Africa’s Design Industry: From Creative Pursuits to the Business of Fashion
Adwoa .A. Agyeman
TrustAfrica and Jeh
Ms. Adwoa Agyeman is a Ghanaian-American designer and social entrepreneur currently based in Senegal. Raised by Ghanaian parents on the South Pacific island of Papua New Guinea, Ms. Agyeman has always been drawn to the richness and versatility of indigenous design. At Smith College, Ms. Agyeman majored in Government and minored in African Studies. She currently works at TrustAfrica, an organization committed to fostering African agency and enterprise. TrustAfrica works to build institutions and human capacity, and to strengthen opportunities for resource development and mobility. Ms. Agyeman’s writings explore innovative philanthropic giving and fundraising in Africa, cross-cultural exchange in development, and design culture in the developing world. Outside her career in philanthropy, Ms. Agyeman’s emerging design practice allows her to maintain relationships with entrepreneurs in communities that have emerged as arts and design centers in Ghana and Senegal. Her lifestyle brand, Jeh by A.Agyeman, features clothing, accessories, and home decor that meld traditional flare with modern functionality through designs that are simultaneously fashion-forward and reflective of her multicultural heritage. Collaborative work in the design sector in West Africa and professional responsibilities related to supporting the sustainable growth of entrepreneurial concepts and communities across the continent give Ms. Agyeman firsthand insight into how entrepreneurship and development can converge strategically to allow local fashion production that anchors self-sustaining communities.
Africa has inspired Western fashion and visual culture for decades. Constant appropriation of African design and textile ingenuity by the global fashion industry moves profits abroad and subverts cultural dynamics. However, a new generation of African designers has begun and is gaining global recognition and pioneering strategies to market and brand fashion concepts grounded in cultural heritage.
I will focus on strategies to legitimize, strengthen and protect Africa’s design industry: protecting intellectual cultural property, and building foundational structures to support a continent-wide fashion industry with the capacity to grow, thrive, and contribute strategically to economic growth. My interdisciplinary approach draws upon interviews, Afropolitan media, design blogs, and my own collaborations with entrepreneurs in communities that have emerged as art and design centers in Ghana and Senegal. I analyze global fashion dynamics in terms of connections between the realms of creative design, economics (marketing, patterns of production, market segmentation, business development, and entrepreneurship), and social anthropology (economic and political organization, law, and patterns of consumption and exchange).
A more formalized textile and design industry needs to be nurtured to get African products to local, regional, and global consumers. Small- and medium-scale clothing and textile entrepreneurs already contribute to Africa’s economic development, particularly in Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana. To become competitive, profitable, and sustainable, the next steps include developing marketable design content, deepening business processes and mechanisms of mass production, and establishing effective marketing and distribution channels. Government support to develop and promote cultural industries is vital; relevant strategies need to be consistently integrated into national development agendas. I close by looking at emerging best practices from South Africa’s Clothing and Textiles Competitiveness Programme (CTCP) initiative and African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) among other initiatives, to explore what African designers need to make the jump to standardization and mass production for larger markets.