Saturday, October 10, 2009

the chinese man behind the waxprint curtain

When One Mango Tree began, we were small enough that I could waltz around Gulu market, plucking six yards of each print of kitenge that I liked, and have some bags made out of it (see photo at left). As soon as OMT launched as an online retail business, I knew this wasn't going to work anymore. Even so, our small quantities made it easy to just find maybe 100 yards of a certain print at a time.

Then we started to grow. After connecting with Greater Good early in 2009, we needed 500 yards of each particular print to meet order quantities. I found myself going downtown to Nakivubo Mews every day to buy fabric and make sure they had enough of the prints I'd selected. I'd often take photos, get an order, and come back to find they were already gone within a few days. When we started selling wholesale and retail to Global Girlfriend, we'd stretched the local purchase model as far as it could go. You just can't get 1000 yards of one single print, no matter how hard the local vendors tried.

I don't give up easily, but after weeks and weeks of boda rides back and forth downtown with no success of finding bulk kitenge, I threw in the towel. And I wanted to know WHY?!

The origins of "waxprint" fabric dates back to Dutch colonial occupation in Indonesia. The Dutch learned about batik techniques from local artisans, and decided to adapt this technique with all the new gadgets from the Industrial Revolution. They started printing "waxprint," but it wasn't too popular in Europe. Instead they decided to explore the new market down south - the African colonies. Africans loved the fabrics, and dresses and suites made from the bright cotton prints became the fashionable choice across the continent.

African factories picked up on production, and the textile industry in countries across the African map flourished from production of the fabrics.

And then China stepped in. African factories could not compete with the Chinese knock-offs coming in by the container-load in Mombasa (right) and African markets were filled with imported prints. The prints come in 12 yard sections, piecemeal and ready to be bought by budding tailoring businesses to create African garb. Each bale could have hundreds of different prints, making it virtually impossible to sell the fabrics in bulk. And at a price of only $1.50 per one can compete.

I find it disheartening to walk through African markets seeing row after row of cheap Chinese-made products - cups and plates and lanterns that often break after one use. How cheap is cheap anyway? And to realize that our authentic African bags were really Chinese-made fabrics... it launched me on a campaign to find a seriously authentic fabric for our bags - even if we had to find an artist and make it ourselves.

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