Sub-Saharan Africa may not have been the most fertile ground for technological innovation in the clothing, textile and fibre sectors, but speakers at the International Textile Manufacturers Federation (ITMF) conference in Nairobi, Kenya had no shortage of ideas on the best way ahead.

Professor Marc Van Parys, president of Unitex, the national association of textile sector technical executives in Belgium, says Africa should exploit opportunities in the digital printing and finishing sectors. Unitex also has members in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Portugal, Britain and the US.

Of the 37,000 digital textile and apparel printers installed worldwide, not one is in sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa, says Professor Van Parys, pointing out that African clothing and textile producers still rely on rotary six-colour printers.

However, in much of the rest of the world, “tailor-made functionalities via digital techniques are replacing traditional finishing and coating processes,” he told the conference. This is responding to soaring consumer demand for “trendy, colourful fashion inspiration”. Unitex is staging its International Digital Textile Congress in Ghent on 27-28 September.

For cash-poor African manufacturers, digital printers are cost effective, he says, and by having between 60% and 70% water savings compared to traditional rotary colour printers, offer significant utility bill savings.

This is important in a continent were water can be scarce, supplies unreliable and water bills high, allowing African manufacturers to stress their sustainability to brands.

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Natural advantages

Dr Terry Townsend, consultant at US-based Cotton Analytics, says that for Africa to remain competitive, its apparel companies should also work with local raw materials partners, encouraging them to introduce technology. This could help manufacturers leverage some natural advantages enjoyed in Africa through local fibre production and processing.

“Biotechnology should not be shunned,” he adds. “It should be integrated into the entire supply chain from farming to the processing of yarn and fabric. Biotechnology will help not only double production, but also improve the quality of yields.”

This is important for the future of the African clothing and textile sector, where fibre output is not expanding robustly. “If you are not growing, you are dying,” he says, noting that production is not even keeping pace with African population growth rates. With manmade fibres – largely made outside Africa – increasingly popular with brands, cotton “risks following sisal, hemp, jute and linen as niche products and relics of history,” he says – bad news for Africa with its strong cotton output.

Townsend says innovation is key, calling on African producers to develop natural fibre cultivation methods to bring higher yields without chemical and excessive water inputs. Not only will that boost fibre quality, it will enable African fibre producers, and hopefully local fabric makers using the yarn, to trade on its sustainability.

This will be done through Mendelian breeding, better mechanisation, fertilisers, judicious use of pesticides and the application of life science technologies.

While natural fibres carry a premium, the reluctance of African fibre producers to embrace technology has been and remains a problem. “The denial of science and technology has caused a drop in yields in Africa, discouraging innovation and competitiveness.”

Dr Townsend called for brands and manufacturers to play their part by offering price incentives to cotton producers investing in production quality, and also for the cotton sector to be receptive, ensuring users’ demands for quality are met.

Also, communications along the African supply chain need to be improved so that brand and manufacturer requirements are better understood and information about contract fulfilment is transmitted efficiently.

To some extent, the lack of technological investment in African cotton production can be regarded as a boon, if handled well, says Dr Townsend.

In the majority of African countries, cotton is an organic crop as it is picked by hand, its growth relies on rainwater and no genetically modified organisms are used to promote its growth. So, it can be marketed as organic cotton, attracting a premium price. On the downside, this means there are few biosafety protocols in place to regulate the implementation of biotechnology, should producers decide to invest in this area to boost output.

Genetically modified crops

One problem zone in Africa is genetically modified (GM) crops that require growers to source seed from GM companies rather than harvesting their own seed for subsequent seasons.

Burkina Faso, one of the Africa’s top cotton producers, is phasing out GM technology after embracing it since 2000. Zambia, Uganda, Mali and Zimbabwe are other African countries that have remained opposed to GM farming.

Elsewhere, GM is pushing forward, however. Even though Kenya has a total ban on GM crop imports, late last year it rolled out a countrywide performance trials on BT cotton – cotton genetically modified to be resistant to bollworm – before they can be released to farmers for commercial production. Ethiopia has already finalised GM trials, but its uptake for small farms and plantation production has yet to take effect as the country’s national seed approval committee has yet to endorse the results. This is against the background of opposition from Ethiopian farmers about genetically modified pest resistance in cotton farming.

Indeed, Dr Townsend stresses that for additional research and biotech investment to thrive in Africa, political and social goodwill over its use needs to be developed. This will not only require the framing of effective regulation, but also reliable controls by expert officials.

A dearth of intellectual infrastructure, compounded by a loss of technical expertise and insufficient funds have held back the roll-out of tech in African fibre production.

“African governments should take centre stage by not only promoting technology, but also providing funds and the [regulatory] environment that is needed,” he says, adding that such steps would boost production and promote better crop management, helping to sustain an African textile and apparel sector, should they tap local fibre resources.

Regional growth

Jaswinder Bedi, chairman of the African Cotton and Textile Industries Federation (ACTIF), says the staging of major conferences such as this in Africa is one way by which continent will overcome the technological and innovation hurdles holding back regional growth.

“These conferences bring together key players, they provide opportunities for learning as well as partnerships in which investments can be pursued,” he says.

This is as true for Africa’s textile and apparel sector as for its fibre industry, stresses Bedi, who has experience across the African supply chain. He is managing director of Bedi Investments Ltd (BIL), Nakuru, Kenya, a vertically integrated textile mill manufacturing synthetic yarns, woven fabrics and apparel for export to the US and Europe. He is also director of Fine Spinners Limited, Nairobi, Kenya, which spins cotton yarns and manufactures sewing thread.

He says technological investment is crucial to sharpen the continent’s competitiveness and add value to its exports. However, he also emphasises that in Africa, the introduction of technology needs to proceed carefully and sensitively, to avoid sparking social tensions and maybe unrest through economic change and job losses that can damage manufacturing output.

“Africa has low labour costs and so it is as cost-effective to employ many skilled youths rather than go for a robot,” he suggests. “Employing them creates social peace that will ensure the security of the manufacturing plants and business continuity.”

Partnerships are key

To accelerate innovation in Africa in such a politically sensible way, Mukhisa Kituyi, the secretary general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), called for richer countries to advance technology and skills transfers. Nor for him the protectionism espoused by US President Donald Trump – indeed he called on global clothing and textile players to avoid self-interested measures that closely guard intellectual property.

“We live in an interconnected world where partnership is key. We believe there is no winner in protectionism or tariff wars, contrary to what the American President says. The spirit of engagement in rule-based transparent systems can go a long way to asserting the confidence needed to share ideas, open up the markets and propel the sector,” Kituyi says.

Edet Sunday Akpan, the Nigerian permanent secretary at the country’s ministry of industry, trade and investment, acknowledges the technological challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa, stressing that his country has a National Cotton, Textile and Garment Policy that guarantees active government support for growing the industry. A key plank of such action, he says, is addressing challenges to attracting investment into the industry.

Akpan says the policy, adopted in 2015, takes a holistic approach, promoting quality fibre production by supporting the supply of improved seedlings, encouraging local consumption of locally produced clothes, and ending smuggling of foreign textile material into the country. The policy has also helped reduce energy bills paid by Nigerian clothing and textile manufacturers, increased training for workers, while upgrading and modernising distribution and transport systems used by the sector.

“This has provided the much-needed platform for already existing textile mills to retool and modernise their facilities,” says Akpan, who headed the Nigerian delegation to the conference. “However, the prolonged problem of huge imports of textile material coupled with the high cost of manufacturing, is still the key challenge.”

Also from this event: Technology inertia is stalling Africa’s clothing industry