At a small fashion studio in Lagos, the designers and tailors are busy cutting clean lines through the swathes of fabric. “Cotton T-shirts were the first item we produced,” says designer Oroma Cookey-Gam, co-founder of This is Us, which makes contemporary Nigerian designs, from oversized shirts to jumpsuits and kaftans, using locally produced cotton.
To source the cotton, Cookey-Gam makes a monthly trip to Funtua textile mill, a factory in Katsina in the north, which is one of the few mills fully operational in the country. She then makes the three-hour journey to the Kofar Mata dye pit in Kano, the oldest pit in Nigeria, where the cloth is hand-dyed for up to eight hours into shades of indigo.
Cookey-Gam used to import cotton from Morocco and Turkey but in 2016 embarked on a year-long search to source materials in her home country. While two-thirds of African countries produce cotton, with some of the continent’s largest producers in west Africa, more than 81% of it is exported out of sub-Saharan countries, leaving little to be used locally. A recent Unesco report warned that exports were restricting the growth of the region’s textile and fashion industries, harming its economic opportunities.
“Africa is exporting something which could really create a huge industry and enormous number of jobs,” says Ernesto Ottone, Unesco’s assistant director-general for culture.
Nigeria’s textile industry, like others in Africa, took off in the 60s and 70s but declined as secondhand and foreign-made clothes poured into African markets following a wave of trade liberalisation policies. Now, businesses like This is Us face huge challenges in trying to source materials.
Ginneries – where the seeds from cotton are removed – in Nigeria deal with bulk orders so are less interested in selling to fashion startups, says Cookey-Gam. “When we first went to the mill, they didn’t take us seriously. They said they can’t work with fashion because the orders are not big enough,” she says, explaining how she partnered up with other brands to make bulk orders.