‘Hands Up’ for Sustainable Fashion in Ghana

Akwaaba from Ghana, West Africa! Check out our Sustainable Clothing

In the  previous post, I talked about my vision for women’s empowerment and economic development in Ghana through providing a “hand-up” to financial independence. Now I’d like to be more specific about the business I’m engaged in and our plans are for creating a thriving “hand-up” environment. There are several parts to our overall business focus, all of which revolve around the idea that if we can provide women with the tools to develop a sought-after profession, namely sewing and dressmaking, they can use their skills to create an empowered life.

Sewing is a major source of income here in Ghana and there are little sewing and tailoring shops in small metal container structures everywhere. It’s very rare for your average Ghanaian to go to the mall and buy clothing off the rack. Only the very wealthy can afford to do that. The two main sources of clothes are the outdoor markets and having clothes hand-made.

Sustainable Fashion in Open-Air Markets:

Picture1

This is the scene at one of the many markets in Accra – organized chaos!

Picture2

A bra merchant at the market; behind her a stall selling only second-hand Converse shoes

The outdoor market “clothing outlets” deserve mention because this second-hand clothing arrives in Ghana in huge bales – the clothes that thrift shops in the U.S. and Europe don’t sell end up in marketplaces all over developing nations. If you think these clothes are freely given to those in need, think again.  Merchants sort through the clothes, buy what they want for their market stall, and then resell them. It’s really quite fascinating what one can buy at the market. Everyone has their own specialty – one lady sells only bras, another only hats; one man sells only cargo shorts, another dress shoes.  It’s like shopping in the world’s largest thrift store and I hear that I haven’t even been to the largest clothing market in Accra yet!  There’s more to be said about open-market clothes shopping but I’ll leave that to another post.

Keeping Sustainable Fashion Fitting:

Dressmaking and tailoring shops abound – in the small town where I live there must be at least 10, maybe more. Every little village has its dressmaker or tailor (women typically make only women’s or children’s clothing; men typically make only men’s clothing – though men might also make dresses for women). Sewing shops have big posters on the wall showing many different clothing styles. You just take the fabric you want to use and choose a style – the seamstress or tailor takes your measurements and sews it up for you!

Picture3

In one of the alleyways of the market, a seamstress has set up her machine. You can buy your fabric in one aisle and have it sewn into clothing in the next aisle.

An Education in Sustainable Fashion:

A girl with an interest in dressmaking will apprentice for up to two years with an experienced seamstress. She will learn everything from how to use a simple, hand-cranked sewing machine to sewing small accessories, and eventually to making fashionable dresses. Some may then choose to go on to fashion design school, but these vocational college programs are quite costly. A two-year apprenticeship with a seamstress costs the equivalent of about $250 U.S. Dollars in today’s economy – to most of us a small amount, but many families can’t afford the cost of an apprenticeship for their daughter.

A related and quite interesting recent development is that the African continent is becoming known for sewn product manufacturing on a large scale. The beleaguered economies in most African countries make it possible to pay workers a liveable wage, and at the same time, offer sewn product companies competitive pricing. When sewing factories take a stand against the fast fashion industry and instead take steps to insure that they offer good wages, clean and safe workplaces, and meaningful work, customers can feel good about the products they receive – not to mention the positive marketing tool inherent in manufacturing with fair trade oriented factories!

For U.S.-based companies there’s an additional factor that makes Africa a great place to have products sewn. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed a law called the “African Growth and Opportunities Act” (AGOA). This act makes it possible for products sewn in Africa to be shipped to the U.S. duty-free, another financial incentive for sewn product companies to shift their manufacturing here.

So with all that in mind, let me now move on to what we’re starting here in Ghana!

The Business of Sustainable Fashion Products:

As mentioned in the previous post, I own a small business called “Batiks for Life”. Currently, we make medical scrubs using batik fabric, though we plan to branch out into different batik products soon. Our marketing is primarily in the U.S. but we’ve had customers from around the world. My original idea was simply to make this product here in Ghana and market it abroad. Due to various circumstances, one simple idea branched out into the development of a sewing cooperative!

Working with two business partners – one Ghanaian and one U.K./U.S. citizen – our vision is to develop a sewing cooperative in the “business and employment cooperative” model.  The cooperative would include a sewing apprenticeship program for disadvantaged women.  In a business and employment cooperative, employees have a voice in the development of the business and are supported in the development of their own business outside the cooperative.  This model has been perfected by the Mondragon Corporation in Spain.

Our U.K./U.S. based partner also has a clothing line, “Walls of Benin”  which manufactures men’s pajamas using Ghanaian fabrics. I’ll be highlighting Walls of Benin products in a future post. Our Ghanaian partner is the director of a Ghana-based NGO which will serve in a fundraising capacity for the apprenticeship program. I’ll say more about the NGO’s activities as we move ahead with plans.

Right now we are getting close to launching the cooperative. I had hoped things would be well underway by this point, but we had some hurdles to jump first. Fingers crossed, we will have our business registration soon. Then the fun will begin with planning the inner workings of the cooperative, setting up the apprenticeship program, and getting things underway!

At the moment though, we’re deep into practical things like painting and cleaning the business and sewing facility, so I’d best get back to it!

 

Related articles

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedin
Sara Corry

About the Author

Sara Corry, aka Abena Sara lives in the Eastern Region of Ghana, West Africa, close to the capital city, Accra. Tropical Africa is feeling like home now after nearly 30 years as a desert dweller! When not involved in business development, she can be found with camera in hand trying to photograph the beautiful native bird life. She writes a blog about daily life in Ghana, and is a contributor to a website devoted to wildlife conservation in Africa. She has a passion for travel and would jump on a plane to almost anywhere at a moment’s notice!

One thought on “‘Hands Up’ for Sustainable Fashion in Ghana

  1. I’ve been wanting to start a sewing cooperative, though here in the U.S. It’s exciting that you are able to do that in Ghana! Can’t wait to hear more 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.