How SMEs can get better in the fashion industry

Female designer in a fashion studio [Courtesy]

The fashion industry in Kenya is largely dominated by micro, small and medium enterprises, which puts them at a disadvantage when competing with conglomerates who have dominated the global market.

How then can a local designer just starting out or with an established market match up to these multinationals that spend billions on fabrics, marketing, research and top-tier talent?

A latest report titled Fashion DNA Kenya-Needs Analysis by British Council outlines opportunities for SMEs in the sector.

Improve entrepreneurial skills

This includes business planning, product costing, financial management and how to access experts. The report notes that entrepreneurship is not a skill promoted in the education sector, yet almost half of graduates have thought of setting up a business.

“The lack of financial skills makes designer businesses appear risky and uninvestable,” the report says.

These skills as well should go hand in hand with the artistry behind fashion and design, which include how to cut, pattern and sew.

The report says the connection between fashion industry and education is generally perceived as poor.

“Only few internships are being promoted by college fashion courses. Interviewees mentioned that fashion designers prefer to encourage ‘unofficial interns’ - those who have never studied at college - to join their companies on unofficial apprenticeships, since the level of motivation is higher amongst this group who are making conscious career change choices to come into fashion,” the report explains.

Other skills lacking in many fashion designer businesses were production management, pattern cutting and sewing.

“Since many fashion designers learn these skills informally, many do not learn fashion at college and instead learn on the job when they turn to fashion design as a career change,” says the report.

It suggests signposting available trainings schemes and strengthening their financial skill development through toolkits which will make the designers more prepared for investment and improve the perception of their businesses.

“Existing training programmes and grant schemes can also focus on measuring Key Performance Indicators and having concrete data to support the viability of fashion businesses. Prefinancing for production from government will also unlock the growth potential of the SMEs,” the report says.

Supply chain

First, the report says, there needs to be a clear understanding of the categorisation and various layers of fashion manufacturing within Kenya, within which ‘fashion designer’ micro enterprises form a large constituency.

“High cost of fuel, lack of suitable locally produced textiles, and the lack of awareness of the various business models in the ecosystem are all problems affecting fashion designers,” it says.

Hence creating platforms where different stakeholders can connect and understand their business models will increase opportunities for partnership across the value chain.

A suggestion is fronted to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers to recommend that smaller operations benefit from advisory services and subsidies, so that they can improve their competitiveness like the larger scale operations.

“Partnerships between supply chain partners can also be fostered, and suitable local textiles be made available in smaller quantities for start-ups to participate,” says British Council.

The report says there is an opportunity to improve local awareness and branding through getting support to scale up the ‘Made In Kenya’ retail concept to make it more attractive to local and international consumers, and by engaging retail experts to stimulate innovation in the local market.


Businesses are heavily adopting ‘go green’ initiatives and the fashion industry is not left out. Investors are also looking into putting their money in business ideas that are friendly to the environment, either by reducing the extent of environmental degradation already done or offering solutions for the future.

Your fashion business as an entrepreneur then should also integrate the sustainability narrative.

“It is evident that the majority of fashion designer businesses in Kenya are making social or sustainable impacts, and this is an important characteristic for Kenya,” the report says. “

However, there is an apparent lack of confidence to own the narrative and to discuss and promote the social and sustainable impacts among many fashion designers.”