For centuries, fashion’s raw materials – silk, cotton, hides – have made their way across the ocean from Africa to the capitals of fashion, such as London, Paris and New York. Only a fraction of what is produced – clothes, shoes – and tons of discarded second-hand garments make their way back, at hugely inflated prices or as charity donations. Walls of Benin, an ambitious fashion start-up, is seeking to disrupt this historical status quo by building factories to process loungewear in Africa and do the reverse: export the finished sleepwear apparel from Africa to wealthy Europe.

Walls of Benin is named after the famous 16th-century Kingdom of Benin, in what is now modern Nigeria. The company is the brainchild of Chi Atanga, 31. He calls himself “the chief evangelist” and not the CEO of Walls of Benin, because, he says, the goal is “to spread soft power through culture”.

“Our concept is to not perpetuate the stereotypical Africa to Europe raw materials-to-clothes value chain. We are introducing a new reverse,” he declares. “Can we take on the Goliath of lingerie, Victoria’s Secret? In Africa, yes, we can.”

“Our business is simple: We take the spirit of African print textiles and swap wax and heavy cloth for the more luxurious and ecological fabrics, digitally printing them in Portugal before shipping back to Kenya for production,” he says.

“We feel that fashion brands should manufacture some of their wares on the ground in Africa and create jobs, not merely export jeans, suits, etc from London and Paris.”

On 26 April 2018, Walls of Benin launched their African production hub and will soon become the first brand to export luxury loungewear from Kenya. The clothes are made from silk and Tencel, a natural fibre with extra softness and moisture-wicking properties.

Atanga has great confidence in the future of the largely ignored design and loungewear fashion industry in Africa. “This used to be a backwater – as Naomi Campbell once observed, there is no Vogue Africa magazine.”

But the tables are turning rapidly, he says. “Right now the African fashion industry is the sexiest on the earth; it is super exciting! It is new, but at the same time it is centuries old. We are talking of 52 countries and a huge diaspora population, with billions of dollars in diverse incomes.”

Walls of Benin is buoyed by US$100 000 seed money from the Portuguese government, and the enterprise is already up and running. “We are exporting the highest quality loungewear raw materials from the north of Portugal and England, for production in Kenya, and employing hundreds of people.”

Working with small suppliers

“In Kenya, we work with small suppliers, like eucalyptus farmers, to provide the remainder of our loungewear ecological raw materials, creating hundreds of jobs,” says Atanga.

Also in Kenya, Walls of Benin has sourced a dozen local small-holder producers of cotton, setting them to spin and twist the fibre into yarn, weaving and knitting the yarn into fabric, and bleaching, dying and printing the fabric to be used in the production of high-quality, fashionable sleepwear garments.

He says that specialist textile skills are being passed on to small producers in East Africa. “For example, we use digital printing techniques that allow us to achieve the same effect as traditional batik processes much faster.”

Chi Atanga poses in his loungewear

“We chose East Africa – Kenya – because along with Ethiopia, those countries know the value of a homegrown fashion industry. They are establishing training centres to educate their own entrepreneurs about diversifying into luxury garments.” He refers to the global fashion giant H & M, which, along with the SwedFund, the Swedish government’s development financier, is building a textile factory in Ethiopia to roll out 4 000 jobs, as a crucial validation for the region.

Kenya and Rwanda in East Africa have begun a ban on second-hand clothes from abroad.

One thing particularly pleases him: Kenya and Rwanda in East Africa have begun a ban on second-hand clothes from abroad.

Read: Tanzania starts training tailors as regional ban on second hand clothes loom

This is a masterstroke,” he says. “East Africa enjoys robust political stability.”

Parts of Africa are problematic for doing business. “In West Africa, in certain countries that I may not name explicitly, one has to pay cash bribes to get business permits, and the power supply is pitiful. As a clothes factory, you are forced to buy a back-up generator. That is unattractive to a business.” 

Africa’s golden moment

Atanga believes this is “Africa’s golden clothes moment” and that China is likely to be forced to manufacture significant amounts of their garments in East Africa.

“Wages are rising to up to US$200 per employee in China while costs are relatively low at US$120 per worker in East Africa,” he says. According to the World Bank, China is predicted to lose up to 85 million jobs in the textile industry and many of these will shift to South East Asia and Africa, Atanga says. “With the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) already extended to 2025, we should be able to tap into the US$12 billion loungewear market in the US alone.”

Atanga is Cameroon’s country representative on the UK Business Council for Africa, where he has aggressively argued for Poverty Alleviation in Africa through Smart Trade Policy in Fashion and Textiles”.

A closer look at Atanga, the man

“My family are from Cameroon, West Africa,” says Atanga, who is a former school teacher. He was born in England when his father won a scholarship to study pharmacology at Manchester Metropolitan University and “they stayed forever”.

His stubborn will and mixed heritage has inspired him to claim his stake in the loungewear industry and to do so in Africa. “I have always been a merchant; a trader – it is in my DNA. That shaped my outlook on life.”

As a young child he would sell bompon, sweets shipped in from Cameroon, on the school playground in Manchester. “I would add a little import tax, because they were made by ChocoCam, a company in Cameroon. They were a little more valuable, being imported from Africa,” he laughs.

He went to Ghana in 2013, on his first trip to Africa as an adult, after suffering burnt-out from his job in London. His depression left him as a soon he alighted from the plane.

I want to create wealth in fashion in an ethical way that impacts positively on African lives.” – Chi Atanga

“Everything was bright, vibrant and alive. It amazed me to see African print textiles everywhere. It dawned on me that this was part of my heritage.”

Read: Nigeria: Fashions Finest Africa Fashion Week, a photo essay

“I knew that creating a brand that processed actual loungewear clothes in Africa and returned them to Europe could be very profitable. This drove me to Portugal to work with the top tradesmen, brands and garments and to do the same in East Africa.

“By producing clothes in Africa and exporting them to Europe, I want to create wealth in fashion in an ethical way that impacts positively on African lives.”

He is proud of his efforts so far: “I am proud that I’m part of the UK Inquiry Committee established by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Trade Out of Poverty, focusing on trade among Commonwealth countries.”

Chatanga’s passion is sure to see him reach his goals of taking African fashion, produced in Africa, to the world.

About the journalist: Ray Mwareya is co-founder of Women Taboos Radio. Follow him at @rmwareya