We had the chance to catch up with Mark Kwami, one of the speakers at West Africa Connect. At the event, he will give an inspirational talk about how to successfully export from Africa. So, who is Mark Kwami? And what is his connection to (West) Africa? Let’s find out!
Can you tell us a bit about your educational and vocational background, Mark?
“I was born in Germany, although I moved to Ghana as a kid—my father is Ghanaian and my mother, German. When I moved back to Germany at 18, I started studying Industrial Design at the University of Fine Arts in Berlin and completed my masters. Afterwards, I started teaching and introduced a new subject called World Design, where we looked at design from a non-Western perspective. I wanted to sensitise students to be aware that the products they design will be used in different parts of the world, and to consider this in their design process.
A little time later, I started working for GIZ (German Development Agency) who started up a new project called the European African Cooperation on Handicrafts, to promote the export of craft products from Africa to the European market. During this project, I realised that besides product design, there were other key requirements that African craft producers needed to meet in order to successfully enter the European Market. I therefore started to learn more about production management, quality assurance, costing and pricing, business management, and marketing. So, my role as a product design consultant evolved into an all-around design and business development consultant! In the years that followed, I started working as a crafts sector expert for numerous international development organisations such as the European Union, USAID, CBI, and several other organisations.”
What is your relation to the West African textile and garment industry?
“In the early 2000s, I started a brand called Made in Africa Collection, where my wife and I started developing and selling furniture and home accessories made in West Africa. We had six shops, five in Germany and one in The Netherlands. This was an interesting experience for me. It allowed me to manage all the stages of the value chain, from developing a product, producing it, exporting it, importing it into Europe, wholesaling, and finally getting it into our shops for the final consumer. To witness the full circle of the product life cycle was an enormous valuable lesson for me. This helped me in my work as a sector expert for home decoration for the Dutch organisation CBI (Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries) for whom I worked for over 13 years.
In 2017, I was approached by the UN Refugee Agency, to consult on a new project aimed at including refugees in global value chains. We created the brand named MADE51, featuring a collection of beautifully crafted refugee made home décor and fashion accessories, that are now being marketed and distributed all around the globe.”
Is working in your industry something you always already wanted to do?
“Having this mixed background—growing up in Africa, benefitting from education there and then coming to Germany to study at the University—always made me want to give something back since the African continent gave me so much. After finishing my masters, I could have started working as a product or industrial designer for a big German brand, but that is not what it wanted to do. I wanted to give back! Even during my studies, I went back to Africa to do research on traditional African design and write my thesis on the need to Redevelop an African Identity in Design. So yes, in that sense I think that I’ve accomplished my desire to give back to the continent I grew up on.”
And what is it that excites you most about what you are doing?
“Working with artisans in this business has taught me a lot. Working in this sector, I was always confronted with the scepticism that Africa was not able to compete with other regions in the world. Working with extremely talented artisans around the continent, I begun to question the goal of trying to compete with Asian suppliers that were able to include a higher level of mechanisation into production, and whose price points were much lower than was achievable in many African countries. Instead, I started to focus on the strengths. Besides the great crafts skills and rich cultural heritage passed down for centuries, the African crafts sector adds value to local raw materials and has the potential to create jobs, especially for marginalised communities in the rural areas. Allowing these people to sustain a living with this almost ancient crafts knowledge is fantastic and meets the growing demand of consumers around the world for more authentic products that tell the story of the maker.”
How do you see the future for West African companies within the garments and textile industry?
“In Africa, you unfortunately don’t have that many opportunities when it comes to an education in design. There are only a few countries on the continent where you can train as a fashion- or product designer. This lack of design capacity was always one of the challenges for African producers and exporters, as these are sectors where design is so crucial. What I am seeing now in the African textile sector, though, is that many younger African designers that were either trained in Europe or the United States are coming back to the continent to start their own companies or brands. They are creating an exciting and new African design identity, which is great to see.
Before this trend, there was a lot of copying of design from other continents, but now there is a movement of young confident designers and entrepreneurs that come back to Africa. This is getting visual support from big Hollywood films such as Black Panther that celebrates Afro-Futurism. There are also more black designers running successful global brands who are getting international acclaim. Besides that, there is also a growing young middle class in Africa that is buying and wearing African fashion. In addition to that, more and more global fashion brands are trying to become more inclusive and try to source from Africa. This all gives me hope that the African fashion and garment sector has a bright future ahead of it! However, this sector also must become more sustainable and ecologically responsible. So, all in all, exciting times ahead.”