If you have paid attention to some of the world’s top lifestyle magazines lately, you might have noticed the recurring appearance of bold, colourful, intricately patterned cloth called “African wax prints”. Wax has been a wardrobe staple in Africa since the early 20th century, but in recent years it’s being increasingly embraced by the mainstream in the West.
From Europe to America, wax used to be a strictly fashion affair confined to diaspora fashion designers and low-profile exotic themed events. Now it forms collections of global luxury fashion houses, expands to accessories, handbags, interior design, and travel gear; and stars in TV shows and large-scale tradeshows. Wax is embarking on a new journey in the spotlight, bringing opportunities at the intersection of design, business, and fashion.
But Western consumers regularly see trends come and go: can wax become more of a lasting thing? How can Africa-based/-inspired fashion industry from manufacturers to designers to entrepreneurs, capitalize on the momentum and create serious business with the mainstream? Beyond fashion, how can African products and brands crack international markets?
To find out, I have tracked the rise of wax from Kinshasa DR Congo to Amsterdam The Netherlands, from Nairobi Kenya to Brazzaville Congo to Brussels Belgium; and met with numerous designers, consumers, retailers, entrepreneurs, and industry experts.
The Complicated Origin
Despite being generally used to symbolize Africa, wax was not born in Africa.
In the 19th century when Holland was a colonial power “possessing” the East Indies (today’s Indonesia), Haarlemsche Katoen Maatschappij (HkM), a Dutch textile company, managed to produce a machine-made version of batik, a traditional Indonesian cloth. But when the Dutch batik arrived in the Indonesian market, it flopped. Local customers didn’t like the “crackling effect” — a series of imperfections visible on all textiles.
In need for an alternative market, HkM turned to West Africa. After all, 1/ West Africa was conveniently located on the route to Indonesia, and 2/ batik had already penetrated there because the local men enlisted in the Dutch army’s Indonesian battalions, had been for some time returning home with batik as gifts for their loved ones. And voilà: West Africans fell in love with the Dutch batik, embracing its imperfections, and valuing its brightness and robustness.
Over the years, Africans have put wax at the core of their lifestyle. “In difficult times, lots of women pawn their “Super Wax Hollandais” (high-end wax brand) says Solange Singbo, a major wax retailer in the Congo. “Others will boast to friends and family about the amount of Super Wax items they have received from a man, to tell how serious he is in courting her”.
An Ambassador Called Beyoncé
Wax couldn’t have dreamed of a better adopter than Beyoncé, as her trendsetter influence is one of the most powerful globally. She was captured wearing wax several times, both at high-profile events and in unformal settings. This created a huge buzz and conversations in social media and other places wax had never reached before.
Other high-profile wax adopters include Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Kim Kardashian, Naomi Campbell, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, and Solange Knowles. The latter most likely discovered wax while doing research for her music video Losing You and envisioning the shooting in a land where wax is king: the Congo.
The Cluster Effect
On the world map drawn by Vlisco, a leading wax manufacturer, the Congo region — formed by two countries, DR Congo (DRC) and Congo Brazzaville — is a top market. On the ground, as I’m exploring the chaotic streets of Kinshasa, the capital city of DRC, and the downtempo life of Brazzaville, something becomes abundantly clear: there, wax finds its best innovators, champions, and experts. I found families who have been wax artisans for four generations and met with many entrepreneurs who have made a career out of revisiting, reinventing, and advancing wax. This should have come with no surprise.
Since the early 20th century, the Congo has defined itself through music and fashion. It was through the Congolese Rumba, a unique music genre that is today one of Africa’s most recognizable exports, that the Congo contested colonialism. The Congo also partly defined its unique cultural identity through La Sape, the legendary sartorial movement born in Brazzaville in the 1930’s. Today Les Sapeurs are the central theme of fashion magazines, books, documentaries, exhibitions from Tokyo Japan, to Nairobi Kenya to London UK.
Over the years, the high-sense of style deeply rooted in the fabric of Congolese life led to a surge in the number of tailors (you literally find them in almost every street). This in turn led to a cluster of craftspeople, creatives, designers, and entrepreneurs, all devoted to taking wax to countless, ever-ingenious formulations.
Just like you would go to Italy for harnessing the “cluster effect” in fashion, you would go to the Congo if you want to tap into an unlimited supply of in-depth wax knowledge and craftsmanship.
Investing in the Future of Wax
“Let me show you something… Isn’t that great? This is something I want in my store!” Danielle van Doren tells me, as she’s zooming in with her phone on a fashion collection that caught her eyes on Instagram. With a decades-long entrepreneurial career in both DRC and Congo Brazzaville, she is probably one of the most dynamic investors in wax innovation, juggling between her various ventures — retailer, trader, interior designer, and incubator.
At Côté Nord, her Brazzaville-based sophisticated bazaar mixing African haute couture, Western urban luxury brands, and her own carefully handpicked selection of contemporary art pieces and luxury products from fragrances, accessories, to handbags, and home décor; she regularly receives designers and entrepreneurs willing to get retail space, expert advices, or business connections. There, they sometimes come across the customer types they are keen on acquiring — socialites, foreign businesspeople, and upper-class shoppers.
“With customers everything starts with a good conversation. They come here and have a great time…as for sales reps and designers, they have to have something special for me to take their products.” Pointing me to a just-released, limited edition Made-in-Congo waxed canvas tote bags, she says with sparkles in her eyes “look at these great creatures! You’ve just met the designer, right? She says she’s unable to produce more of them. What a pity! Not enough workforce…But I’ll help them. I see these products doing well somewhere…overseas maybe”.
Thanks to her extensive knowledge of how-to-do-global-business, Mrs van Doren sometimes serves as a trusted adviser to designers trying to expand. Helping entrepreneurs to grow internationally is also the mission of a tight network of business consultants. They are Western educated, Africa-born/-experienced, high-achieving, frequently-flying professionals who bridge the gap between world-class African products and Western marketplaces. It is partly on that bridge where Western consumers meet African products.
Prescriptions for Profitability
To be sure, despite its growing popularity, wax is still a niche. As a result, 1/ there is a deficit of data about the global wax industry, and 2/ it is still difficult for Western consumers to get wax. They would need to 1/ go through a third-party connection, or 2/ go to specialty boutiques in multicultural shopping districts, like Matongé, in the centre of Brussels Belgium; or 3/ use a personal stylist like Beyoncé (her wax dresses were from Stella Jean, the Haitian-Italian fashion designer who is credited for bringing wax into in the world stage), or 4/ go on one of the burgeoning African fashion e-commerce platforms (alas, the great majority of them remain a connoisseurs affair). All these ways are problematic for mainstream consumers as they expect a well-known, 24/7, fast, and secure route to products.
But product unavailability is just one of many challenges faced by businesses willing to go global. To make progress, manufacturers, traders, designers, and retailers need practical and navigational guidelines. Based on research and interviews with consumers, entrepreneurs and companies, both in Africa and in Europe, here is a non-exhaustive shortlist of prescriptions:
1- Stop over-relying on social media
Many entrepreneurs boast about the number of followers and likes they gain on social media. They see in social media a priority channel for sales. But in parallel they recognize that their high social media activity doesn’t translate in serious sales. They also realize that, with the deluge of competitors and copycats on social media, they have become inaudible and invisible in the crowd.
There is indeed one issue: to be active on social media is one thing, to monetize that activity is not only something else, but also a rigorous process touching on sales, marketing, and operations.
Therefore, treat social media for what it is: a promotional tool (among many others) that deserves a limited investment of your time and money.
2- Go brick-and-mortar
A physical store remains today like yesterday the most efficient channel for sales. A reason cited by global retail industry experts is plain human psychology: consumers highly value the touch-and-feel and the face-to-face when making a purchase decision.
The good news for entrepreneurs is that nowadays there is greater choice in retail formats that make it possible to save costs when acquiring a physical store: concept store, pop-up store, sales party, corner in a department store, etc.
3- Get a website
A website has multiple, unparalleled advantages. Here is just a handful.
· It gives you access to an unfinished pool of opportunities, whether it’s a customer, a partner, or a talent, whether it’s in your city or in another continent.
· It gives you plenty of space to win consumer trust. This is so important because before shopping, today’s consumers want detailed and complete product information: how to use the product, who made it, what it is made of, how it was made, where it comes from, what additional features come with it, and what benefits it provides.
· It allows you to do what a store can’t: extend the sales cycle of your product. Because your physical store has a limited space, you take unsold products off the shelves to make space for new arrivals. With a website, you can release, sell, re-package, re-release, re-promote, resell. There’s no limit in time and space to developing business. You can also test prototypes, launch special editions, etc.
Here also the good news is 1/ the cost of websites has drastically fallen in recent years, and 2/ you don’t necessarily have to do e-commerce. Having a website for marketing purposes and in parallel placing your products on a third-party e-commerce platform works fantastically.
4- Outreach and Consumer Education
By the time customers reach your store or your website, they most likely made a few stops on the way, where they opened their wallets. Consequence: you’re going to get only a fraction of their budget. Today’s hyperconnected consumers are bombarded with ads and offers, have a short attention span, and highly regard the shortest distance to shopping. Therefore, sitting and hoping that they show up in your store is a recipe for failure. You would need to go out there, engage them, educate them, and develop relationships.
5- Tap into the talent clusters and build a great team
To be precise, the Congo is not the only place hosting wax talent clusters. An Eeckhout and Sandy De Backer, founders of the Antwerp Belgium-based fashion brand Cestafric told me that they regularly visit Togo, Benin, and Ghana to work with local artisans.
For instance, if you are in the specialty coffee business, you would need to travel to eastern DRC, Ethiopia, or South Sudan as they have become the world’s number one sources for the highest quality in arabica coffee. There, you will find yourself surrounded by top executives from Starbucks, Nestlé, and other big coffee brands, buyers, prospectors, connoisseurs, and traders from across the world; all looking for the best beans, acquiring the best knowledge, and participating in coffee competitions.
A key factor for your success comes down to visiting the “mecca” of your industry, acquiring solid knowledge, and bringing in your organization serious talent and experience.
For instance, Michel Djombo, a co-founder of GTC, a leading food company in the Congo, brought in a whole team of agricultural engineers from Côte d’Ivoire a few years ago. With long-term contracts, they improve the yields of- and help implement best farming practices in GTC’s plantations. Today, Mr Djombo sees this recruitment as one of the best decisions in his career.
As I travel across the continent for work, I meet with Nigerian entrepreneurs in Kenya, Ethiopian entrepreneurs in South Africa, Afro-Americans working in Nigeria… The professional mobility within the African continent and the Africa return of diaspora professionals have never been greater. These are phenomenons that you would need to take advantage of.
Winners Don’t Wait
Given the strength of the trend and a favourable sociological climate, the question is not whether or not these products will penetrate the West, but rather how big they will grow there. Specifically, will wax be more than a summer thing and enter consumers’ fall-winter wardrobe? After entering the high-end collections (Burberry, Marni), will wax enter the Zara’s and the H&M’s? Beyond wax, will African-based/-originated products and brands establish themselves in the West?
In reality, entrepreneurs should not wait the breakthroughs and the hits to go global.
In the Netherlands, the place where wax was born and where it is now coming back, I have re-connected with various investors I met last year at a conference for the Dutch investors community. Among them was Jaap Spreeuwenberg, Director at Hivos Impact Investment. He told me that they mostly invest in places that are under-the-radar with most investors. “When it’s in the news, it may too late” he said. This strategy almost always pays off in business.
Smart entrepreneurs and agile companies don’t wait that trends become mainstream, that a big retail brand takes a product to their stores, or that a major consulting firm publishes a report. They sense there’s an opportunity within their reach or see that a market is untouched or just nascent, they enter head on, take a leading position fast, and they create great value for themselves.
At another investors gathering, a partner at an emerging markets -oriented private equity firm (whose name he asks that I don’t undisclose) says he’s heard about wax “a little while ago”. He adds “There’s no waiting the so-called perfect moment really…Look at what Madagascar’s vanilla, Morocco’s argan, or even DRC’s coffee have become: extremely profitable business globally. So, we’re trying to get a sense of what’s coming out of Africa and we certainly don’t read the press headlines for that. But at the end of the day, from an investor’s standpoint, it all comes down to scale. How deep is the product range? Can you do shoes, lingerie, furniture, jewellery, prêt-à-porter? If you can show a potential to reach mature consumers, then sure, we’ll join”.
Patrick Gaincko is a business strategist and a mentor. He documents his research across the world on his blog gainxperience.com. He has partnered with Makari de Suisse, Mastercard, Radisson Blu, Bosch Car Services, and numerous SME’s. Follow him on twitter @patrickgaincko.