The West African Apparel Advantage

This week, West African clothing makers are at MAGIC in Las Vegas – the world’s largest apparel trade show – joining firms from across the continent to market the Africa Advantage brand.

What do West African apparel companies have to offer? USAID’s West Africa Trade and Investment Hub, managed by Abt Associates, is helping large and small companies meet international buyer demands while respecting worker health and safety. Stronger, socially responsible companies create job opportunities throughout the region, stabilizing economies and reducing a principal driver for migration.

Integrating African Manufacturers into the Global Economy 

The U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), in effect until 2025, eliminates duties on goods manufactured in eligible African countries. This spurs economic growth and poverty reduction in Africa, helps integrate Africa into the global economy, and adds an important element to the U.S.-Africa trade and investment partnership. It’s increasingly beneficial to U.S. apparel companies faced with significant increases in the cost of products coming from China.

The West Africa Advantage

West African governments have been slower to put in policies that take advantage of AGOA’s benefits, but that’s changing. Since September 2016, several West African governments have sought Trade and Investment Hub guidance to design their national AGOA strategies, with apparel in the forefront.

Many reasons exist to pursue apparel investments in West Africa, starting with its proximity to the U.S. compared with the rest of the continent. Ghana, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire have thriving boutique fashion industries. A leading manufacturer, Dignity DTRT, is laying the foundation for public and private commitment to widespread industrial garment production.

West Africa’s fledgling industry also is incorporating appropriate working conditions and environmental standards from the outset. And all this is happening just as labor costs start edging Asia out of the market, prompting buyers to look for new, lower-cost yet socially responsible manufacturing sites.

A Three-Pronged Support Strategy

The USAID Trade Hub project is building on these selling points to implement a three-part strategy for this high-potential sector:

Deliver firm-level technical know-how, management assistance, and market connections: With our partner, Ethical Apparel Africa, we’re helping firms fill skills gaps to expand offerings and employment opportunities. In Benin, we trained a firm to operate a disused machine so they could produce a shipment of high-end men’s floral shirts to the UK. In Ghana, a former fashion producer focused on women’s empowerment has doubled its workforce to meet export demand from Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.

We’re guiding two firms in Nigeria to train their workforce in pattern making, cutting, stitching, and finishing. In Côte d’Ivoire, we’re advising another former fashion brand how to lay out its new factory floor so it can increase its workforce from 30 to 200 and boost production from 300 to 1,500 shirts per day, bound for regional and global markets. These individual efforts benefit the companies as well as the industry as a whole, by setting examples and introducing standards that can be met by new entrants.

Support certification efforts and share best practices: Our industry support includes organizing Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) certification workshops, and sharing best practices in human resources management, sourcing fabric, and worker health and safety measures. Most of our leading companies like DTRT and KAD Manufacturing already have social responsibility at the core of their business. The Trade Hub advises them in how to get the certification that’s buyer shorthand for treating workers well.
 
At one of our 2016 workshops, WRAP’s Vice President Clay Hickson told apparel makers from Ghana, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire, “WRAP certification is becoming important for West African garment and textile exporters as it demonstrates a company’s commitment towards socially and environmentally ethical standards. It is also a requirement for many international retailers.”

Raise visibility of firms and the region as an apparel source: Four West African firms from Ghana, Benin and Nigeria will meet mainstream and niche buyers and learn the latest trends at Sourcing at MAGIC in Las Vegas, Feb. 20-23. These firms have received support in their outreach strategies, including the vetting of their samples and brand messaging. We’re marketing these and other companies sponsored by the three USAID African Trade Hubs — East, Southern, and West — under the “Africa Advantage” brand.

By tackling apparel industry needs at all levels, this Abt-managed project is building on West Africa’s momentum to step into the spotlight and perform. 
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