Analysis in brief: Once thriving, Ghana’s garment and textile industry collapsed under the weight of cheap Asian imports and international development treaties. However, the 2020s has seen the beginnings of a comeback for Ghana’s clothes makers due to savvy marketing, utilisation of social media and a crop of talented local designers, making high fashion of distinction.
Ghana – the origin of Africa’s most iconic fabric, the Kente cloth – had the continent’s largest garment and textile (G&T) industry. Its demise has been a sad case study for economic planners, the end of employment for thousands and a national tragedy for Ghana itself. At its height in the 1970s, the G&T industry had 16 major manufacturers that, along with 138 medium- to large-registered garment manufacturers, employed over 25,000 people.
The beginning of the end came when Ghana’s floundering economy required financial assistance and developmental aid was also sought. Global lending bodies had their terms: trade liberalisation would have to become government’s economic policy. This was done when an open economy was established in the 1980s. By the 1990s, Ghana’s thriving G&T industry had been gutted as cheap, sometimes second-hand clothing flooded the market from Europe, the Americas and especially from India. Local firms could not compete on price, and even after the fad of owning real European clothes (albeit already worn garments), the low incomes or poverty of most Ghanaians ensured that cheap imports would find customers.
Cheating China hammers final nail into Ghana’s G&T coffin
What was supposed to be a chance for Ghana to create jobs and raise revenues by having its products allowed into the big US market without quotas or duties imposed, through the trade treaty the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), proved to be a Trojan Horse. The Act allowed Chinese businesses, which were already flooding the Ghanaian market in the 2000s, with fake Kente cloth and cheap clothing to use Ghana as a transhipment point to bring their goods into the US. Chinese companies would either set up factories in Ghana to label Chinese-made goods to be of Ghanaian origin, while the generated profits would benefit China, or simply pass Chinese-made goods through Ghanaian businesses, where misleading point of origin labels were affixed. The goods would then be sent to the US, where goods originating from China itself were excluded from AGOA. The savings on import duties was huge for China, while Ghanaian firms were again unable to compete. Government corruption and Ghanaian customs officials’ willingness to be bribed to look the other way allowed Chinese goods to be turned into Ghanaian goods.
By 2016, Ghana’s G&T exports had fallen to their lowest level since the nation’s independence in 1957. Only US$ 24 million in Ghanaian clothing was exported that year, less than one-tenth the value of the US$ 285 million exported in 2011. Employment in the sector plummeted from 25,000 in 2005 to 2,000 in 2016. For decades, media stories had documented the demise of this once-thriving sector of Ghana’s economy, and the phrase “failed industry” was so extensively used it became a cliché.
Reform, innovation, government support and fashion talent results in a regeneration
Ghana’s G&T industry never entirely disappeared. Better marketing ensured that the world understood that authentic, quality Kente cloth originated in Ghana, as well as traditional African garments that were made locally. These garments are popular in Western and Southern Africa. By 2020, employment had tripled to 6,000 and export value had risen to US$ 30 million.
Government policy reform was key to the rise in the fortunes of the G&T industry because Accra found the political will to salvage the country’s apparel sector. The Ministry of Trade and Industry assisted with the establishment of the Association of Ghana Apparel Manufacturers, a business network of related companies that ensured co-ordinated marketing messaging. Rather than punish China for its AGOA duplicity, government invited Chinese firms in 2018 to set up legitimate factories, which like all G&T factories were facilitated in government’s 2019 budget measures. These included a crack-down on unfair trade practices, an elimination of value-added tax on locally made textiles and investment in new dedicated manufacturing hubs. The US Agency for International Development backed these initiatives by investing in the West Africa Trade and Investment Hub, devised as a template for manufacturing that offers high wages, sound infrastructure, good working conditions and modern equipment.
Some Ghanaian companies responded by significantly boosting investment in their own factories, such as Tex Styles Ghana Limited that has produced high-quality West African printed fabrics and clothing for more than 60 years. Since 2020, the firm has expanded its production. Accra’s Adjabeng Free Zone Enclave has seen the establishment of the Dignity DTRT factory, a US-Ghanaian joint venture that employs 1,500 workers to produce 130,000 shirts a week. Established in 2005, the UK firm Sixteen47 has expanded to be the leading exporter of Ghanaian-style plus-sized garments. Marketing throughout Western and Southern Africa has been key to drawing attention to Ghanaian fashion designers, boosting the fortunes of the House of Damaris, Nallem Clothing and Yvonne Exclusive Designs. Their success led to the establishment of Duaba Serwa, with its trademark stylish unisex sportswear that is marketed online and has earned a five-star rating from Google. Another firm, Sleek Garments Export Limited, was established by top talent in the fashion industry with the mission of promoting the next generation of Ghanaian fashion designers. As if to show that a rise in Ghana’s G&T fortunes can be duplicated elsewhere in Africa, Sleek Garments has opened a factory in Rwanda, whose government has dropped import duty for its products and services to enter the country.
Competition from fake and cheap imports remains a challenge. However, the regeneration of Ghana’s G&T industry proceeds upon a solid foundation of trade reform, high fashion and product quality. Internet marketing and cost-cutting new technology combined with governments’ support have also been factors in the industry’s comeback.
The critical points:
- Unfair trade practices in recent decades decimated Ghana’s once-thriving garment and textile industry
- Government’s desire to save the industry led to policies that attracted private investment, reviving businesses and attracting new firms
- An emphasis on quality goods and high fashion resulted in attractive goods that were effectively marketed on the internet