Africa intrigues and inspires the world. Some recent examples prove it: the Gucci Summer 2019 collection; the Dior cruise 2019 collection, inspired by African fashion with some fabrics printed in Côte d’Ivoire; the Milan fashion week 2021 opened by the Fab Five, five designers from Africa. And so on.
This enthusiasm should not make us forget that this creative exception is fragile and could leave the continent. A parallel can be drawn with the extractive industries. While our subsoil is extraordinarily wealthy, the spin-offs for the continent have been minimal. How can we ensure that the talent of African creative entrepreneurs is recognised worldwide and produces long-term benefits for the continent?
It is wrong to think that the small number of African designers would explain the limited development of the sector on the continent. A lot of African designers are distinguished by their talent and enjoy international recognition. For example, we can cite the Ivorian designer Loza Maleombho, and the high-end brands Christie Brown, and Lisa Folawiyo, respectively Ghanaian and Nigerian. They prove that scaling up is possible. How can we enable them to go even further?
Several obstacles prevent African designers from becoming international creative entrepreneurs. First, the local value chain is sub-optimal, undermined by obsolete production tools and a lack of local expertise due to poor access to training. This contrasts with the immense savoir-faire and creative capacity of African crafts. Logistical and industrial costs also affect local production, limiting the ability of some designers to meet demand.
In addition to these bottlenecks, the difficult access to finance is the major constraining factor for the creative world. Creators often operate in the informal sector and often have neither the management capacity nor the financial resources to utilise bank loans. As a result, commercial banks are extremely reluctant to lend to them.
However, the accelerated digitalisation of the continent is changing the African creative universe and represents an unprecedented opportunity for investors. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated fundamental changes in Africa’s economic progress. African brands are using the internet and social networks as distribution and promotion tools: the internet has brought them to the world. For brands that have successfully digitised their distribution network, there has been an average increase in sales volume of 40 to 45% during the COVID period, with an explosion in international sales.
Digital Native Vertical Brands (DNVB) represent the future for African designers. It is a question of being able to propose a hybrid physical and digital model, “phygital”, to accompany them in their international expansion and growth strategy. The new modes of support and financing for African creative industries must take account of this new situation.
Building sustainable brands, especially in the luxury sector takes time, and above all requires a more patient financial support. Depending on the business maturity of companies, several solutions are possible. It could be strategic and operational support for brands wishing to have a non-investor institutional partner to accompany their expansion; investment at the incubation, acceleration, or growth capital stages; training, coaching, and capacity building through the implementation of programmes in collaboration with international partners, such as the acceleration programme recently launched by Birimian with the French Fashion Institute.
In this context of multiplying initiatives working to promote African creation, it is becoming urgent to define the modes of support for this young creative guard, which is still fragile, so that this overexposure does not penalise its sustainable and lasting growth.
The time has come to sublimate, strengthen, support, and accompany the African creative exception.
Birimian is an investment company founded by Laureen Kouassi Olson. The company is dedicated to the financial, strategic and operational support of luxury and premium brands of African heritage.