There is no magic formula to help the vibrant West African country of Mali shift from its rich cotton-based textiles and leather traditions to global manufacturing. In fact, its barely developed industry may never offer the large-scale infrastructure needed to attract the attention of today's global sourcing managers. But behind the scenes, a small group of committed artisans and designers is working hard to sell Mali's unique cultural attributes as the basis on which to build a new kind of export orientation for the country. B. Lynn Salinger reports.

In today's global market for manufacturers, there is greater choice than ever in terms of who to do business with for offshore sourcing. Many developing countries have implemented significant economic reforms to make them more open to trade and foreign investment. In the most progressive of these, foreign exchange regimes have been reformed and their currencies now suffer no unusual overvaluation, inflation has been brought under control, trade taxes have been simplified and reduced in conformity with post-Uruguay Round commitments to the World Trade Organization, and price policies have been liberalized in order to reduce distortions faced by producers.

'A selection of products in the SEPA showroom.'

Local prices, to paraphrase the oft-quoted adage, are now "right." And yet, many of these same developing countries are stymied by their experiences that foreign direct investments do not automatically flow in as a response to these reformed economic conditions. These same countries now ask themselves, what have they not yet gotten right?

Part of the answer, of course, lies with non-economic variables. With so many countries meeting basic economic operating conditions, it is clear that US and European firms also evaluate potential commercial partners for broader qualitative factors such as political and social stability, the existence of preferential trade agreements with the home market (such as the North American Free Trade Agreement or the Lomé Agreement), production and marketing infrastructure, the transparency of the local regulatory environment, the sophistication of local labor and management skills, and local labor working conditions.

Another part of the answer lies in the phrase "potential commercial partners." Countries with emergent manufacturing sectors seeking to supply industrial countries with garments, footwear or electronics may connect via foreign companies that decide to invest locally in state-of-the-art manufacturing capacity. However, there are so many manufacturing platforms available around the world today, with workers, managers, and international brokers capable of organizing manufacturing by subcontract, that US and European firms no longer need to invest up front in industrial capacity to order products.

From hard disks and controller cards to running shoes and tailored shirts, manufactured products are available from a wide array of foreign suppliers with installed plants. Foreign partners may help to modernize production capacity, facilitate access to the newest technologies, or simply supply design specifications. This makes it even harder for barely developed manufacturing industries to get in on the action.

Most US firms monitor potential new supplier markets on a regular basis, especially as labor costs in increasingly sophisticated manufacturing industries in some Asian countries have been on the rise. "Quota-hopping," the process of moving clothing assembly to new foreign shores in order to exploit new territories where Multi-Fibre Arrangement product quotas into import markets are not yet binding, has been an important factor affecting firms' willingness to move into new countries. But this is waning in importance as the Agreement on Textiles and Clothing is supposed to phase out all bilateral textile and clothing quotas by 2005.

While all internationally active clothing manufacturers/importers are active in Asia and Latin America, far fewer have working relations with sub-Saharan African countries. US clothing importers indicate concern that while production costs in sub-Saharan Africa may be lower, longer and less reliable delivery times and lower product sophistication do not make up for the difference in final price. Nevertheless, especially in the face of rising production costs in Asia, a few firms are at least exploring the possibility of dealing with manufacturers in Africa, finding its cost potential quite interesting.

Mali: trying to break in
A previous article, 'Can African clothing companies learn to compete?' outlined the wide diversity of competitive characteristics in Africa's clothing industries (
To read the article click here). At one end of that spectrum is Mali, a poor, land-locked country in West Africa's Sahel. Mali is internationally recognized as an exporter of high-quality fiber. It is Africa's second largest cotton fiber producer, after Egypt, though total exports lag far behind those of the world's five leading producers (China, the United States, India, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan). Value-added processing activities beyond raw cotton ginning are quite limited. In a country where labor seems abundant, this lack of downstream processing appears a missed opportunity. The private sector is now recognized by the Malian government to be a critical motor of economic development.

Mali's cotton processing sector is small, and industrial infrastructure is weak. Two continuous processing facilities, Itema and Comatex, exist, producing low-quality cotton thread and fabric for local consumption. Both were previously government-run. Bankruptcy shut down Itema several years ago, although a buy-out is being negotiated. Comatex, now majority operated by Chinese commercial interests, produces African prints for the rural domestic market. Urban consumers in Mali's capital city have a wide choice among Ivoirian, Nigerian, Asian, and even European fabrics. New product development is not undertaken in either industrial or consumer product areas. A joint venture spinning operation with Bresilo-Japanese interests has been under negotiation. One small, formal CMT operator exists in Bamako, producing garments in large orders for public and private institutional clients.

Moreover, power and transportation facilities are limited and not terribly reliable. Mali depends on hydro-generation for its power. This becomes erratic before the rainy season replenishes reserves and, due to frequent equipment failures, forces most businesses to run off more expensive diesel-generated power. An ambitious hydro-electricity project in Western Mali is due to come on-stream soon, and a West African power pool to distribute gas-generated power from Nigeria throughout the region is in the investment stages.

As a land-locked country, Mali bears extra transportation burdens compared with its coastal neighbors. Export shipping options by road to Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire and by rail to Dakar, Senegal exist, but present political unrest in Côte d'Ivoire makes both the roads and the port insecure, while delivery by rail to Dakar via an inefficient state-run rail company is cumbersome. This leaves air freight as the preferred method for delivery of higher value products.

Mali's rich textile and leather heritage
However, what Mali may lack in terms of industrial infrastructure and tradition is compensated by its rich cotton-based textiles and leather traditions. These traditions span the entire range of textile activities, from spinning and hand-weaving, to dyeing, garment design and tailoring, and embroidery.

Mali's hand-painted bogolan, or mud-cloth, is well known abroad for its bold geometric designs painted on deep earth-toned backgrounds. Indigo and synthetic hand-tying and dyeing of rich damask fabrics imported from Germany and Asia transforms them into vibrant Afro-centric garments. Mali is also an important producer of large and small ruminant animals, whose skins and hides are either exported semi-tanned or tanned into low-quality leather. These can be further combined with traditional fabrics and/or hand-tooling into decorative boxes, desktop accessories, handbags, attachés and billfolds, and back-packs. Most of these products are manufactured in micro-enterprises employing fewer than thirty people.

Dogon dancer.

One US-based non-profit organization working to link Malian artisans to global market demand is Action for Enterprise ( Elaine Bellezza, fine artist, designer, and director of AFE's Artisanal Products Export Support (SEPA) project in Bamako explains: "Our goal is to develop a range of products with small-scale artisans in Mali that will appeal to both high-end and medium-end consumers of crafts products in the US and Europe."

Advertising via its website, commercial contacts, and at trade shows such as the Salon International de l'Artisanat Ouagadougou (SIAO), held in November 2000 in Burkina Fasa (, SEPA's design studio includes bogolan, as well as jewelry, leather goods, furniture, and recycled can sculptures reminiscent of Native American kachinas but modeled on Malian Dogon dancers. The latter, Bellezza recounts, were developed spontaneously by Malian recycled goods crafts people after attending a short seminar which she organized on design and the human form. She says she was quite moved by how quickly the artists adapted her lessons to readily marketable products. SEPA connects Malian exporters with American and European buyers seeking a unique handmade look, and is available to develop new products with local artisans that complement buyers' existing lines or to help Malian exporters smooth out logistics wrinkles which may arise.

While Mali has an established crafts industry base from which the SEPA project works, a modern clothing industry has yet to be developed in the country. Manufacturing for the world clothing trade involves large volume, low cost, timely delivery of "commodity clothing" items, that is, fairly simple garments such as jeans and khakis, T-shirts, men's shirts, etc. A barely developed clothing industry such as Mali's cannot hope to compete against Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Mauritius, Vietnam, or Bangladesh, with their large industrial assembly capacities, their full-package manufacturing services, and their more facile logistics into US markets. Sourcing managers for high-volume production would hardly think of contracting Malian firms for manufacture.

Instead, as SEPA's work already highlights, Mali's comparative advantage may well lie in its cultural attributes. Already known internationally for the richness of its musical heritage through the music of Salif Keita, Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, Oumou Sangaré, and many others, Mali's haute couture Afro-centric garment and crafts industries offer enormous product adaptation potential, targeting "world chic" consumers seeking individuality and attention to detail crafted into the garments they wear and the home furnishings they display.

International fashion and furnishings designer Patti Carpenter has twenty-five years of experience designing garments and overseeing international manufacturing for US brand label clothing, home furnishings, and footwear firms. She recently toured Mali's textile and clothing industry and finds that the country's unique textile and leather working traditions have great potential for application to up-market products for home and fashion.

However, she cautions that Mali should not be overly optimistic about its prospects for entering the competitive global clothing industry. Without a proven track record for manufacturing, most international designers and manufacturing supervisors would be leery of turning to Mali for complex products. On the other hand, she counsels Malian artisans to consider merchandising groups of household textile products that emphasize ethnic design elements, while not being overtly "Malian" or even "African" in their presentation.

Several Malian designers are already taking her message to heart. Fashion designer Awa Meité uses hand-painted and tooled Tuareg leather crafts as inspirational elements in a unique line of contemporary garments designed for young and bold consumers. Stylist Fatima "mad'in Bamako" takes her inspiration from simple cotton muslin and is presently showing a collection of pastel, loosely shaped confections, custom dyed in warm tones evoking sun and earth. She also uses Malian tie-dyed damasks for a boldly colored collection of kimono-style loungewear. Bamako's San Toro shop features bogolan in earth tones as well as pale indigo, used in its own line of home furnishings (draperies, pillows, throws), while the Indigo shop emphasizes a broader variety of apparel and accessories in addition to home furnishings; both already export to international clients.

'A selection of products in the SEPA showroom.'

Mali's premier bogolan artists, represented by the atelier KasoBané, are credited with reviving the ancient fabric painting traditions and with taking its design to a new, high art. Clothing designer Moustapha Diawarra uses contemporary and traditional textiles in his garments which span the range from strongly Afro-centric to completely international in focus. Each of these artisans is already showing internationally, in Europe or in the States.

Clearly, Mali does not lack for creative talent. But what it does need is a finer understanding of how international business works. For this, the old ways of doing business - relying on government-run promotion agencies - will no longer work. Rather, "international change agents" who understand both the business and cultural environments in Mali and international trade are needed to help Malian artisans and nascent industrial producers cross the bridge to the global market.

One of SEPA's technical specialists, Bruno Badamie, explains that most Malians lack an appreciation for the complexity of the international marketing chain linking local producers to eventual consumers in Europe, the United States, or Asia. But he is quick to point out that a handful of exporters already send artisanal products of textile, leather, wood, and other materials by the ton to buyers around the world, and thus are familiar with the freight, customs, and calendar logistics involved in international trade. One of his present projects is to organize a Bamako clothing factory to cut, make, and trim several thousand camp shirts for a French buyer he met at last November's SIAO fair.

How to succeed in business?
Progress in developing exportable product for global markets will require Malians to successfully meet challenges in the following business areas:

  • Raw materials availability: Local supplies of basic grade raw materials (muslins, small ruminant hides) are adequate. Importing higher quality cotton damask from either Germany or the Far East for further value-added processing in Mali does not appear to pose a problem. Handspun cotton thread is readily available, as is industrially spun thread from Comatex. However, color selection and fabric weight from Comatex are limited, and the minimum quantities required for custom orders are high. Most cattle hides are exported and thus unavailable to local processors. Interesting opportunities exist for developing custom closures, such as leather buttons or tooled ebony buttons or stays.
  • Production scale and organization: There are a number of examples of larger scale production, or the capacity to mobilize larger volumes. Bogolan production is being organized by at least one wholesaler/exporter to the tune of 20,000 meters of raw cotton strips per week and exports average one ton per month. The weavers' association includes over 700 members, capable of weaving a potential 9-12,000 meters of simple weave strips per day. The tailors' unions include large numbers of members, who can be organized for larger scale production. Dyeing collaboratives are capable of custom hand-tying and dyeing hundreds of six-meter pieces per day. Bamako's one formal CMT shop presently produces institutional apparel and could be organized to produce large export orders.

One needs to be realistic about the ability to organize collaboration across individual enterprises. It will take some time before a collaborative 'esprit de corps' can be developed among producers who, with limited market opportunities, tend to be quite competitive and suspicious of each other. However, there may be interesting opportunities to share interests, such as in the placing of custom fabric orders with Comatex, for example, where the minimum exceeds an individual's abilities, but could be shared among a number of producers.

  • Export logistics: Overland transport from Mali to the West African seaports of Abidjan and Dakar is shunned by some exporters, who prefer the security and efficiency of air freight. Air freight reportedly operates efficiently, and poses no undue burdens on exporters. Overseas clients typically specify which shipper or forwarding agent to use for overland container shipping, and there are at least three or four to choose from in Bamako. Goods are often shipped on the basis of FTC ("forward to container"), from which point they become the responsibility of the importer. Official taxes on textile exports are small, and unofficial taxes are not unduly large.
  • Institutional visibility: Little has been done within the commercial sector to organize private clothing or leather workers into an exporters' association in Mali. Although two government-run groups - a Centre National de Promotion Artisanale and a Fédération Nationale des Artisans Maliens ( - exist, to date these have been neither export-oriented, nor terribly active in support of private sector activity. Given other countries' experiences, some level of professional organization for self-promotion in country and for marketing abroad will need to take place to make it easier for foreign buyers to identify possible commercial partners in Mali. Rather than a government organization, however, this group should be formed for/by/with private entrepreneurs.

Finally, if garments of Malian origin are to be exported to the US to take advantage of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the Malian government will need to be aware of its stringent information requirements. Beneficiary countries are required to implement a visa system to certify the exported clothing's country of origin, and to maintain a production system database in order to be able to report on a timely basis, at the request of the US Customs Service, information on the place of production, the number and identification of types of machinery used in production, the number of workers employed in production, and origin certification from both the manufacturer and exporter.

There is a need for coordination between the Ministry of Handicrafts and the Ministry of Industry in order to assure that country of origin visas and domestic production capacity databases are established and maintained in order to be able to respond to any possible requests for information from the US Customs Service on this.

  • Pricing and financing: Lack of experience with international cost margins can be a stumbling block for realistic pricing of Malian exports. Malian products are not cheap, compared to similar goods from Indonesia or India, where goods are produced more efficiently in terms of scale and where labor is even cheaper than it is in Mali. An industrial sewing operator in Bamako may make 40,000 CFA per month, or $2 per day, which is twice the wage of similar labor in Bangladesh or Madagascar. Also, many Malian exporter/producers are accustomed to receiving advances from international buyers in order to pre-finance production. This practice would be hard to duplicate with respect to international garment or home furnishings manufacturers, for whom that financing role is generally covered by the local agents/exporters who organize (and are compensated for organizing) the local ateliers to produce on contract. Malians will need to adapt their business practices if they are to participate to a greater extent in the more competitive, commercial environment of the international garment and home furnishings markets.

Bright future?
There is no "magic formula" for Mali, or other barely developed artisanal industries seeking to enter global manufacturing. The story of globalized garment manufacturing is custom written in the geography, history, commercial linkages, and political idiosyncrasies of individual country experiences. Mali's barely developed industry may not offer large-scale infrastructure to attract the attention of global sourcing managers today. But a small group of committed artisans and designers is working hard to sell Mali's unique cultural attributes as the basis on which to build a new kind of export orientation for this vibrant West African country tomorrow.

Contact information for organizations mentioned in the article include:

  • Elaine Bellezza and Bruno Badamie, Soutien aux Exportations des Produits Artisanaux (SEPA), Action for Enterprise, Action for Enterprise, USAID/Bamako, Washington DC, 20523-0001. Tel: (223) 23.48.89 (office), (223) 77.47.78 (cell); Email:
  • Patti Y Carpenter, international clothing and home furnishings designer. Email:
  • Awa Meité, clothing designer. Tel: (223) 21.91.18 (home), (223) 21.30.82 (office); Email:
  • Fatim mad'in Bko, B.P. 2399, Bamako. Fax: (223) 21.49.21; Email:
  • San Toro, Route de Koulikoro, Bamako. Tel: (223) 21.30.82; Email:
  • Indigo, Place OMVS, B.P. 757, Bamako. Tel: (223) 22.08.93; Fax: (223) 23.39.33; Email:
  • Atelier KasoBané, Jiguiseme, Badala SEMA I, Porte no 186, Bamako; BP 1412, Bamako. Tel: (223) 21.59.13 (Ségou); (223) 21.50.74 (Bamako)
  • Moustafa Diawarra, Styliste/créateur, Diawousse Création SARL, Badalabougou SEMA I, rue Pavée, BP 8100 Bamako. Tel: (223) 22.37.32; Fax: (223) 22.37.32; Email: diawoussecré
Lynn Salinger is senior economist with Associates for International Resources and Development, a research and consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA). She specializes in analyzing trade and market development policies and strategies in developing countries around the world. Since 1997, she has worked on textile and clothing industry issues in South Africa, Vietnam, Mali, and Morocco.