The simple answer to the question of whether the Chinese are taking over Africa’s wax print business is, yes. But the story of the origin and ownership of African print is as surprising as it is indicative of the impact of capitalism and globalization on Africa.
In 2015, Ghana’s entrepreneur, Dziffa Ametrum, “Dear Afrocentrists, ‘African Prints’ Are Not from Africa” where she cautioned a growing population of Africa enthusiasts in the Diaspora that “African print” or the fabric made in the “idea of a of Kente” is “stolen by the Chinese and marketed to African Americans as ‘African prints’”.
“African prints have no connection to the continent whatsoever and they are destroying our local fabric industry. To make matters worse, African market women are importing them and selling them to tourists as African,” she explained.
The History of African Wax Print Before China
Analysts say Sub-Saharan Africa’s wax print market, also known as ankara in some parts of West Africa, has a retail value of $4 billion. The Dutch – Europeans, however, have long ruled the market. The Dutch gained a quick foothold in Africa’s textile industry by producing wash-safe fabric and light-weight material which became an everyday wear for Africans, where traditional Africa textiles such kente were only worn on special occasions.
“Since the early 20th century, Vlisco has produced African print cloth—otherwise known as Dutch wax prints. This vibrantly colored and intricately patterned fabric dominates West African markets and is globally recognized as quintessentially “African”…The rise of mass-produced, Dutch wax prints partially displaced domestic textiles, which lacked the colorfastness and material lightness that ultimately made wax prints an essential everyday consumer good”, Quartz explained in a 2016 article.
For example, Vlisco Group, the Dutch conglomerate with brands Vlisco, Uniwax, Woodin and GTP under the African print brand, produced 70 million yards of fabric (about 64 million meters) with revenue €300 million. All of its production took place in the Netherlands.
The Role of China In Africa’s Wax Print Business
But this story is quickly changing. In 2017, Ghanaians bought about 130 million yards (120 million metres) of textiles. The three largest local manufacturers ATL, GTP and Printex produce 30 million yards. 100 million yards came from Asian imports, that is, China.
One of China’s biggest players in the African textile industry is the Hitarget. Hitarget has become an African household name and trusted brand. It is the market leader among Chinese upstart brands and is in high demand among young people, especially for its price point. Some even consider HiTarget, which analysts say often copies the wax print design of the Dutch brands, an authentic wax print brand.
But despite these concerns, African entrepreneurs such as Moulaye of AFRIKREA say arguments about whether African print is Dutch or Chinese undermines the efforts of local manufacturers who become collateral damage in the witch hunt over ownership of African print. Moulaye believes that continued support and patronage of wax print generally will support the work of African manufacturers of wax prints. They may be rare but they do exist, he argues, and they include: “UNIWAX in Côte d’Ivoire…CICAM in Cameroon, SOBETEX in Benin, SONITEXTILE in Niger, and BATEXCI in Mali”.