Designers ponder why Kenyans don't wear ‘Made in Kenya’ and how Rwanda got it right

Vivo Activewear CEO Wandia Gichuru

Vivo Activewear CEO Wandia Gichuru and other participants during the fashion e-commerce startup ShopZetu Powering Fashion Made in Kenya breakfast forum at the Panafric Hotel.

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

The Buy Kenya Build Kenya headache has hit the fashion industry the hardest, with research showing that only five percent of Kenyans buy clothes or accessories made locally.

With the goal of promoting and enhancing the consumption of Kenyan-made products and services, the concept is yet to sink into Kenyans' minds.

To understand what could be done to encourage Kenyans to buy local brands, Wandia Gichuru, co-founder of the retail fashion business Vivo, convened a meeting with fashion designers in Kenya.

Among the ills bedevilling the local fashion industry, participants cited uncertainty about the quality and cost of locally made clothes and accessories, adding that they are not easily accessible or visible and average Kenyans cannot afford them.

Noting that one impediment is duty on imported fabric, Ms Gichuru noted: “Up to 70 percent of the cost of making any piece of clothing is the fabric.”

If such costs were reduced, she said, clothes would become more affordable, fashion designers could widen the products they make and consumers would afford to purchase what they need.

But she suggested that fashion designers rely on imported fabric because of the variety of the fabrics available.

Anne Mutahi, an adviser to the President on small and medium enterprises, asked fashion designers to borrow a leaf from countries where most clothes are produced locally, urging designers to collaborate.

Ms Mutahi was shocked at revelations that companies in Export Processing Zones (EPZ) import buttons.

Working against each other

She wondered how Kenya could not make buttons, saying that players in the fashion industry were working against each other, with no coordination that could enable them to lobby the government as a collective.

“The government needs the fashion designers to advise it on what to do. Collaboration makes you look at the industry from fibre to fashion, electricity, good machinery – that is the business of fashion,” she added.

The Rwandan government had spearheaded the ‘Made in Rwanda’ brands and exempted all brands made in the country from value-added tax (VAT), said Linda Mukangonga, the founder of Haute Baso, a fashion brand based in Rwanda.

Data collection, she said, was key for fashion designers when pitching new strategies to policymakers. Ms Mukangonga said this had helped Rwanda’s designers to demonstrate the industry’s impact on the country’s economy.

Having been excluded from the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) trading for banning second-hand clothes, Rwanda came up with a policy whose goal was to enhance its domestic market through value chain development.

“At first, being removed from Agoa looked like a burden but now Rwanda has been able to reduce its trade deficit by 36 percent while increasing its total exports by 69 percent,” she said.

But it is not all gloom for Kenya’s fashion industry. Connie Aluoch, a renowned stylist, said it has improved over the last two years.

This has been made possible by content creators who showcase ‘Made in Kenya’ clothes and accessories via their social media platforms.

Patricia Kihoro, a fashion content creator, opined that buying clothes worth as little as Sh1,000 that are made in Kenya amplifies the creativity of Kenya’s fashion designers.

Affordable and scalable

“Through social media, content creators could show people how to wear ‘Made in Kenya’ clothes and accessories in an affordable and scalable way. The bespoke outfits,” she added.

Fashion designers were advised to make simple, unique clothes and accessories that can be worn by ordinary Kenyans. But Esther Nyawira, the founder of Elsie Glamour, a local fashion brand, who entered the local market six months ago, lamented that Kenya’s policies were unfair to designers.

“Every time I go to purchase fabric, I find it is Sh1,000 more than the price previously,” she said.

This, she said, has made many Kenyans believe that if they need to wear made in Kenya, the occasion must be truly important because of how deep they will have to dig into their pockets to buy the item.

However, Wakiuru Njuguna, from the Heva Fund, which finances the creative sector, suggested that the daily look is where the market was and designers should set their eyes on how to dress Kenyans in their day-to-day activities.