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By Mmapula Molapong
The CEO of Development Reimagined, Hannah Ryder is disrupting the status-quo and proving to the Chinese market that Africa is not just about raw materials but also about high end finished products.
Speaking to her at the just ended First Africa Economic and Trade Expo hosted by the Chinese government in the city of Hunan province, Changsha, Ryder said the concept of Africa Reimagined is to shift the perceptions of what is in the Chinese consumers mind. “The perception of Africa at the moment in China is that there are no brands and there is just raw materials, we want to disrupt that and help change that, that is how we came up with the idea of Africa Reimagined as a kind of exhibition concept. This is our first pilot and we are already having products flying off the shelves. This is to also help the seven African brands that are here to learn how to better access the Chinese market, network with distributors, investors, government officials, and embassy personnel.” She said.
According to her, for the 53 African countries with diplomatic relations with China, the China relationship has in some ways helped these countries achieve its Sustainable Development Goals. However, there has been a stark Imbalance in the trade composition between China and 40 of these African countries. According to her this stark trade imbalance severely affects the capacity of African countries to create jobs, earn foreign exchange, and develop sustainably to cut poverty, calling for building a more sustainable Africa-China relationship that alleviates the acute trade imbalance. She says to address this issue, Development Reimagined pioneered the first China Market Entry Bespoke Program - an aid for trade or trade facilitation project to catalyse manufactured trade to China from Africa, help African and global businesses to scale up manufacturing on the continent, attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from China and beyond, and ultimately create new jobs and improve lives in Africa.
Ryder is a former Kenyan and British diplomat and economist with over 15 years of experience. She has recently founded Development Reimagined, a wholly foreign-owned enterprise based in Beijing. The company provides strategic advice and practical support to Chinese and international organizations and stakeholders on issues from the Belt and Road Initiative, to Africa’s growth markets, development effectiveness, green growth and China’s foreign aid.
She invited seven companies from various sectors such as lifestyle, fashion, jewellery, and skincare that come from a broad range of African countries like Nigeria, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya and Zimbabwe to the Expo. “All the brands have a strong sustainability component to their business models, with a strong dedication to cutting poverty and promoting ethical business practices through their supply chains. Many of them are already selling in the U.S. and Europe.” She noted.
“We spoke to about 60 companies in order to get here, these seven were the ones that stood out and we worked really hard to bring them here, and they are also interested but their reaction was Why China. We had to convince them to come see for themselves because most of them believe the market is in the US and Europe. Some of them are now thinking of driving their marketing and sales budget that is driven towards the US and Europe market to China, but they still need a lot of support to understand the Chinese market and to embrace e-commerce.” She noted.
One of the exhibitors from Ethiopia, Sustainable fashion designer based in Addis Ababa and the owner of Mafi Mafi, Mahlet Afework, said she produces ethically made products. “Fashion is my passion and I have been doing it since I was 16 and I started my company when I was 21 years in 2011. I have a vision; I want to see sustainability and not just beauty. We own the value chain because I want to see the whole process. We get some of the items from the small farmers. We weave our own fabric which is created in our own workshop and we design our own thing. I want to make sure that the people behind it and who are involved in the whole process are getting paid fairly and treated well.” She said.
She says her vision is for her brand to be wholly sustainable by the year 2030. “That is very important nowadays and we need to think of the environment as fashion designers because it is getting scary these days.” She noted.
She says hand weaving in Ethiopia has been there for more than 500 years. “They work as a corporate and I source from them, I also have weavers who work directly for me full time and most of them are women. Our signature is very simple, we use light fabric and we try to make unique designs. We don’t do winter season that much, I am usually into spring summer fashion.” She noted.
She says in order for her to penetrate the market she started showcasing in various African countries like, Tanzania, Angola and Nigeria. “I started travelling and that is how I got to get invited to other fashion shows. I received a fashion award in Addis in 2012, my second award and it gave me the opportunity to showcase in the New York Africa fashion week which opened a lot of doors for my brand in London and in New York. We started getting a lot of customers who wanted to buy our products in London and in the US, but our biggest market is the US.” She said.
She says she is working with the likes of Jamaican reggae recording artist, Damian Marley which is a dream come true for her and noted that she is currently designing him some clothes for his upcoming tour in Europe.
Afework added that she has never thought of China as a market and that she was sceptical when the opportunity presented itself. “The Chinese people like the product that we have and we know that this is huge market but I don’t know if I want to scale up quickly for this huge market because I like slow fashion, I like to grow organically. I also want to be the first African brand to introduce African contemporary fashion to the Chinese market, but at the same time to introduce sustainability and how it’s made and how it matters to wear it with artisans. It’s also a way of talking about your heritage. I’m really excited about the Chinese market and to see what I can do with it.” She stated.
She however mentioned that she cannot do mass production as she sees this as a passion and not as business. “Making money is just to sustain the business. I want to stay in Beijing for a bit longer to learn about the e-commerce and maybe think of launching our own e-commerce platform.” She said.
Afework says she is very involved in women associations in Ethiopia because those are the same platforms that got her where she is. “I want to help other younger women who want to penetrate the fashion industry and we currently have an internship program that mostly targets women to do just that.” She noted.