The Nigerian clothing industry and the aid dilemma

Belladonna. Photograph by Viviane Sassen from her Parasomnia series

A man tries hard to help you find your lost camels.
He works more tirelessly than even you,
But in truth he does not want you to find them, ever. - Ali Dhux (Somali poet)

This week I read a great piece in the New Yorker by Philip Gourevitch called Alms Dealers. It dealt with the beginning of the international humanitarian-aid industry during the Nigerian - Biafran civil war and how much harm this industry may have inadvertently caused all over the planet in the decades since.

It got me thinking about the fact that it is incredibly easy for us as human beings to not see the sometimes even greater evils of kindness, focusing instead on the warm feeling that comes from acts of charity. The media is complicit in this regard as well, telling us a story of heroism in the face of adversity and missing out on the larger picture for the sake of narrative coherence. The narrative of the shining West bringing succour to the brutish developing world. There is no need for heroes if there are no people to be saved and the narrative demands a constant supply of damsels in various states of distress.

We need to look closer at what the real outcomes of aid are. In our industry, the donation of used clothing, the setting up of special events designed to showcase "African" fashion overseas, the creation of companies that practice a one-for-one charity scheme like Toms. What are the real effects of all these things on our industry as a whole? If we do not do this, nobody will.

The people providing the aid have no incentive to. It is win-win for them regardless of their motivations. If they are cynical, their organisations reap the fruits of publicity, increased funding and influence; and even if they are not, blissfully doing this from a place of ignorance and a desire to do good, then they reap the fruit of a satisfied conscience. They have done their part in creating a "better" world.

Toms' One day without shoes campaign

The humanitarian-aid industry also divides our fashion one into a few camps as well. We are either direct beneficiaries, buying cheap clothing from bend-down boutiques and posting photos of our finds for others to coo over and applaud - our luck and ability to spot a good deal lauded and rewarded by likes and thumbs - or we are innocently/cynically collecting money from foreign aid and cultural organisations in the form of program sponsorships and participation in events both at home and overseas. Some of us just focus on our businesses, ignoring the aid industry and its fruits altogether.

All of the above scenarios are pretty shortsighted in my opinion.

In the first case, being part of the market for these cheap secondhand goods with which our market is flooded regularly has the unfortunate side effect of weakening our local industry, providing goods at a price that is almost impossible for us to compete with locally. There is also the downside of skewing the perception of our market internationally as a giant garbage dump, waiting for the cast offs of the developed world.

The current trend of posting on social media about "vintage" purchases trains others interested in fashion and styling to pride their ability to hunt for the cheapest deals and these so-called "vintage" garments and accessories over other values that can benefit the development of our local designers and their products. I am not saying that everybody in Nigerian fashion should only wear Nigerian designer pieces or even designer pieces in general, I am speaking about the mindset behind these sorts of posts regardless of what the poster is wearing. There is definitely something wrong when the ability to build an outfit of designer pieces, thrifted "vintage" items and local tailor-made garments is lauded as some stamp of originality or creativity. If the value of this mix and match is that one was able to blend cheap and expensive items then that is pretty sad to me as it implies that the only worth of an item of clothing is in how much it cost to own. There is also the sneaking suspicion that part of the propagation of this trend comes down to owning pieces that almost no one else will be able to get their hands on due to the method of acquisition. This scenario is even more depressing to me as it implies that one is looking for personal validation through the acquiring of material goods as opposed to developing themselves.

I wish more people who posted about these things could tell us why their "vintage" pieces had value or just leave out mentioning the word altogether (maybe replacing it with thrifted) unless they are using it to specify what the item is a vintage of. To be honest, the use of the word is just silly. Clothing, unlike fine wine, does not always get better with age. Just refer to the season if you know it and if you don't, then just say it is old and leave it with its dignity intact.

There is a lot of money being made by companies in the developed world sending us the detritus of their society and the more we tie ourselves to this garbage chute, the less agency and value we can provide to both ourselves and the world at large. It is no wonder that the Nigerian textile industry is on life-support. The failure of our government to provide any protection to local weavers, dyers, farmers, tailors etc has allowed them to become victims of the globalisation push, creating a new breed of customer used to cheap, cheerful and fast, qualities which any local artisan in a place with a poor power supply will struggle to compete with.

This is what makes the second set of people, those organisations that do not really think about the effect of receiving aid money and support and how to best utilise the platforms they have even more of an issue.

I am not advocating the refusal of aid altogether and I am certainly not calling for a boycott of all collaboration with foreign cultural and/or aid agencies, being party to a few of these myself, but I am calling for more discourse about the impact of all these activities on our greater industry and a more conscious and deliberate application of the opportunities granted to us by such collaborations and sources of money. I am a firm believer in the idea that lasting change is generally brought about through political action, but that is not to say that the creative sectors cannot help influence politics.

Speaking candidly, I would like to hear more from our chambers of commerce and the fashion industry on the influx of foreign clothing brands into our market and their effect on the local brands already doing business here. The impact of imported second-hand clothing and their vast propagation is also something I would like to see addressed. Ostensibly, used goods are banned from import, but the reality in the markets is definitely far from reflective of this law.

The goal for me would be to aid in creating a more sustainable infrastructure for local artisans and brands. Imagine a situation where local weavers and textile manufacturers do not have to worry about trying to make ends meet as they compete with against much cheaper synthetic fabrics imported and "donated" wholesale from overseas. The power of having a symbiotic network of suppliers and manufacturers and designers all working hand in hand is not something to be sniffed at and it is about time we start focusing on building up this capacity as opposed to being content with working within the existing systems.

Nupe woman weaving cloth
image via Adire African Textiles Blog

They say "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" and it is with good reason. Focusing on the act of "doing good" as opposed to formulating grander strategies to elevate our entire industry is costing us a lot in lost opportunities. The foreign corporations can only benefit from our reliance on their products, manufactured with resources gathered from our own country. The power to design our future is within our hands and is something I hope we become way more deliberate and strict about.

(header image - Belladonna. Photograph by Viviane Sassen from her Parasomnia series)

Yegwa Ukpo

Yegwa Ukpo

Lagos, Nigeria