The African tech accelerator space and the continent’s fashion industry might seem as far apart as any two spaces could possibly be.
One organisation, however, is looking to change all that. Kenyan entrepreneurship hub Mettā recently announced the names of the eight fashion designers from across the continent that will take part in the second cycle of its Fashion Product Lab.
The aim of the lab is to connect designers with fashion-focused technology companies, and help them use information and communication technology to sell more of their products while gaining better visibility.
Project lead Fiona Kiruja said there were many people across the continent with a passion for designing, but too often they do not have the technical expertise or marketing reach needed to become profitable, scalable businesses.
“The Fashion Product Lab was intentionally pan-African to bring a cohort of the next big designers to come together, build linkages across markets and alliances to scale their companies. At the end we also help them build a retail network, partnerships and ultimately raise funding,” she said.
The overall goal is the production of a new “holistic breed of fashion designers” who are not only well-versed in the craft and the dealings of the fashion industry, but also those of the business industry.
Mettā is specifically focused on helping these designers tell their brand stories and piece together their financial models, product pricing and costings. It helps them build and manage their teams, and prepares them to pitch their businesses to investors.
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“Technology is an inevitable element that is quickly taking over most, if not all, of the industries today. The application of tech as an element to fashion businesses creates an opportunity for more efficient and effective business to consumer relations, where the consumers are able to, in real time, communicate with the designers and make necessary alterations to their garments if need be,” Kiruja said.
“Tech also increases the dependency and efficiency of production as, as of this moment, consumers are able to sample various fabric types with diverse silhouettes on web platforms, which reduces the in-authenticity and mistrust of e-commerce platforms. It also provides ample room for trial and error with sketches of designs and samples of the designs.”
Such tech ranges from the very simplest, such as the incorporation of 3D features and customer feedback forms on websites, all the way to the type and nature of the machinery used in design and production of clothing.
“Tech is slowly taking over the industry from the simplest forms of it to the most complex forms,” Kiruja said.
One person who agrees, and can vouch for the increased interest in fashion tech startups from investors, is William McCarren.
His Kenya-based startup ZUMI, a digital media platform for fashion, recently secured a $250,000 funding round in order to expand into new markets and diversify into e-commerce.
McCarren said the growth in e-commerce has resulted in technology and fashion becoming inextricably linked.
“More and more fashion is being bought online and developers are working to solve the key customer pain points to continue boosting this growth,” he said.
He cited international startups like ClothCap, which is building a virtual try-on system to solve sizing issues, as well as Amazon’s Style Check, which uses machine learning to make outfit recommendations.
“In the next 10 years, we should see tech-enabled fashion that is made to measure, made to order and recommended by algorithms,” he said.
However, few fashion businesses in Africa have yet realised the potential of technology beyond e-commerce. McCarren expects this to change.
“There is tremendous potential for entrepreneurs in Africa to build disruptive tech-enabled fashion businesses that scale alongside rapid growth in the emerging urbanised middle classes,” he said.
And with this increased adoption of technology within Africa’s fashion industry, he expects more startups in the space on the continent to follow ZUMI’s lead and secure funding for growth.
“Investors are attracted by the opportunity to leapfrog the traditional fashion retail market with e-commerce and tech-based products,” McCarren said.
“With that said, e-commerce in particular is expensive and competitive, so the appetite here will really depend on the investment thesis. I think SaaS solutions that solve key fashion e-commerce products like ClothCap will boom in the next decade.”
Tom Jackson is the co-founder of tech news and research platform Disrupt Africa and a journalist covering innovation on the continent from the Cape to Cairo.