Patchy demand leaves Kenyan fashion designers high and dry

Apparel industry specialist Rajeev Arora, Chairperson Kenya Fashion Council Akinyi Odongo and Presidential Advisor on SMEs Anne Mutahi during the launch of the Fashion DNA Kenya Needs Analysis Report in Nairobi. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

A new report has dissected Kenya’s fashion industry, citing challenges in pricing and costing of local products as one of the reasons foreign clothing brands are thriving in the country.

The report by the British Council, titled Fashion DNA: Kenya Needs Analysis, argues that retailers and fashion designers in Kenya lack expert advice.

This, the report released last week in Nairobi says, continues to limit their growth and opportunities to innovate.

The report further mentions skills limitations in pricing and costing and how to merchandise and brand as some of the challenges negatively affecting the interactions between retailers and fashion designers.

This, the report says, is a sign the industry needs support.

“These challenges create further opportunities for international retailers to enter the Kenyan fashion ecosystem and flourish,” says the report.

The findings were collected between October 2019 and February 2020 with additional research conducted in April 2020.

The report describes the country’s fashion industry as “messy and unstructured.”

It is also “poorly informed and uncommunicative.” This explains why those interviewed described the Kenyan fashion scene as complex and somewhat complicated, hard to figure out and satisfy.

They also said there is a preference for Western-like apparel among the urban population. Such gaps give international brands opportunities, which they maximise.

Textile trainees at NYS headquarters in Nairobi, May 29, 2020. [David Njaaga, Standard]

One of these gaps, which the report says is major when compared to other countries, is that Kenya does not have definitive national wear.

“Global fashion trends pick up fast in the local market, and there is no definite Kenyan traditional attire or garment style as is the case with most countries in the East African Community such as Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Rwanda,” reads the report.

Additionally, the rural market also seems disinterested or unmoved by anything produced locally.

The report says despite having textile operations that could supply designers (with 17 operational textile mills as of June 2019, according to available government data), the Kenyan fashion and apparel industry is yet to make a significant mark on the global market in comparison to other developing countries such as Ethiopia and Vietnam.

“Among the reasons for the status quo, textile mills rely on older technology and suffer from low levels of skilled labour, low productivity and at the same time incur high costs of maintenance and overheads due to old equipment,” the report says.

It further notes that the global fashion industry offers a vast opportunity for developing countries such as Kenya as a sourcing destination. “The Kenyan textile and clothing industry is estimated to represent 0.6 per cent of gross domestic product and six per cent of the total manufacturing sector,” the report says.

Businesses, according to the report, still assume a wait-and-see attitude despite the 2019 revival of Rivatex the government, which offers numerous opportunities for the industry. The report also found out that local designers have been forced to use high-cost imported textiles or low-quality local fibre that require additional processing.

 “Additionally, the leather industry for fashion products and accessories suffers similar challenges,” says the report.

While a majority of local designers are involved in apparel production, with the country having an estimated 70,000 apparel manufacturing firms, a majority of them are small-scale operations and often not full-time. Others are unregistered entities.

Bales of second-hand clothes at a container in Gikomba market, Nairobi. [Jacinta Mutura, Standard]

These challenges are punctuated by the fact that the country’s clothing industry is largely second-hand, courtesy of mitumba – which are used clothes, some of them designer wears, imported from overseas.

The report notes that second-hand clothes in the country enjoy popularity and preference due to their affordability, wide variety, quality apparel and also the presence of high-end designer apparel and leather products.

“For instance, while apparel such as Versace and Gucci can be expensive when sourced new from chain outlets, they are available in the second-hand market for as low as $10 (Sh1,143),” reads the report.

The same applies to leather products such as footwear and bags, which the report says there is a perception of quality due to the variety available.

“Individuals with an appetite for fashion and trends can easily find fashionable unique apparel and footwear in the second-hand market,” says the report.

It illustrates that a luxury international brand would go for Sh70,000, while a second-hand one ranges between Sh20 and Sh1,000.

The report juxtaposes the Kenyan industry with Ethiopia’s, which it notes is estimated to boost the country’s exports by $30 billion (Sh3.4 trillion) in apparel and textiles. Germany and the United States are the major market destinations.

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