Sunday, March 3, 2024

Fabric wars: Ghana’s colorful prints face competition from China again | Business and Economy

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accra, ghana – On a weekday this December, the fabric shops at Accra’s frenetic Makola market were unusually quiet during the year-end festival season. Female traders wearing large knitted hats sat in front of their stalls, wearily brushing away flies and chatting. Behind it, colorful African wax fabrics were stacked from ground to ceiling, waiting to be bought.

Vida Eboah, one of the traders, said the stalls are usually packed with customers looking for the latest designs, and have the tailors cut and sew them into different styles, from wide-mouthed A-line dresses to tops and skirts. It’s meant to be received. New year festival. However, Ghana’s unstable economy has forced many to eschew the tradition.

“Since the coronavirus outbreak, schools have started to reopen in December, which means most people are thinking about how their sons and daughters will go to school,” said a 55-year-old man. said. Schools are usually closed in December, but many schools have changed their schedules after the pandemic-induced holidays. “There is no money anymore. People prefer to spend their money on other things, or go buy small things.”

The “smaller” brands Yeboah refers to are the much cheaper versions of African wax prints that have flooded markets in Ghana and across Africa for years, giving stiff competition to the “original” manufacturers. . Fabrics imported from China often have designs that imitate famous brands and are sold at one-third to one-tenth the price. Some are outright counterfeits, with typographical labels that claim to be recognizable brands.

However, although these Chinese-made fabrics have a bad reputation, some say that their quality has improved, with flashy designs becoming chic and colors that do not fade even after washing.

“Some people say that’s fine,” Yeboah said. “The originals are too expensive, so I don’t even sell them myself,” she added, pointing to her inventory. She sells Hitarget, a popular Chinese-made brand that is seen as a high-quality, cheaper alternative to big-name brands, and is far ahead of the curve when it comes to “small” products.

“It’s 90 cedis (about $8). People can afford it,” Yeboah said, picking up a blue and orange geometric print. “Even if people don’t have the money to buy something big, they will at least buy something before leaving the market.”

ankara in accra
Some of the Ankara fabrics at Makola Market in Accra, Ghana [Shola Lawal/Al Jazeera]

Made in the Netherlands, loved in Africa

The origins of this colorful fabric, primarily known as Ankara, have come to embody the essence of the continent’s African-ness, and for the diaspora wanting to stay connected to their roots, it is not African at all. .

The material originated in the 1800s when Dutch merchants attempted to mass-produce by machine the intricate handmade designs of Javanese batik prints, which are native to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Designs made with wax-resist dyeing, which leaves the same intensity of color on both sides of a plain cotton spread, did not catch on. However, European printers soon discovered that their invention was attracting unexpected attention elsewhere: in Africa.

Several Europeans, including Dutch manufacturer Pieter Ventenaar van Vlissingen, 22, produce the raw material in bales, cut it in their gardens, ship it to bustling cities like Accra and trade with other countries. A businessman came to buy. they. According to mythology, the name “Ankara” came from Hausa traders from various parts of West Africa who wanted to name the country after the place where they bought their fabrics, namely Accra.

In West and Central Africa, boldly colored fabrics sparked a style revolution. People, especially women, wore this material everywhere: weddings, naming ceremonies, burials. Soon, new fabrics were being developed, such as the rustic blue tie-dyed adire of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, and the flashy hand-woven kente of the Ashanti and Ewe tribes of Ghana, which are heavy and unsuitable for everyday wear like Ankara. It has surpassed the material.

Vlissengen’s company was at the forefront of a new era.

“We’ve had our ups and downs for 177 years, but we plan to be here for another 100 years,” said Perry Oosting, CEO of Friesengen’s company, now called Briscoe, at the Helmond office. told Al Jazeera. The brand has become the continent’s most popular wax print maker, portraying itself as an “original” luxury brand amidst a sea of ​​Chinese-made fakes and imitations. His 6-yard Vlisco costs as much as 220 cedis ($200), while imitations cost much less.

“If you’re successful, you’re going to be imitated,” Osting said. Vlisco has used his QR codes to trademark his designs and is currently training customs officials in one of his largest markets, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to spot counterfeits. However, competition from smaller companies still exists.

“We’ve been through a lot over the years and we’ve built resilience because of it,” Osting said, adding that the fake was not the worst Vrisko had ever seen. He added that there was no. “We’ve seen coups and wars in Africa. We intend to stay here longer.”

ankara vendors in lagos
A man selling unsewn cloth, locally known as “ankara”, walks down a street in the Agege area of ​​Lagos, Nigeria, on June 22, 2016. [Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters]

Nana Benz era

In the early days of African wax printing, entrepreneurial African women collaborated with European manufacturers like Vlisco to invent beautiful new patterns that were also loaded with meaning, and to purchase exclusive distribution rights. did.

In Togo, where Kwame Nkrumah’s protectionist policies in Ghana had relocated the market, ‘Nana Benz’ became particularly adept at monopolizing printmaking. A group of several female traders were essential to Vlisco’s success.

Nana Benz enjoyed great success from the 1960s to the 1980s, becoming one of Togo’s first female millionaires and the only one who could afford a luxury Mercedes-Benz car, earning her the nickname Nana Benz. It was attached.

But now, with Ankara production moving to China, Nana Benz has been forgotten.

So too did the local wax print brands that emerged during Africa’s independence era in the mid-20th century, seeking to localize Ankara’s production and claim to be entirely African, breaking the stranglehold of European printing companies like Vlisco. It was made. It is still produced in the Netherlands.

In 1966, Ghana established the Ghana Textile Printing Company (GTP) with the government holding a majority stake. Around the same time, Akosombo His Textiles Limited (ATL), which was particularly popular for its Adinkra symbols borrowed from the Gyaman people, also appeared. In Nigeria, the Union of Textile Mills of Nigeria (UNTL) has partnered with Hong Kong’s Cha Group to open a factory in northern Kaduna state. In Ivory Coast, Uniwax was created through a partnership between the Ivorian government and British consumer goods manufacturer Unilever.

But a combination of government policies, counterfeit products, lack of infrastructure and unavailability of locally produced cotton forced many printers to close or sell out, leaving hundreds of textile workers without jobs.

GTP and Uniwax are now subsidiaries of Vlisco. Vrisko’s Oostings said that while its subsidiaries produce locally, Vrisko itself has no immediate plans to move its manufacturing from Helmond to the continent.

Some brands are looking to localize production again but are facing similar problems.

Lomé’s Winawax is locally designed but manufactured in China due to power shortages, Marlene Adanrete Jondo, founder and descendant of Nana Benz, told Jeune Afrik. Producing in China is an attempt to adapt at all costs while offering reasonable prices.

“It is true that Uniwax in Ivory Coast and GTP in Ghana were acquired by Vlisco due to a lack of funding,” said Adanrete Jondo. “We don’t want that future for Winna Wax.”

soft touch

With all kinds of small products flooding the market, it can be difficult to distinguish which are good small products and which are bad small products.

In Makola, young women sell rolled “smalls” balanced on flat trays on their heads. All brands have words like “Guaranteed” or “Genuine Wax” on the edge.

But Accra fashion designer Augustina Otoo says that regardless of the name, brand or words printed on the fabric, it’s the feel of the Ankara fabric and its quality that determines which is high quality and which is substandard. He said it’s about flexibility.

While most cheap imports use cheaper grades of cotton in their production, sometimes even mixing fabrics such as polyester with the cotton, genuine loincloths are made entirely of cotton, said Otoo, 26. added. Although high-quality Ankara fabrics are soft to the touch and deform with the heat of an iron, some small items lack such formability and are difficult to sew into the elaborate styles demanded by customers.

“Some feel like rubber, and some feel like paper,” Oto said, laughing at his own analogy. “I’ve sewn a lot. When I iron it, it becomes stiff and crumbly. And even when I want to straighten it, it stays stiff. I put something shiny on it, and when I wash it, it stays stiff. The color will fade. It won’t last more than three months.”

But that didn’t stop customers from buying.

“There are a lot of new designs this season, especially in smaller sizes,” Otoo said. There’s little she can do to convince customers to buy more of her authentic brands, she added. She said, “I’m just providing a service and collecting money.”

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