Kind Style

Where did the clothing industry in Zambia & Malawi go? What happened?

How Western industries are ruining the craftmanship of clothing manufacturing

As I visited both Zambia and Malawi recently, I like to know a lot about the local Fashion Industry. What works here? How do people like to dress? And where do clothes come from? I understand it’s different from our fashion culture and resources may differ a lot, as well as the cultural perspective on clothing. Nevertheless, everyone needs clothes so, therefore, there is always an existing clothing industry. I reached out to several people during my stay and what I figured out, really shocked me!

Crafmanship and Passion

In both Zambia and Malawi, people are very developed to do fine handcrafts and it has become their specialty. They create incredible fine garments, mostly by hand and sometimes with sewing machines. They work very precisely, especially compared to other manufacturing countries in the world. It has been their specialty for ages and until the end of the 90’s both Zambia & Malawi had a big fashion industry with many manufacturers and suppliers. But by the beginning of the 2000’s, things started to change slightly. And today, only small local manufacturers with max 10 employees are doing garment manufacturing, mainly for their own market.

So what happened?

China & the West ruined it

The change came from both sides of the world – from China and from the West. Let me start by explaining the Chinese part.

China

In China, two main reasons made the change for Africa. The first one is the one-child-policy – making the government deciding every family should get one child. This policy has been existing for a long time, but in 2013 it changed in China. They came with a two-child-policy, allowing every family to have two children. But the government decided, that if you get two kids, one is for China and one is for Africa. China somehow finds its’ solution in ‘helping’ Africa by sending its people.

Next to that, China has had a problem with its’ prisoners in the past. When the problem couldn’t be solved easily, China decided to send its’ prisoners to Africa. These prisoners got citizenship and after they got released, a lot of them never returned to China.

So now there is a substantial amount of Chinese people in Africa and they found their way to earn an income: importing cheap goods from China and selling them on the African market. As in most countries the GNP (gross national product) is rather low, the products gained popularity quickly. Chinese stores started popping up everywhere and nowadays the Asian fashion stores are mostly leading the market.

The West

And then there was the West. During the ’90’s and ’00’s fast fashion gained popularity in the West and therefore we created a massive volume of second-hand fashion. We simply got too much and didn’t know what to do with the pieces we don’t wear (anymore). We prioritized the latest Fashion so there has been an overload of clothes and during this time the solution came to mind, to help those who don’t have that much: sending clothes to Africa. This solution made us feel like we helped out, while in the meantime we got rid of our ‘problem.’ A win-win solution so to see. But what we never thought of, if the impact our solution has made to the economy of the African countries. With our second-hand clothing industry being pushed to third-world countries, we created a huge trade business in Africa. When a ship with second-hand clothing arrives in the capital, many businessmen travel to buy in bulk. These bulks are re-sold in smaller cities where local market merchants sell their specialized products on the market. So when you walk around on a local market, you see a market stall with Western bags, a market stall with Western shoes or a market stall with dresses. In bigger cities, you even find second-hand clothing stores that look like fashion stores – just selling Western second-hand fashion.

Vans or Nike’s anyone? A sneaker-stall at the local market in Lilongwe
A stall full of dresses on the market in Livingstone, Zambia
The situation today

So nowadays, when you walk around Livingstone or Lilongwe for instance, you will find fashion around you. In stores and on the market. But all they offer is either Western second-hand fashion or Chinese cheap and fast-fashion. It’s almost impossible to find any local manufacturer or tailor in here. Tailoring has been a craftmanship for ages, but today it is not worth it to learn it anymore. As the job is not guaranteed with income anymore, due to the huge competition of the Chinese and the West. This is so shocking to me, I never knew how the local fashion industry is ruined!

The solution

We may not be able to turn things around, we may not be able to stop the Chinese citizens from importing their fashion. But for me it is important to highlight the impact of our ‘problem’ with too much clothes. To explain what we did, without even noticing it. To show what our addiction to fast-fashion did. Even if it is hard, we will need to turn this situation around. If we would be able to slow down our fashion behavior, buy more conscious and stop digesting fast fashion in the way we did before – we may be able to give the manufacturing industry of these countries a chance. Because in the end we ruined it. I really hope we can change things around.

I love a local manufacturing company and the craftsmanship that is still visible there

This topic is extremely relevant in alignment with my blog about the local manufacturing company Taste of Malawi – you can read the blog about my visit here