To some Western eyes, Africa seems like a vastly different place than it was in 2007, when Lemlem was founded and U2’s Bono visited the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Germany, where he advocated that the leaders of European, American and other leaders forgive their loans to Africa.
Although scourges like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria — diseases the group of nations pledged $60 billion to fight — continue to plague the continent and represent many of the struggles it faces, Africa has since become more attractive to investors thanks to its fast-growing economies.
Just two years earlier, Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, founded Edun, a ready-to-wear company that aimed to promote African fair trade and production.
LVMH acquired a 49 percent stake in Edun in 2009, but it has struggled to gain its fashion footing, due in part to a rotating roster of creative directors, as well as an unfocused manufacturing strategy which included producing garments in places like Portugal.
Today, however, after many iterations, Edun makes 80 percent of its goods in Africa, mainly in Kenya and Madagascar.
The other 20 percent is entirely done in the United States. Edun’s creative structure has transformed as well.
Instead of replacing the the most recent creative director Danielle Sherman with another head designer, a “design collective” currently runs that department. There are no immediate plans to install a new public-facing lead, according to the company.
“Manufacturing in Africa is expensive, the training is expensive, the quality control is expensive,” says Edun chief executive Julien Labat, who about 20 months ago. “We have more than 10 years of experience to rely upon.”
But while Edun has managed to make good on its mission to encourage fair trade on the continent, Labat says that its future success will partially rely on other labels taking a chance on Africa.
The group of upscale brands that do a significant amount of manufacturing in the country remain close-knit, sharing resources in a way that is rarely seen with designers who produce in Europe, the United States or Asia.
In 2016, Artisan Fashion, a Kenya-based production company that makes accessories for well-known brands including Karen Walker, Vivienne Westwood and United Arrows, produced more than 72,000 units, working with more than 1,000 artisans.
The Lagos-based Maki Oh, designed by former LVMH Prize finalist Amaka Osakwe and worn by the likes of Michelle Obama, is produced in Nigeria.
And Eklund’s Bantu Wax is not only produced in Africa, but sold there as well. At one time, the self-funded line, founded in 2009, was sold at Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue and Beams.
But Ecklund soon realised that the retail opportunity was in Africa itself, with a surf culture ignored by Western brands. “I pulled out of my wholesale and opened stores in Morocco, Senegal, and Cape Town,” Eklund says. “I’m trying to build the Quiksilver of Africa.”
In some ways, these early, higher-fashion entrants are also being buoyed by the cheap manufacturing that is taking place across the continent.
While Africa collections from fast fashion retailers including H&M and ASOS have made headlines, there is a serious contingent of retailers — and the third-party manufacturers they contract — that have made Africa a priority.
To be sure, the majority of apparel goods are, and will continue to be, made in Asian countries including Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh, where labour is still relatively cheap and plentiful and the infrastructure is already in place.
However, in China, the world’s apparel manufacturing leader, average manufacturing wages have increased by 80 percent since 2010.
For now, the consumer has been protected from these costs. The rising prices of rent, labour and energy have been masked by the decline in prices of commodities, meaning that retail prices of goods have been static for several years.
But soon, the increase in costs will outweigh the decrease in commodity prices, forcing retailers to raise suggested retail prices.
China’s textile exports, for instance, dropped 5 percent in 2015 to $286.8 billion, according to one report. Spurred by changing circumstances in the Far East, many manufacturers are building factories in Africa.
In 2015, Chinese officials made a pledge to help ensure more than 50 percent of Africa’s GDP will be manufacturing by 2063.
What’s more, for many Western companies, Africa is a fresh start: An opportunity to build facilities and processes that are more environmentally friendly, and to ensure the safety of workers.
For many companies implicated in 2013’s Rana Plaza factories disaster, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,100 people, improved working environments have been underscored in their public corporate responsibility policies.