Made In Africa: Kenyan Entrepreneur Makes Jeans For Africans Because Secondhand Imports Don’t Fit

Made In Africa: Kenyan Entrepreneur Makes Jeans For Africans Because Secondhand Imports Don’t Fit

Importing second-hand denim jeans is big business in Kenya, but some Kenyans struggle to find the perfect fit, partly because imported jeans are often designed for consumers in the East or West who have different body types, How We Made It In Africa reported.

Entrepreneur Andrew Kio saw a business opportunity. Ten years ago, when Kio was a student and actor, he asked a tailor to custom-make him a pair of jeans with his name embroidered on them. His friends wanted them too, and a business was born.

Kio taught himself to design and outsourced the sewing to a tailor. Soon he was earning more money selling jeans than from his acting jobs.

In 2007, after completing his studies, Kio set up a manufacturing facility. Today his company, Blacjack Jeans, produces about 1,000 pairs of jeans a month, according to How We Made It In Africa.

“There are people who can’t find the perfect pair of jeans in the second-hand market and don’t want to spend too much money on expensive designer brands. For instance, African women who are curvaceous struggle to get the right fit. We get customers who are too slim or plus size or too tall,” he told How We Made It In Africa.

African clothing retailers — especially single-brand retailers — face challenges as their less recognizable brands compete with branded second-hand clothing imported from Europe or the U.S., Business Day Live reported.

According to Deloitte’s African Powers of Retailing 2015 report, 96 percent of all retail transactions in Ghana, for example, are carried out in the informal sector. The informal sector is characterized by small market stalls and street-side vendors or independent, family-owned clothing stores and grocers. This is the retail format of choice.

In addition to recognizing and monetizing a niche in the informal economy, Kio is addressing a serious effect of the popularity of cheap second-hand clothes in Africa — the disappearance of clothing factories to serve local African markets.

“Instead of importing clothes, jeans in particular, we should be making our own clothes,” Kio said in an interview in Potentash.com. “We have the material — cotton — the processing industries, the tailors and the ready market. We usually get second hand clothes from other countries. Jeans in particular are hard to find especially for the African woman.

“Most of the jeans are tailor-made for American or Asian women who are not as curvaceous as African women. Thus you find that even in the event of an African lady getting jeans, most of them don’t even fit right. So we spend a lot of money going to the tailor.”

Initially Kio sold to individual customers only. He would take people’s measurements and design custom-made jeans for them. After U.S. fast-food chain KFC placed an order for its staff, Kio started selling jeans in bulk, How We Made It In Africa reported. Several other restaurants ordered jeans for their employees from Blacjack, and now restaurants are Kio’s biggest clients.

“(One big restaurant chain) orders 1,000 pieces every year,” Kio said.

Blacjack has three stores in Nairobi, and sells through online e-commerce platform Jumia. In the future, Kio said he hopes to retail his clothing at supermarkets across Kenya.

“We have developed an African size for sale in the mass market. After all these years, I know the way to cut and design jeans for the different body types of the African woman,” he said.

Jeans for Africans: regional design makes a difference

Kio said different regional variables call for different design features, fabrics and styles when making his jeans.

“For the coast of Kenya, I would design shorts or light jeans (to suit the hot climate),” he said. “In Central Kenya I would make slim jeans and (in the lake city of) Kisumu I would distribute more curvaceous jeans.”

Kio said there was trial and error in building his Blackjack Jeans company. It wasn’t always clear whether he should concentrate on making jeans full time or keep working on his acting career.

Sometimes the jeans didn’t fit and he lost money.

“One time I made a huge order for someone who was supposed to go sell in Mombasa and he disappeared after giving me just a small deposit,” he said. “But I learned from my mistake.”

In 2015, Blacjack was awarded $10,000 from a mentorship academy.

“That was when even my family realized this is a serious business,” Kio told How We Made It In Africa. “It was validating to see that other people now get what I have been trying to do all along. I also decided to stop the acting and concentrate on this. I will go back to acting after I have built my business.”

East Africa’s market for jeans is worth several billions of shillings, Kio said. “I only need to get 10 percent of that market.”

Africa’s huge demand for cheap second-hand clothing has severely harmed the clothing industries of many developing sub-Saharan African countries, according to a blog by the U.S.-based Acton Institute For The Study Of Religion And Liberty:

The impact of second-hand clothing sales on the markets of developing countries is visible and hugely negative, according to Andrew Brooks, author of “Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-Hand Clothes.”

Many developing countries in Africa that depend on second-hand clothing today had healthy local industries 30 years ago, Brooks said.

Many African countries established clothing factories to serve local markets after the end of colonialism to spur industrialization, as happened in South Korea and China. Unlike their Asian counterparts, African leaders were unable to protect their infant industries and under political pressure from banks and governments in the West, were forced to liberalize their economies in the 1980s and 1990s.

This meant that African clothing factories had to compete with imported goods, like second-hand clothes. Cheaper imported garments flooded African markets and workers in clothing factories lost their jobs. Meanwhile there were falling incomes across the continent due to the debt crisis and the long-term decline in the price of agricultural products, such as cotton. Used clothing imports boomed, forging a relationship of dependency.

The destruction of the local garment industries was swift and unforgiving. The number of people employed in the garment industry in Kenya has decreased from 500,000 to 20,000 since the 1980s. In some developing countries, second-hand clothing makes up the majority of clothing sales in the country. For example, in Uganda, an estimated 81 percent of all clothing sales are of second-hand items. The second-hand market provides some jobs, but the inconsistency of product quality and lack of control over the supply makes for weak employment.

A strong domestic clothing industry is important for overall economic health.

“No country has ever achieved a sustainable per capita national income” without a strong domestic garment industry, according to Garth Frazer, a professor from University of Toronto.

Recently, several East African countries have moved toward banning the sale of second-hand clothing, but the rebuilding of the largely diminished garment industries will require renewed infrastructure, access to inputs such as cotton, and support for reopening factories.

The U.S. and the U.K., the largest exporters of second-hand clothing, can help to mitigate the problem by recognizing the effects of the second-hand donations on other markets and working with the governments and people of impacted countries to reduce the unintended consequences of the donation market.