In Ghana, if one were to attend a Sunday church service or any special occasion like a wedding, funeral, outdooring etc., they are likely to encounter a colorful display of traditional print garments all around. Most of them would likely be from the prominent local brands such as GTP and Akosombo Textiles or the iconic Kente fabrics. These traditional fabrics are often custom made for church service or special occasions. The local brand designs from GTP, Akosombo, and others often combine many different patterns and designs to make for a dazzling colorful display. The Kente fabrics have always derived their uniqueness and appeal not just from their unique colorful designs and patterns, but from their intricately woven material. For centuries, skilled weavers in rural communities made livelihoods out of weaving Kente garments.
Traditional design clothing is visible in other ways in the country too. Public and private institutions alike have adopted this (voluntary) ‘National Friday Wear’ policy designed to encourage people to wear traditional print clothing to work. For the most part, people seem happy to participate, and if nothing else, makes for a feel-good atmosphere. Even the Ghanaian President, Nana Akuffo-Addo, has made a bit of an impression when he appears at state functions adorned in traditional print attire. I guess this could be seen as refreshing since that is quite unusual for a president, not least for the industry he implicitly supports by doing so. To the extent that it promotes public support for cultural apparel, that is a good thing.
The sad reality is that it is more likely that most of the traditional print garments seen in public – including yes, those worn by the president – are fake. They are mostly cheap imports from China. Their introduction into the market has had a devastating impact on the local textile industry.
Growing up as a child in my hometown of Accra, Ghana, there were only a few opportunities to wear traditionally designed clothing. Between school uniforms and western clothes for Sunday church service, the opportunities to wear this attire were few and far between. That changed little when I entered high school (boarding school), where we were required to wear specifically prescribed traditional garments for school functions. Now living in America, I notice that I now own and wear more traditional clothing than I ever did back home, although these are mostly for cultural events and special occasions. For most adults in the country, wearing traditional clothing is almost completely done for a special occasion – weddings, funerals, state functions and parties.
Women are by far the greatest patrons of traditional design garments in Ghana. They have a particular interest in traditional design fabrics so much so that many have a network of friends, suppliers, and tailors to help them in their textile purchases and fashion choices. Indeed, all TV commercials from the main local brands such as GTP and Akosombo Textiles are almost exclusively targeted towards women. For many years, the industry has come to depend upon them not only for their business but now sadly, for their very survival as well.
The phenomenon of fake textiles, often carbon copies of local designs, has overtaken the market in recent years. These garments are made in the manufacturing hub of southern China then imported into loosely regulated ports in Ghana’s neighbors, Togo and Cote D’Ivoire. They are then smuggled into Ghana and sold at significantly cheaper prices – sometimes half the price of established brands. This, of course, has been very problematic for the local fabric industry. The market has now seen smuggled counterfeit imports controlling about 60% of the market. As a result, local manufacturers can barely survive – let alone compete – in such a climate, and the statistics paint a pretty grim picture.
An industry that employed over 30,000 people some three decades ago, now has only about a tenth of that number remaining. Most of the leading manufacturers and their associated factories have closed down. GTP is one of only four factories still operational, with only about 650 staff remaining. Its production levels have dropped some 30% since 2005. An industry that was previously fiercely local and even enjoyed some form of state-sponsorship is now in the throes of foreign ownership. GTP is owned by Vlisco, a Dutch company itself owned by a British private equity group. Akosombo Textiles, another leading Ghanaian manufacturer, is now owned by the Hong Kong-based Cha Group. Now, a vast majority of sales for these companies now come from custom orders for special occasions. Today, even the iconic art of Kente weaving is dying thanks in large part to the influx of counterfeit Kente print fabrics in the country.
One of the things I’ve always found striking as I matured into young adulthood back home, was this obsession people had over everything foreign. Far beyond the usual disdain for certain aspects of foreign culture that some locals found “destructive”, there has been this interest in buying everything that is produced abroad. In the past, this attitude typically applied to most consumer goods and hardly touched the traditional fabric sector. The inundation of this industry by counterfeits is fairly new in the Ghanaian experience. Until something is done to stem and reverse this trend, the original cultural fabric industry will completely cease to exist in only a few years.
For their part, the local traditional garment industry has attempted to strike back. In 2015, it partnered with the government to form a Joint Anti-Piracy Task Force to crack down on the smuggled print fabrics. This saw teams of enforcers randomly entering market squares and shops seizing garments and then making a spectacle of burning the fake garments. Furthermore, GTP itself has partnered with a local tech company, mPedigree which in partnership with Premium African Textiles, has developed their GoldKeys technology to help traders detect fake garments when making purchases. This technology is similar to that previously used to help quash illegal counterfeit drugs in West Africa.
For this comeback to be sustained requires solutions far beyond confiscating clothes and burning them in public. For the main brands, a partnership with mPedigree is a good idea but more needs to be done including opening up exclusive shops with designated sales personnel to help sell their clothes rather than mixing up with fake goods retailers in the open market. The government needs a more drastic change in approach beyond a Task Force. Sellers cannot be merely shooed off because they’re selling imported goods, even if they are fakes. It makes for an odd situation when the entire market is filled with imports anyway and yet sellers are told not to sell imported (fake) goods. What does that really mean?
But if Ghanaian traditional garments are to be continued to be held in high regard, it is essential they retain not just their cultural value but also their production value as well. The manufacturers and sellers need to change their supply chain and the way they check for counterfeits. The public also needs to be better educated on the threats counterfeit fabric imports pose to the industry and the stakes involved. The traditional print fabrics become less wholesome when they are replaced by fakes, and the Kente fabric people are so proud of loses its cultural value if there no more weavers.
If the government is at all serious about promoting and supporting the local industry, not just traditional fabrics, then it needs to do a whole lot more than merely burn counterfeits. It can, for example, create a procurement policy for its departments, agencies, and bureaus exclusively favoring the local textile industry. It would be very weird if say, the government imported fabrics for school uniforms for public school kids, from China rather than from local sources. Oh wait, never mind! That is currently the case, and the irony isn’t lost on me.