Africa from cotton to factory to retail discussion

By IndepthAfrica
In Fashion
Apr 14th, 2012


We love our external contributors here at Africa Fashion Guide as we always try to bring you a different voice to give different opinions from specialists in the field. For April, we were very privileged to have the Christian J Smith, the CSR Manager of ASOS.comagree to write a feature for Africa Fashion Guide. With a background in the environmental impact of the fashion industry and a career that has taken him around the world, we knew that Christian has a vast knowledge and expertise that would be welcomed by yourselves, our readers. So we asked Christian to write up his thoughts and breakdown this much controversial topic:

Africa – from Cotton to Factory to Retail: Is this the Textile Region of the Future?

Read up more to hear what he has to share and we encourage  you to comment, to challenge, to share your thoughts knowledge and expertise too.


Despite all the knowledge we have regarding the social and environmental impact of the fashion industry, it is by no means guaranteed that new, better ways of production will be established as the industry moves from country to country. This migration usually happens as companies look for the lowest production costs. New knowledge should lead to new ways of thinking and operating but with so many companies benefitting from old, dirty and at times unjust methods of clothing production, few are willing to adapt.

There has been a lot of focus on Africa in the last couple of years. It’s seen as the last unconquered continent, one filled with natural resources (mobile phone components, diamonds, wildlife) and a growing yet relatively poor working age population. For the captains of industry this means a continent ripe for exploitation despite, or perhaps because of, the weak levels of governance that exist in certain African countries. For countries desperate for foreign exchange, the cash offers coming from multinationals and wealthy countries often leads to short term reactions from governments – money in exchange for cash, which then disappears due to a lack of transparency.

Trade not AID has been a recent focal point in terms of dealing with issues relating to poverty in this region and with good reason. Working with Africans to develop and learn how to run businesses in a globalised world is essential to the development of the continent. Yet one must be weary of the very side effects that the West does not want in its back yard, that middle class Chinese now complain about and have left Indian children suffering with deformities. These are threatening the development process in Africa. For example Endosulfan and Aldicarb are two pesticides used in the cotton industry. Endosulfan is thought to be the most important source of fatal poisoning among cotton farmers in West Africa. Aldicarb, a powerful nerve agent, is one of the most toxic pesticides applied to cotton worldwide classified by the World Health Organisation classification as “extremely hazardous”. In addition, 5 of the top 9 pesticides used in cotton are KNOWN cancer causing chemicals. Cotton production is not just an economics issue but also one of public health.

With the ideal conditions for Cotton cultivation being between 11 and 25 degrees in dry tropical and subtropical climate, certain African locations are ideal.

Cotton is already grown in Benin, Cameroon, Senegal, Niger and Mali but represents only around 8% of global production.

For that share to rise, water and pesticide use need to be taken into consideration. The decimated Aral Sea is a good indication of how NOT to do it. Projects such as Cotton Made in Africa have the right idea helping farmers reduce pesticide use by 30% while promoting rain fed cultivation rather than the irrigation systems which wreaked so much havoc in central Asia. As the price of oil rises it is crucial that farmers find a way to wean themselves off fertilisers which will take up and increasing amount their annual spend. Moving towards a higher level of sustainability through embracing natural farming methods such as perma-culture and agro-ecology methods could enable farmers to diversify their ranges while helping them to be more resilient to climate change issues such as extreme weather.

The Great Cotton Stitch-up report – African cotton – image copyright – Fairtrade Foudnation

This transition also opens the door to other types of fibres that can be created within the continent. it is important to look at alternative fibres perhaps developing niche markets within Africa. Creating clothing from hemp, indigenous bamboo species, flax, pineapple and banana are some of the possibilities.

Once the cotton is produced, a considerable amount of it leaves the continent before being processed. Much of the materials used to produce African clothing actually come from China now as local markets are unable to compete with Chinese prices. Like many natural African resources, the raw material is taken out of the continent and the higher value products are made elsewhere. Around 60% of African cotton comes from the West African Basin[i], which should give enough volume to ensure that it can be processed within that part of the continent. A lack of regional cooperation and cross-border trade make that a very difficult proposition.

In the case of one major retailer, it was easier, though not necessarily cheaper to source cotton fabric from China for a collection made in Kenya. In fashion, speed and efficiency are of utmost importance and Africa is suffering.

Crucially, as oil prices continue to rise making it more expensive to ship goods from place to place to be put together, it becomes gradually more important for regional cooperation and the ability to provide a one stop shop for the fashion industry.

I find it slightly amusing and somewhat patronising that western countries look at the demographics of China, India and Africa, see similarities in population and suppose that they can carry out the same practices. The youthful and relatively poor population of Africa bares resemblance to China 20 or 30 years ago and to some extent to India today. The simple conclusion that tends to be reached is that one can simply move the factories established in China over to Africa and work will continue as usual. There is one major oversight in this thinking. Believe it or not, Africans are not Chinese. There is a different mentality and a different history that makes the prospect of massive factories with dormitories where workers toil 6 or 7 days a week a pipe dream. That way of working does not suit the continent.

Workshop belonging to one of the Global Mamas in Cape Coast, Ghana

The future of clothing production in Africa is not, I believe, large-scale factories, but small to medium-sized production units, capable of producing lower volumes but higher quality garments for both local and global markets. This opens the door for local and international designers to have a true collaboration with production houses in Africa and adds a rich story telling aspect to retailers.

The vastness and diversity of the African continent means that it should become a rich hub for textiles in the coming years. African countries need to stand up for their people and not allow the same levels of exploitation to take place as it did in China and other far-eastern countries. It is wise to take a step back to understand how we can bring long-term prosperity to Africa and the rest of the world. We are fully aware of the challenges that face the fashion industry but also of the creativity and opportunities that it can bring. From cotton to retail, Africa has an increasing role to play in this global market.

Author: Christian J. Smith – CSR Manager at

[i] Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigerian, Togo, Chad, Senegal, Central African Republic (in order of volume of production – Atlas of Regional Integration in West Africa

Main photo is copyright of Liz Cooper – Hand-spun organic cotton, Koussanar, Senegal, 2008

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