Report outlines skills needs in Africa’s fashion industry

Countries in Africa struggle to reach their full potential in a fast-developing fashion industry due to limited educational and training systems, a persistent lack of investment and infrastructure in the sector, and insufficient intellectual property protection.

This is according to a UNESCO report, The African Fashion Sector: Trends, challenges and opportunities for growth, published on 28 October.

Earlier, an African Development Bank report, Investing in the Creative Industries: Fashionomics, expressed the same sentiment.

It stated that building an industry requires investments in people’s skills and qualifications, in particular to increase productivity and the quality of production.

Fashion industry and the SDGs

Audrey Azoulay, the director general of UNESCO, wrote in the UNESCO report that the African fashion industry contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the international community, including those of the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

The goals highlighted in the report include SDG 5, pursuing gender equality, as a significant gender gap remains in the fashion sector, while it also can contribute to SDG 8, focusing on decent work and economic growth, SDG 10, focused on reduced inequality, and SDG 12, that focuses on responsible consumption and production.

“For Africa, fashion is a powerful driver of creativity, economic development and innovation, creating many jobs, especially for women and young people,” Azoulay added.

She also pointed out the need for fostering the development of local skills and knowledge alongside public policies and practices, as well as reliable data, to build “a robust and virtuous fashion ecosystem”.

Fashion education

The UNESCO report indicated that training and upskilling remain an ongoing issue, in particular in the area of fashion entrepreneurship and fashion education. This, in turn, affects the professionalisation of the sector.

The presence of accredited fashion training programmes correlates closely with the vibrancy of the fashion sector in a particular country, according to the UNESCO report.

For example, Nigeria has more than 80 fashion training institutions that offer design courses, South Africa has 30 and Ghana has about 100, but only eight schools are accredited by the relevant national agencies.

The UNESCO report noted that the lack of training programmes in countries where the fashion sector is less developed impairs its growth.

“Even when fashion training programmes exist, however, their curricula are not necessarily internationally competitive.

“There is a risk that some of the techniques, especially in non-accredited schools, which lack oversight, are not adapted to the needs of the sector and fail to meet industry needs and standards,” the report warned.

It also noted that most of the existing curricula focus mainly on creative components of fashion design but other essential areas such as quality control, fashion technology, business and entrepreneurship, trade law and copyright, are neglected.

The report warns that this means that young creatives do not necessarily have the knowledge to protect their creations and develop their businesses.

“Often, talented young graduates end up entering the sector without being fully equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed,” it stated.

According to the document, some of the gaps in fashion education have been filled by alternative spaces such as hubs, incubators and accelerators, which offer non-formal training to emerging designers and creators, but informal apprenticeships and on-the-job training are still the norm on the African continent.

Leading the way for sustainable fashion

The report stated that Africa’s fashion industry has the opportunity to “get things right” from the start and become global leaders in sustainable fashion.

To achieve that, the report puts forward several recommendations for developing skilled human resources and promoting scientific research about the industry.

Key recommendations include the establishment of vocational training centres and technical institutes that offer hands-on training in textile-related disciplines.

The report also called for studies on existing challenges in the fashion industry at both national and regional levels to develop and implement evidence-based policies at education, training and research stages.

In addition to developing intellectual property legislation at continental, regional and national levels for the protection of local technologies, know-how and designs, the report called for the establishment of training modules or providing technical assistance to help emerging fashion designers to register their brands and trademark their logos and be sensitised to the role of intellectual property bodies.

African governments must support and fund research and development initiatives that focus on improving textile production processes, developing new materials and enhancing the fashion industry sector’s overall technological capabilities.

The report also called for the establishment of a dedicated research agency at continental level for systematic data collection and analysis to reinforce governments’ capacities to monitor the fashion industry and facilitate the dissemination of data and the sharing of good practices across Africa.

“There is also a major need to support data collection and research by reinforcing relevant government departments’ capacities, to develop indicator-based approaches and collect gender disaggregated statistical data,” the report recommended.

“On a smaller scale, other continent-wide monitoring initiatives should be supported, such as the work undertaken by the Council for International African Fashion Education (CIAFE) in mapping the state of fashion education and training with a view to providing roadmaps for improving access to quality education and vocational programmes.

“Different public and private institutions can be established to target the different aspects of the value chain, conduct studies, develop databases, and provide up-to-date analyses that can serve to identify priority action areas,” it suggested.

Traditional knowledge

The UNESCO report called for documenting traditional knowledge and artisan skills to guarantee their protection, and affirm the African creative and cultural identity.

“While the production of certain textiles can be industrialised or upscaled, many traditional African textiles depend on skilled artisans who have honed their craft over years of practice, generation after generation.”

Thus, the UNESCO report also called for the establishment of specialised hubs and workshops to facilitate person-to-person mentorship to preserve the quality, uniqueness and authenticity of traditional textiles.