CANEX 2023: British Council unleashing the potential of African fashion

The British Council’s Creative DNA programme is accelerating the growth of Africa’s fashion industry and connecting African designers with global markets. We spoke to the women behind the initiative and the designers sponsored by the programme at CANEX2023.


Image : British Council / CANEX

This article is sponsored by British Council

The Creative Africa Nexus 2023, which took place at the Intra-Africa Trade Fair (IATF) in Cairo, offered visitors a unique opportunity to interact with some of the most creative minds on the continent today. CANEX 2023 was a celebration of Africa, its culture, writing, gastronomy, film and fashion. One of the areas that saw substantial foot traffic throughout the event was the British Council pavilion – which showcased fashion designers, supported by the organisation’s Creative DNA programme.

The African fashion scene is vibrant, diverse, and innovative. This is reflected in the rich cultural heritage and contemporary realities of the continent. From the colourful prints of West Africa to the elegant drapes of East Africa, from the bold patterns of North Africa to the minimalist chic of Southern Africa, African fashion designers are creating stunning pieces that appeal to local and global audiences alike.

However, despite an abundance of talent and creativity in the continent, African fashion designers face challenges transitioning from passion and art to creating a successful business. This is where the British Council’s Creative DNA programme comes in. This is a programme specifically designed to accelerate fashion businesses by nurturing designers’ skills, knowledge, and networks in Africa and the UK.

Following the success of the Creative DNA programme in Kenya – where three cohorts have been completed to date – it has since expanded to Ethiopia, Senegal, and Uganda. The programme is now set to launch in more countries across sub-Saharan Africa next year including Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Ghana, offering the opportunities presented by Creative DNA to more African fashion designers.

Achieving market access

“Looking at the fashion industry in Africa, it’s one of the three growth sectors within the culture and creative economies,” explained Harare-based, Farai Bayai Ncube, the regional arts director for sub-Saharan Africa at the British Council. “However, our research showed that, to achieve its full potential, intervention was required in policy, education and, importantly, market access.”

That last component, “market access,” is what the British Council hoped to achieve at the CANEX showcase, bringing 24 designers from across the continent and giving them a platform to connect with buyers and other creators. After all, the programme is more than just supporting creatives; it’s about empowering them to build livelihoods out of their passion.

“This is what success looks like to us. Where you sell!” highlighted Brenda Fashugba, head of arts and the regional lead for creative economy, sub-Saharan Africa, at the British Council, “Sometimes exposure – it takes a while for it to translate. But being here, seeing the networking and business happening in real-time, it’s heartwarming to see the success of these very creative individuals.”

Thula Sindi, the South African founder of Africa Rise, echoed the lack of market access as a challenge that creatives face. “Access to markets is really the challenge with how to monetise our actual skills and actual talents.” He praised the Creative DNA programme and initiatives like CANEX that are not only putting Africa’s talent on display but also showing them as viable businesses. “It’s good that they start to look at us as the kind of big assets we can be as creatives because honestly, we really, really are.”

Supporting alternative fashion

In addition to providing a great opportunity to expand African designers’ reach, the programme has the aim of supporting alternative fashion. “We work with young designers from the grassroots, from marginalised communities, who are talented and pushing boundaries to be able to bring that alternative fashion and feel,” Ncube told us.

One of those designers is Ethiopian Betselot Zewge. She founded Zemenay, Ethiopia’s first plus-size and size-inclusive fashion brand. “I’m expressing and telling my stories to the world. Creative DNA has helped me, not just represent an Ethiopian voice, but make sure the African voice is heard.”

CANEX enjoys a strong reputation for convening a comprehensive range of financial and non-financial tools to bolster trade and investment in Africa’s creative sector. It is well-renowned as a unique platform for collaboration, investment, partnerships, and inspiration, bringing together various creative sectors to facilitate growth and innovation.

Egyptian siblings and co-founders of Meroe, Sarah and Moustafa Dawood, spoke of how the showcase offered them an opportunity to expand their horizons. “We’re seeing different designers from different parts of the continent. And we’re amazed, we have such a rich culture in so many different ways. It’s very inspiring,” explained Sarah.

Promoting the quality of African goods

One of the chief objectives of the IATF 2023 event is the promotion of intra-African trade. For the fashion industry, one of the key aspects of this is to change the perceptions of the “Made in Africa” brand. Showcasing the quality and creativity of African designers at showcases like CANEX is key to achieving this.

“We have to change the mindset that African goods are not luxury, or African goods are not well made,” commented Sandi Owusu, creative director of the Ghanaian brand Talensi. However, she seemed inspired by the atmosphere of IATF 2023: “I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity here because people are embracing the African culture even more: our textiles, our dyes and our handmade items. I think there’s a market out there.”

While African markets are important for some designers, quite a few harbour more intercontinental ambitions. One such designer is Rahwa Zeru, founder and creative Director of Rahwa, an ethical and sustainable brand from Ethiopia, “My biggest goal in entering this programme is to go international… And I got to do that here,” she mentioned when speaking about the doors that the Creative DNA Programme can open, adding that “I think I’ll be at Portugal Fashion Week… I mean, I’m not sure I didn’t apply but I’m seeing that there is a positive way ahead of me.”

Building this confidence is a success in itself for the Creative DNA programme.

“We are thrilled to support these talented designers through our Creative DNA programme, providing them with a platform to showcase their creativity and innovation to a global audience,” said Ncube. “By nurturing emerging talent and promoting sustainable fashion practices, we are contributing to the vibrant growth of Africa’s fashion industry.”

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