive bureaucracy are inhibiting the development of creative and cultural industries.

These obstacles can only be overcome through policy reform, which necessitates political will. 

This, on the other hand, will require a realisation on the part of governments, that cultural capital is an indispensable, income-generating resource, whose cultivation will produce effects that surpass mere monetary gains.

Slowly but surely, acknowledgement of the value creative and cultural industries hold is becoming more apparent, as initiatives to integrate these industries into strategies of growth are on the rise at both the national and the pan-African levels.

South Africa, for example, a few years ago launched a strategic plan, the Mzansi Golden Economy, to reposition the cultural industries in South Africa and to highlight the sector’s contribution to growth, job creation and social cohesion. 

Numerous cultural industries, such as new media and creative services rely to a great degree on information communication technology (ICT).

Despite the fact that efforts for growing connectivity throughout the continent are being strengthened, limited broadband penetration and the high costs that accompany it continue to significantly impede the development of new technology based creative industry business models.

Internet activity is highly concentrated in Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa – Africa’s three biggest economies – but eludes the majority of the African population.

According to a study by the World Bank, only 15 per cent of the Sub-Saharan population was active on the internet in 2012.

Not only is the internet a tool for the dissemination of culture and artistic talent, but, as UN Broadband Commission co-vice chair and ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Toure recently observed; “Technology combined with relevant content and services can help us bridge urgent development gaps in areas like health, education, environmental management and gender empowerment.”

As such, it is vital that increased investments in infrastructure enabling greater connectivity are made.

It is evident that creative economies have yet to gain a strong foothold in Africa. The cultural and creative industries in Africa require further development and support, so as to establish culture as a vehicle of sustainable and human-centered development.

The commonly perceived gap between economy and culture must give way to the recognition that these fields are interdependent and mutually beneficial.

The African continent possesses immense wealth of cultural capital which must be given outlet to flourish through the nurturing of creative economies in Africa. As claimed by the late Leopold Sedar Senghor, former President of Senegal and a renowned Poet, “Culture is at the beginning and the end of development”.  

It is for this reason that contemporary deliberations on the post-2015 development framework must incorporate cultural considerations in their agenda, so as to broaden the scope of development processes, thereby affording them a more inclusive and sustainable nature.

Undoubtedly, the creative economy’s potential for transformative development in Africa is boundless and waiting to be unlocked.

The writer is a consultant and visiting lecturer at the RDF Senior Command and Staff College, Nyakinama