For many Kenyan entrepreneurs who design and create original fashion and apparel pieces, the pandemic presented challenges that they could never have anticipated; in a blink of an eye the streets were devoid of much foot traffic and with that, the sole means of self promotion many tailoring businesses relied on was gone. Ever so vital for the growth of any business venture, branding and marketing has now become even more elusive to these entrepreneurs due to the seemingly instantaneous migration online and the massive digital divide between these fashion entrepreneurs and the audience they are seeking to attract.
In order to understand the current state of the local fashion and apparel industry, we must go all the way back to the later parts of the 1980s when Kenya opened up the borders to free trade. Prior to import liberalization the textile and apparel industry had been very important in Kenya, representing 30 percent of manufacturing employment, and additionally supporting hundreds of thousands of cotton farmers (Omolo, 2006). Following liberalization, the Kenyan market was flooded with imports of used clothing from the U.S. and Europe; by 2005 used clothing imports exceeded $23 million, and an estimated 80 percent of Kenyans were wearing used clothing (Njuguna, 2006).
This influx of fashionable and most importantly, inexpensive clothing afforded many Kenyans the ability to look good on a budget. On the flip side, the local textile and fashion industry suffered a major blow that has taken the government over 30 years to try to repair. Any progress that would have been made in the local fashion and apparel industry in terms of investment and innovation has been lost.
Between 2005-2019, Kenya has seen a rise in local mass production of fashion and apparel goods with companies like Vivo Activewear breaking into the scene sending an encouraging signal. However, mass production is not going to solve the sustainability and environmental waste issues that come with it. If the trends are to be trusted, the majority of fashion consumers are looking for unique, ethically, socially and environmentally conscious options for their clothing. The only issue with this is the elitist, classist reputation that comes with brands like these due to the mere fact that regular working class people couldn’t afford to buy from them.
Even with stiff competition from imported second hand clothing the tailoring industry in Kenya, like in many other parts of Africa, has soldiered on despite the myriad of challenges that exist. This survival is mainly due to the fact that many African societies require different vestments, outfits or regalia for different occasions be it social or ceremonial. Another reason why local tailoring industries still endure is that the African body is really hard to standardize, the proportions vary vastly from person to person hence the need for tailored clothing.
When the usually predictable business/fashion cycle was abruptly interrupted by the onset of the pandemic, tailors who had some knowledge of social media networks and their workings were able to adapt to using the different social media channels to communicate and commerce with their customers. And for those who were technologically challenged or simply couldn’t afford to upgrade to a smartphone to access apps such as Facebook,Whatsapp and Instagram – well, fate was not on their side. Many have been forced to close down businesses and take up alternate means of employment, some even relocated back to the village after life in the city grew too expensive – widening even farther the economic divide in Kenya.
We need to recognize that no amount of intervention is going to remedy the fact that competition is here to stay as long as trade agreements are in place and policies do not change. However, if tailors are equipped efficiently and sufficiently trained, then it would at least be a fair fight. The digital divide is too wide to ignore. Tailors need modern machinery, financial and technical training and exposure to the global industry. If we empower enough small fashion businesses, then the local fashion engine will start to roar again. Bridge the digital divide and give tailors a fair fight!