When retired President of United Republic of Tanzania Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete took power in 2005, he was described as one of the most handsome leaders in Africa.Beyond that, President Jakaya Kikwete was said to be the most smartly dressed head of state.Combine beauty and smart dressing, and you have a perfect human being in eyes of the World.That was however happening despite the notion of Tanzanian fashion being regarded as an oxymoron. This is not a critique of Tanzanians’ capacity to be intrinsically stylish, as there is plenty of evidence to reflect the contrary.Rather, the Tanzanian fashion industry, historically, was based on adopting and adapting the looks that evolved internationally, predominantly from Europe and United States of America. The contemporary fashion industry in Tanzania has really only developed an individual identity in the past 15 years.To put this into some context is to also understand the evolution and shifts in the Tanzanian fashion system over the past two decades.My early memories of the Tanzania fashion industry in the 2000s are clustered in two key locations of Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar. These two locales housed industrial spaces in multi-floor buildings where the heart and soul of the fashion industry thrived.Today the industry had dispersed and cites like Arusha, Mwanza and Mbeya are now part of those seeking a stake in the fashion industry. With the rising costs of inner city locations, fashion houses are moving their bases out across suburbs and designers and brands are spreading across Tanzania. Local manufacturing has shrunk as most production now takes place in offshore factories with no connection to the local scene.The geographical displacement of the fashion industry and the shift in manufacturing practices has resulted in a move from an Tanzanian large-scale manufacturing hub to the development of fashion clusters across Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar in which creative collaborations thrive and emerging designers prosper.Tanzanian fashion is in a unique position, with approximately 92% of its industry representation being small to medium businesses. As a cohort of enterprises, they are spread across the mainland and islands of Zanzibar, often working in isolated pockets.
Across Tanzania, many smaller practitioners are flourishing, despite the efforts of mainstream media to create alarmist commentary on the industry going into a downhill slide and no future for Tanzania’s creative designers.As more designer labels struggle, they often do not have the infrastructure and resources to deal with higher overheads such as increased shop rents, volatile supply chains and shifts in purchasing patterns of major retailers.It only needs one thing to go wrong for a business to be destroyed.One of the key issues for many fashion businesses in the country is that they have continued to work within a system that worked 15 years ago but is less successful today. Designers in the famous Kariakoo Market who rely on wholesaling are finding it increasingly difficult to survive in a world where long lead times requiring investment in production and materials are no longer offset by retailers with a big spending budget.On average, Tanzanian retailers now commonly demand payment terms of 60 -120 days or more meaning the designer gets paid 60 days or more after the invoice is issued and all the risk sits with the designer supplying the product. If merchandise doesn’t sell then, the retailer demands a discount or worse, returns all the goods within the stipulated period.In the case where goods maybe faulty, the Tanzanian designers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a claim against suppliers in other countries like Kenya and Uganda with different trade rules and retailers equally refusing to accept the goods.Me think there is light at the end of the tunnel with two areas of specialisation having the capacity to strengthen businesses.The first concept is keeping it small and keeping it special.Emerging designers are opening engaged and experiential retail spaces, offering informed and positive service. These are often pop up stores like the ones found in Upanga, Mikocheni, Msasani, Kinondoni and Sinza that encourage the consumer to buy now, before it disappears.Another alternative is an incredible growth area in online retail. Online shopping is slowly becoming the new norm in Tanzania allowing designers to be in control of their own supply chain.
Interactive websites are enabling smaller scale enterprises to test the retail market, react to consumer demand and offer merchandise countrywide, without the constraints of potentially expensive and volatile countrywide expansion.The online market is providing Tanzanian designers with a fertile interface with regional and international fashion advocates, without the constraints of trying to make it big in and outside Tanzania. However, this does require shifting the processes and systems embedded with the fashion industry, something not easily done.My advice, using Tanzanian vernacular, Jenga soko nyumbani kwanza which is Swahili meaning focus on home market first. The shining light of expansion is not so rosy when you are chasing creditors, dealing with multitudes of different customs requirements and hit with overwhelming logistics bills.The Tanzania fashion scene is shifting and I believe it is on the brink of a new era. The assumption that Tanzania is a season behind South Africa and Nigeria in African market is no longer relevant.The concept of trans seasonal fashion, clothing that is adaptable for many climates has become quite the norm across Africa. This has been predominantly fuelled by the need for large scale fashion conglomerates to attract some of the lucrative share of the African markets, where climates are often distinctly different to northern hemisphere.Tanzanians designers benefit from this shift, as they create collections adaptable to varying temperatures, a criterion that works across Tanzania as it does for Africa market penetration.The way Africans wear clothes has also changed, as Africans move from air-conditioned houses in Dar Es Salaam to air-conditioned Uber cars and then to air-conditioned offices,need for weather-specific wear is falling and this will open opportunities to develop designs of varying weights and fibres that are adaptable to many environments.All of this is, of course, only relevant if an Tanzanian designer sees the need to pursue the dream of East Africa and Africa expansion.