May 01, 2013 | By Christine S. Pomeranz

Talking Trade @ FIT: Africa, the Next Emerging Marketplace

1. We were - pleasantly - taken aback to hear about FIT's focus on Africa for the prestigiousTalking Trade@FIT program series. Tell us a little bit about what moved you both to produce this?

CP: I had initially been discussing the proposed lecture with Myles Matthews, President of the GlobalTrade and Technology Center, with whom I serve in the New York District Export Council, and Janiece Greene, Social Impact Strategist, with whom I collaborated in organizing the panel discussion on Creating Sustainable Futures: Empowering Women through the International Fashion Industry as part of the Department of International Trade and Marketing's (ITM) Talking Trade @ FIT guest lecture series.

We had seen large investments being made by China and other countries into the region and its growing middle class. For example, the 30 May, 2012 issue of Business of Fashion Daily published a global briefing, Could Africa be the Next Frontier for Fashion Retail?, indicated that, according to a report by the African Development Bank, there is already a growing middle class of 310 million in the continent and quoted the Economist Intelligence Unit as forecasting the combined expected spending capacity of its top eighteen countries at $1.3 trillion by 2030.

Janiece and I were subsequently inspired by the May 2012 cover story of L'Uomo Vogue Italia.

JG: Africa’s explosive growth and The Rebranding of Africa L’Uomo Vogue issue were incredible sources of inspiration, and helped to confirm what we already suspected: that there is an enormous amount of wealth, innovation, and undiscovered talent in Africa. The investment status of countries like South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, and Nigeria, whose economic growth recently catapulted it from a frontier to an emerging market, also influenced the decision to focus on trade in Africa. This type of growth is becoming increasingly more attractive to investors, which translates into opportunities to make the kind of infrastructure improvements (e.g., roads, energy) that have a profound impact on the fashion industry’s ability to successfully do business on the continent.

The United Nations Millennium Development Goals on poverty, gender equality and women’s empowerment also played a key role in the decision to focus on trade in Africa. In other words, how can the fashion industry be a tool for building economies, enhancing trade, developing markets, and creating jobs? As a development and microfinance professional, I am always interested in identifying ways that business can expand economic opportunities for the world’s most marginalized and disadvantaged populations, a majority of whom are women and youth. Having worked with low income populations all over the continent of Africa—from Tunisia to Kenya and everywhere in between—it is clear that regardless of the differences in culture, language, or ethnicity that what the poor need most are businesses that thrive and can reach scale.

The apparel industry, which has historically operated in newly industrialized nations, typically is the first sector to carve out export-led growth, foreign investment, multi-stakeholder partnerships, and to help close the gender gap in the supply chain. Therein lies the connection to the fashion industry, and why it was important to include panelists whose organizations have a social concept. Janice Sullivan, CEO of EDUN Americas, said it best: "Unlike many fashion brands it was not founded on a product, but an ideal" that fashion could be a powerful force for making a positive difference in Africa.

2. It was a remarkable panel of people. Was it a challenge wrangling such big names in the industry?

CP: We have been supported by Myles Matthews; ITM's advisory board; Valerie Steele, Director of theMuseum at FIT; Franca Sozzani, Editor-in-Chief of L'Uomo Vogue Italia and Goodwill Ambassador for Fashion 4 Development; Evie Evangelou, Co-founder and Global Chair, Fashion 4 Development; and Prof. Deanna Clark, who teaches in the ITM program and is a board member of New York Africa Fashion Week. We were also pleased to have Ms. Tanya Cole, Commercial Officer from the U.S. Department of Commerce Commercial Services, serve as moderator for the event. Ms. Cole’s participation was critical to creating an engaging and insightful dialogue among the panelists, particularly on the issue of trade exports and articulating how SMEs in the fashion industry and luxury brand sector can do business in Africa by exporting their goods and services. The Department of Commerce is also playing a key role in executing on the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa issued by President Obama earlier this year—a strategy designed to spur economic growth, trade, and investment by helping U.S. businesses seize opportunities in Africa, and overcome any challenges they face in establishing business relationships.

I also collaborated with Adiat Disu, one of the speakers, whose company, Adiree Public Relations, collaborated with ITM in producing for FIT's Pre-College Program a panel discussion on African designers and beauty specialists during New York Africa Fashion Week on 11 July.

3. What were some challenges in executing the program?

CP: As you correctly pointed out, because our speakers are big names in the industry, they have a heavy travel schedule that has made it challenging to synchronize the plans.

Nevertheless, all of the participants and supporters were so enthusiastic about the chance to educate the FIT community and public about the exciting new opportunities in Africa as a producer of high quality environmentally and socially responsible designs and potential consumer of goods manufactured around the world that they prioritized their contribution to this event.

4. That said, was the interest you received overwhelming?

CP: It has been tremendous. In addition to the supporters already mentioned above, FIT President's Diversity Council gave its stamp of support for the event and will help to promote the event. Teachers from other departments and disciplines brought their classes, and people from the industry were keen to attend as well.

JG: Private sector growth in Africa is booming, and its forecasted population and economic growth means that every sector that is focused on growth is keen on doing business with Africa these days. This was great news for us because in doing a panel like this we knew we would receive a great deal of interest from across sectors and disciplines. Social impact investors, media, banking, fashion industry executives, social enterprises, development professionals—the interest ran the gamut, and we received a lot of positive feedback.

5. What was the most surprising thing you learned about the African market from the selection?

CP: We learned how much farther advanced Africa is in terms of its contribution to international sustainable design.

JG: It was interesting to hear that regardless of the size of a company’s balance sheet doing business in Africa is complex. This was not so much a surprise as it was a confirmation. There are no economies of scale in Africa, which makes it more expensive to produce on the continent. When you factor in the issues associated with infrastructure development, it is easy to see how doing business in Africa can at times be challenging. A great example of this actually occurred during our panel. Roberta Annan from Fashion 4 Development was presenting remotely from Ghana, and during her presentation there were a couple of technical blips with the internet connection. Roberta and the other panelists took it all in stride, and later joked that this was the quintessential illustration of what it can be like to do business in Africa. In essence, it is not easy, and it takes a good amount of patient capital, perseverance, and I would add a good sense of humor to succeed.

6. Overall, what do you think was the main take away for the event for both students interested in this emerging market to businesses who want to penetrate the continent?

CP: Africa is much farther along in its design and contribution to the global fashion business. Not only is it emerging, it has already arrived and has also become a force in the luxury sector.

In addition, as evidenced by Nigerian Fashion Week founder, Lexy Mojo-Eyes’s effort to fly from Nigeria to New York primarily to participate in this panel, the cooperation of the industry among the United States and other developed countries with the African designers, producers, and sellers is more important than ever to take this development to the next level.

JG: The continent is an undeniable force in shaping global commerce, and this is the right time to do business in Africa. As Christine noted earlier, consumer consumption is the engine of African development, and it is no accident that we had participants from Nigeria and Ghana on the panel as these are among the fastest-growing markets in Africa, both of in terms of GDP and consumer spending. Yet, an important thing to remember is that Africa is a continent made up of 54 countries, all with unique heritages, cultures, preferences, and needs. When thinking about developing a fashion business in Africa, it is critical to have a deep understanding of the market not only in terms of consumer demand but also trade. Infrastructure development, transportation of goods and services, access to water and energy—all of these elements are necessary to running a sound fashion business, but are often overlooked during the early stages of development.

Another key takeaway is that although doing business in Africa takes an incredible amount of commitment, perseverance, business acumen, and capital investment (this is particularly true for those that are interested in creating socially-conscious businesses), the economic growth potential for the continent signals that there is tremendous opportunity for fashion businesses to thrive. The presence of established, middle market players like Levi’s and The Gap alongside social enterprises and niche luxury brands, such as Maiyet and Laurenceairline, further reinforces the fact that there is no set model for success and that there is room for new players, new ideas, and new partnerships.

7. What's the way forward now? How does FIT plan to leverage and address the interest in this topic in the future?

CP: Among the charges of FIT President's Diversity Council is to help fulfill "FIT's mission to prepare students with the kind of global perspective they will need for success." The Diversity Council encourages and supports events that promote the awareness and adaption to the ever changing international environment.

As mentioned above, we hosted a panel discussion on Creating Sustainable Futures: Empowering Women through the International Fashion Industry in February, 2012 and followed this up with an article published in the June 2012 issue of Focus on Fashion Retail magazine. During New York Africa Fashion Week last summer, we sponsored a Luxury African Fashion panel discussion. This event is a follow-up to those discussions and we anticipate that there will be more such events. In addition, with Africa expected to play a major role in world growth and development, teachers are anticipated to continue integrating it into their classes.