In Koudougo, the International Exhibition of Cotton and Textile (SICOT), is the jamboree of all players in the sector. Of these, some, like Ethic Apparel Africa (EAA), are developing innovative models for better integration of African manufactures into the international textile value chain. Meeting with Justin Hendrix, in charge of strategy and partnerships within the company.
Agence Ecofin: How would you summarize the model of Ethic Apparel Africa (EAA)?
Justin Hendrix: Ethic Apparel Africa is essentially a clothing supply agency. We connect factories, mostly African, to American, British or European brands. We are leveraging agreements such as the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) and other free trade agreements to promote apparel exports from West Africa to these destinations.
Our core business is to build bridges between these manufacturers and brands. But, given the strong competitiveness of the sector, part of our efforts goes in the direction of strengthening the technical capabilities of these African factories. We help them to rise to the standards required by international brands. One of the most important aspects of our action is related to the ethical criterion.
Textile workshop in Ethiopia.
We make sure that our partners comply with this obligation and that they go even further, reinvesting in the workforce and improving the living conditions of employees. We are fighting against the introduction in Africa of practices in the textile sector of other developing countries such as Bangladesh.
“We are fighting against the introduction in Africa of practices in the textile sector of other developing countries like Bangladesh. ”
We are currently working with three factories, including two in Ghana and one in Benin. The company is made up of about fifteen people and welcomes members for short experiences. The management team has long been based in Ghana before returning to live in the West. But the technical team is based in Ghana and Benin. They are in the factories every day and ensure compliance with the standards and production standards. We also have in the field a team in charge of the logistical aspects of our activity.
AE: Why would a brand bet on you rather than bet on the classic model that has proven itself in Bangladesh for example?
JH: Why prefer our model to the one prevailing in a country like Bangladesh? Already for purely economic reasons. Here, we benefit from free trade agreements that allow us to ship production from our factories to Europe, the United Kingdom or the United States without customs duties. This represents a cost advantage of the order of 15 to 32%, depending on the raw material used in the manufacture. Our shipments also go faster because our shipments take 15 days to arrive on the old continent. The delay is twice as long when shipments leave Asia.
“Here, we benefit from free trade agreements that allow us to ship production from our factories to Europe, the United Kingdom or the US without customs duties. This represents a cost advantage of the order of 15 to 32%, depending on the raw material used in the manufacture. ”
The USA can be reached in 18 days in a direct line, but we are currently 30 days to reach it. But even in this context, we ship our production faster than our Asian competitors.
So we are cheaper in tariffs, we are going faster and the cost of labor here is relatively affordable, even compared to China and Bangladesh.
AE: What are the difficulties we encounter when implementing a project like yours in Africa?
JH: Our model is based on partnerships with factories already established on the continent and employing more than 50 workers. And so one of the difficulties we encounter when we have this model is that the structures here have never produced for export. Also, we had to develop a set of new skills in order to teach them to produce at the level of requirement of brands in France and in the USA, for example. This work involved teaching them specific production methods. It is very different to work with perfectly well-rounded actors who master these things. It was therefore necessary to bring everyone up to standard, and apply to transmit them specific skills such as cutting or digital models. We had to train a lot on our own or turn to institutions like USAID which developed a set of training programs to help African companies fill this gap.
“In some cases, we find ourselves in situations where the factories here are waiting to receive orders before investing in this equipment while the brands on the other side require the plant to be equipped with these specific equipment before even to order. ”
It was also necessary to confront the logistical challenge of importing specific machines for the manufacture of certain components such as collars and buttons. In some cases, we find ourselves in situations where factories, here, are waiting to receive orders before investing in this equipment while brands on the other side require that the plant be equipped with these specific equipment even before to place an order. Bringing together machines and skills to get the best out of them and, above all, preserving these skills over time is perhaps the most complicated part of our job.
AE: But you still record victories …
JH: Yes, of course. For example, a little before my arrival in the company, we managed to connect our partner in Benin and an American brand that has placed orders. It was the first time the country had shipped clothing to the US under AGOA. It went well and for a while the factory sent containers every month. It has doubled its workforce from 50 to more than 100 people. At one point, orders slowed down and it was difficult then to maintain this level of manpower. But growth is a process and we consider this experience to have been very positive.
AE: What are your goals today?
JH: Our company aims to develop the African textile sector. We consider this sector to be very important in terms of industrialization. Countries often start making clothes and then gradually develop other industries. For us, it is therefore a key sector in the march towards industrialization. We must therefore develop reproducible models.
But it is not for us to run after industrialization at any price. We value the ethical dimension of our action. We are therefore aiming at empowering people working in the factories of our partners. We want them to acquire skills and, above all, we want to pass on to our partners the relay on activities such as production management or quality control and compliance with international standards.