African wax prints tackle rivals for place in the sun

In a bustling market in Abidjan, women browse through a bewildering array of intricately patterned wax-print fabrics, each of which has a unique and sometimes quirky name.

“Eye of my rival” is one which has an eye-like motif, while another is known as “capable husband”.

Another bale of this brightly coloured fabric is labelled “jealousy”.

Each print has a name and comes in different colours, so you could have a “capable husband” in red, green or a white and the same for? Eye of my rival”.

Others have longer, more conversational names: “If you leave, so will I” or “If you divorce, I won’t eat sand”.

Known as a “pagne”, this strip of printed cotton cloth can be worn in a number of different ways, tailored into a garment or used to make any type of fashion accessory or household item.

The name often reflects a key element in the pattern and those attached to the most popular styles often spread quickly as rumours and jokes around Adjame market in Ivory Coast’s economic capital.

“We don’t know where they come from,” chuckles Didi Sangare, a market trader who has been selling fabric for 15 years.

“From saleswomen, from the clients, people give them names… and sometimes they stick,” she says.

“They come and they go. When there’s a successful soap opera or some political event, the pagne that appears at the same time might get its name.”

– ‘We can do everything!’ –

One African pagne printed with cars is named “Renato’s car” after a heartthrob in a Latin American soap, while other bales of fabric have been named after heroines of popular television series.

Others reflect political events, with one named “Guei’s Broom” for the general who briefly headed a military junta after leading a coup in December 1999.

Similar to Indonesia’s celebrated batiks, these textiles are printed with motifs which reflect African themes.

“Pagne is beautiful, pagne is good,” says Korotoum Ouattara, a 28-year-old trader.

“Shirts, trousers, dresses — clothes, but also bags, shoes, curtains, sheets, tablecloths,” she says.

“We can do everything!”

Despite her enthusiasm, the fabric is not fireproof with regulations advising against its use for anything other than clothes.

And the rule is even wryly reflected in the name of one of the cheaper bolts of fabric: “Watch Out for Fire.”

– Dutch origins –

Once a luxury item imported from The Netherlands, this wax-printed fabric today varies hugely in quality and the finesse of its designs.

Progress in African manufacturing and printing methods has sparked a production boom, spawning a broader range of themes, pushing down prices for customers — and making some pagnes readily affordable.

Since the turn of the century, there has been strong competition from Asia. At Adjame market, as elsewhere in Africa, cloth imported from China and Thailand is on sale.

For the poorest customers, foreign products which cost between 2,000 and 6,000 CFA francs ($3.40-$10/3-9 euros) for six metres (yards) of fabric are more attainable than cloth from major local brands, which often sell for more than $25.

“Our main competitors are counterfeiting and fraud,” says Jean-Louis Menudier, who heads Uniwax, the Ivorian subsidiary of Dutch group Vlisco and a top west African manufacturer of print fabrics.

“The products of our rivals are made in Asia, mostly in China.

“They almost exclusively reach the African continent through fraud — contraband and tax evasion — and much of the material is forgery using our designs.”

– ‘A strategy of creativity’ –

Menudier estimates that more than 90 percent of fabrics on the market are counterfeit or entered the country fraudulently.

“This posed an enormous threat to our activity between 2004 and 2006. We adopted a strategy of creativity, marketing, distribution and production that enables us to fight these phenomena effectively,” he says.

“We create faster than imitators can copy,” he adds, inspired perhaps by a print called “I run faster than my rival”.

The strategy has paid off.

Uniwax is thriving with 750 employees and a net profit of $7 million in 2015 — a profit margin of 11 percent — on revenues of $62 million.

At the start of September, the company announced plans to raise $17 million on the stock market to finance an investment scheme that should enable it to increase production by 70 percent over five years.

Though the firm sells 45 percent of its wares in Ivory Coast, it is benefiting from an expanding international market that is slowly opening the gates to Europe and even the United States.



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