When the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was being promoted during the campaign to obtain Congressional approval, success stories were predicted for the export of African-made clothing to the United States. In the first AGOA, as well as in three successive measures, tweaks were made to facilitate ever-higher levels of African clothing exports. For awhile, these prophecies of clothing success seemed about to come true. Several African nations have led the way to a tripling of African textile and apparel exports to America since 2001: Lesotho, Madagascar, Kenya, Swaziland and Mauritius.
However, the African apparel success story began to unravel in early 2005 with the ending of the Multi-Fiber Agreement, which had limited Chinese domination of the apparel sector. Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi exports of apparel began to crowd out African apparel, especially since African producers had not protected their intellectual property rights. You began to see more Ghanaian Kente cloth produced in India than in Ghana itself. The market share, transportation and economies of scale advantages in Asian countries put the African textile and apparel sector in decline.
While it is true that the African apparel exports to America under AGOA have skyrocketed since the trade process began in 2001, AGOA apparel exports to the U.S. declined by 10.4% last year. Four of the top five African apparel exporters are lagging when today’s exports are compared to this point last year, except for Mauritius, which is slightly ahead of the previous year. There are numerous reasons for the decline. The downturn in the global economy meant fewer buyers. Continuing infrastructure and transportation difficulties eliminated the AGOA tariff advantage by increasing the cost of apparel shipment from African when compared to the shipping costs from Asian countries. The reoccurring uncertainty of the expiration of tariff benefits under AGOA led many U.S. buyers to be leery of sourcing from African suppliers. African countries that produced cotton did not achieve the vertical integration hoped for, failing to turn African cotton into African-made fabric and yarn and then into African-produced clothing.
In Nigeria, their homegrown apparel industry, already crippled by high production costs, was further undone by Asian firms taking over factories and exporting clothing to America using AGOA benefits. In Ghana, second-hand foreign clothing became a booming business, as a provision that allowed non-governmental organizations to import and sell a limited amount of such clothing was greatly abused. In Uganda, thousands of women are preparing to sue the largest apparel manufacturer for failure to observe the terms and conditions of employment under which they were hired with abuses including low wages, poor working conditions and housing men with women.
Certainly, Africa’s apparel sector is not in irreversible decline, even though woven and knit apparel only represented Africa’s sixth leading export to America last year. So-called heritage clothing surely has a niche market if marketed properly, that is, if they are sold to targeted stores catering to a clientele that values African clothing year-round. To stem the decline in African clothing sales in America, Howard University’s Africa Business Club has begun the “Purchase for Africa” initiative in conjunction with the Kingdom of Lesotho aimed at encouraging consumers to be label conscious and “look for Lesotho labels” when they shop for clothing. “Our idea is based on a belief that Africans should be empowered to take charge of their own destinies. We want to put their future in their own hands, and break Africans’ dependence on foreign aid for their daily bread,” stated a letter by the club.
That may seem like a tall order, but at least someone is trying to make a concrete contribution to Africa’s survival in a way that is surely doable. Others are fighting to ensure that legislation being considered in Congress will not give an undue advantage to Asian apparel producers to the detriment of African producers. Both tactics will be needed if African apparel is to maintain its currently small share of the American market. Those of us accustomed to being able to buy and wear dashikis, kaftans, boubous and other items produced from north to south in Africa had better keep track of and support these efforts if we want to keep supplies flowing here in the United States.