South African clothing and textile companies have become increasingly export-focused since the implementation of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2000. This article looks at some of the latest initiatives to take advantage of the country's unique resources.

Under AGOA, which allows tariff- and quota-free imports to the US on a specified range of goods, South Africa's total exports to the US jumped 45 per cent last year. Textiles and clothing have been one of the main beneficiaries of the programme, and the Department of Trade and Industry has thrown its weight behind the drive to use the country's unique resources as the basis of an export oriented fashion industry.

An obvious advantage in the development of fabric and garment production is the fact that South Africa has most of the raw materials it requires on hand.

South Africa is, for instance, the world's largest commercial producer of mohair with an annual output of 4,300 tonnes of fibre. This is already an important currency earner, with much of the output going to European processors, particularly in Italy.

The future aim is to set up "partnership" arrangements with European customers whereby raw fibre will be processed on the spot in plants created with the technical and marketing expertise of existing customers. South Africa's lower labour costs act as an incentive to European processors to co-operate in joint ventures like this.

South African wool
A similar approach is being adopted on South African grown wool. South Africa rates fifth in the global league table of wool producing nations with an annual clip in excess of 50,000 tonnes. Much of the South African clip already consists of high quality wools, especially merino, for which the South African terrain and climate is particularly well suited.
"The quality rather than volume approach will take South African wools out of competition with both wools from other sources and cheap manmade fibres," is the official line from the DTI.

South Africa also grows high quality cotton, harvesting around 40,000 tonnes a year. What it doesn't produce itself can be readily brought in from neighbouring nations for processing in South Africa, before being exported for spinning and weaving elsewhere. Once again, however, the long-term aim of government and growers is for an ever increasing proportion of the locally grown crop to be taken through to finished garment stage before selling overseas.

Cotton is not the only vegetable fibre produced in South Africa. Both flax and hemp are important ancillary crops for South African farmers, some of whom are also monitoring recent experiments in the creation of textile fibres from other plant materials such as seaweed, soya bean and sugar cane.

Leather - last but not least
Last but not least is South Africa's role as a leather producer. As with wool and cotton, the contemporary emphasis is on quality rather than quantity production.

Rural farmers are being encouraged to seek modern veterinary help to eliminate the pests and diseases that result in hides too flawed to be of interest to the international market. And instead of overgrazing by domesticated stock, large areas of formerly farmed, or ranch grazed land are being returned to native species.

As a result, the South African leather industry is also looking to the international luxury goods market as its prime outlet for "exotic" leathers such as ostrich skin.

Leon Volschenk, chief executive officer of the Leo d'Mar group, which markets ostrich leather items under the brand name Cavalli, recently showed his company's first ever collection specifically aligned to the tastes of European consumers.

Leon waxes lyrical about the virtues of ostrich skin as the raw material for a variety of products. He is prepared to give a ten year wear guarantee on any footwear in the current Cavalli range, and claims that "like denim, ostrich skin doesn't wear out - it simply mellows with age achieving greater comfort in wear and a more fashionable finish as the years progress."

Volschenk adds: "Farming ostrich can be a doubly profitable enterprise for the grower since the birds can be a source of protein rich/low cholesterol meat as well fine quality leather."

He continues that there is also a small but steady increase in demand for ostrich feather trimmings from the international fashion trade. "This is generated chiefly by sales to animal loving consumers, who eschew the use of fur on ethical grounds but see feathers as an acceptable alternative."

Leo d'Mar group's current focus is on establishing a network of stockists within the EU, and especially the UK, since one of the key features of the Cavalli range is a golf shoe collection. But its creators believe branded footwear with a 'made in South Africa' tag could sell equally well to sports minded consumers in the USA and Japan.

Annual exports of boots and shoes made in South Africa top 1.5 million pairs and the figure is rising year on year, on average by 22 per cent a year.

In terms of national potential, "this represents only the tip of the iceberg,"says Moloko Leshaba, sector manager for leather and footwear for the South African trade and investment department.

In the UK overseeing a corporate promotion by 13 leading manufacturers aimed at attracting new custom from European store groups, Mr Leshaba said: "At the moment 19 per cent of all goods in our sector go to customers in the EU with a further nine per cent bought by customers in the neighbouring NAFTA group of nations."

However, taking into account the recent preferential trading agreements signed with both the EU and the USA, dramatic upturns in sales into these areas can be expected in the near future.

Upturn in apparel exports
Just such an upturn has already been experienced within the textile and apparel trade where, according to latest figures, annual export earnings now top 1.4 billion rand for ready-made clothing and 2.5 billion rand for fabrics.

Fabrics based on locally grown and spun cotton are currently produced by 350 mills spread across the various provinces with a combined output of 560 million square metres of finished fabric. Polyester fabrics are the next most important for the South African industry with a raw material input fairly evenly split between local suppliers and imports.

Meanwhile nonwoven fabrics, particularly geo-textiles for eco-friendly environmental improvement projects, are tipped as a fabric growth sector. Many producers already active in this area are now looking to expand into technical textiles of all types.

On the special use front, Gelvenor Textiles is already a world leader in the field of parachute "silk" production, satisfying 50 per cent of total global demand for these fabrics. Gelvenor meanwhile is seeing new outlets for its wares within the international sports and fashion wear sectors.

The South African apparel industry tends to be centred in the eastern and western Cape provinces. These regions not only contain the largest pool of workers but the greatest number of consumers with sophisticated fashion tastes.

Local shoppers prefer styles that reflect the latest trends in Europe and the US, and this tracks all the way down the price scale to goods destined for chain store retail.

At the extreme budget price level, however, locally made ready-to-wear clothing faces stiff competition from second-hand garments still bearing all-important "designer" labels.

But if South African consumers are still looking to Europe and the USA for styling inspiration, recent success stories from South African exporters suggest ethnic-inspired garments and accessories are most likely to score with overseas buyers.

The Angel Footwear group, which produces an authentic style "veldtskoen" walking shoe, markets under the brand name African Survivor. Selling into the European market, it has plans to branch out into African lifestyle clothing such as safari jackets, bush hats and accessories.

Its aim is to begin building African Survivor into an international recognised leisurewear brand with additional potential as a "workwear and urban street wear" range.

By Sonia Roberts.