Kenyan garments popularity rises internationally amid Industry Struggles.


Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank
Copyright: Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank
In the James Bond series, specifically the 7th novel by Ian Fleming, Goldfinger imparts a piece of wisdom to Mr. Bond. He mentions a saying from Chicago: “One is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” This intriguing perspective on patterns and repetition becomes relevant as we explore the Kenyan garment industry.

As I delved into the world of Kenyan textiles, I initially approached it with a pattern(ic) point of view, seeking connections and repetitions. However, my search for a discernible pattern remained inconclusive. While I waited for clarity, an unexpected turn of events provided an inverse confirmation of my initial hypothesis, prompting me to investigate further into the underlying reasons for this apparent coincidence.

Allow me to share a personal experience that ignited my curiosity. As someone who appreciates simple casual wear, I was drawn to a pair of subtly styled brown trousers at Walmart. Impressed by the garment’s quality and the potential comfort it promised, I decided to check its place of origin. To my surprise, it was proudly manufactured in Africa, specifically Kenya—an unexpected discovery at a major US chain store. This occurrence seemed like a happenstance, echoing Goldfinger’s mindset.

Little did I anticipate that my next encounter would follow a similar narrative. On a quest for another pair of trousers from a different store, I was once again captivated by the comfort of a particular garment. Intrigued to learn more about the maker, I was surprised to find that this trouser, too, hailed from Kenya. Taking this second instance as a signal to delve deeper, I abandoned my initial patience to establish a pattern. However, as I stumbled upon an article from Business Daily Africa, outlining the current deplorable state of Kenya’s textile industry, I was taken aback. This revelation prompted me to embark on a deliberate research journey, aiming to uncover the causative factors behind this apparent pattern.

The quest for understanding the levers driving the Kenyan apparel industry became more than a mere observation—it evolved into a mission to unveil the forces shaping this unexpected connection between my wardrobe choices and a country’s economic challenges.

Excerpts of my Quick Research

The global fashion industry boasts a staggering worth exceeding $2.5 trillion, yet Africa’s slice of this lucrative pie hovers at a mere fraction, estimated to be less than 1%. However, a glimmer of potential shines through as Euromonitor reveals that the Sub-Saharan fashion market stands at a substantial $31 billion, with Nigeria commanding a noteworthy 15%, equating to $4.7 billion.

Turning our gaze to Kenya, a report from Standard Chartered Bank projects that the nation’s garment industry is poised to be a pivotal force propelling its manufacturing sector in the coming decade. Characterized by labor-intensive operations, the sector has become a significant employer, currently supporting over 50,000 individuals. Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain disruptions, Kenya’s garment exports reached $420 million in 2020. The Kenyan Association of Manufacturers asserts that there is untapped potential in the industry, signaling room for growth.

However, a sobering reality remains — the garment industry faces formidable challenges not only in Kenya but across the African continent. These obstacles encompass poor infrastructure, a scarcity of skilled talent, restricted access to credit, porous borders allowing the influx of cheaper foreign apparel, institutional corruption, and subpar quality of input materials.

Acknowledging these hurdles is essential, as they stand as impediments to the industry’s growth. Yet, delving beyond surface-level solutions, the pressing question on many minds is:

What changed in the Kenyan apparel industry?

In a significant stride for economic collaboration, the U.S.-Kenya Business Roadshow was unveiled in New York in April 2023. This groundbreaking event marked the announcement of six new co-investments totaling $55 million between Kenyan and American apparel companies.

Championed by Prosper Africa and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), these co-investments have a pivotal goal: linking American buyers with Kenyan manufacturers. The overarching aim is to generate employment opportunities, benefitting both Kenya and the United States. Among the notable co-investments is MAS Intimates, a self-proclaimed leader in apparel technology in South Asia. This company will play a vital role in enhancing the skills of Kenyan workers, thereby elevating the production of high-quality, locally-made apparel. UAL Apparel (USA), will boost apparel exports to the U.S. market by establishing a comprehensive one-stop shop in Kenya, streamlining the production process from “Farm to Fashion.” 

This strategic move is expected to fortify the ties between the two nations in the apparel sector; Mega, which will expand production capacity by adding new production lines; Coast Apparel, which will purchase machinery to increase production and export capacity, creating new jobs for women and youth; Best Lifestyle, which will expand manufacturing in Kenya, hire and train new employees; and Last but not least, NexGen is set to establish a manufacturing facility in Kenya dedicated to producing tags and labels for branding apparel and footwear products. This venture not only aligns with global branding standards but also adds a valuable link to the local supply chain. 

Further research also revealed that Norfund, a Norwegian Investment Fund for developing countries established by the Norwegian Storting in 1997 and owned by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched two investments in Kenya’s textile industry. The investment comprising over US$39m will be invested in two locally situated companies namely: The Balaji Group, one of the leading manufacturers of clothing in Sub-Saharan Africa, with 12,000 employees and production both for the local Kenyan market and for export, for brands such as Wrangler, Lee, and H&M. The second company is Hela Apparel Holdings PLC, a Sri Lankan apparel supply chain solution provider with a global manufacturing footprint, which has established itself in Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt, with over 10,000 employees across Africa. Hela works with some of the world’s leading apparel brands in the Intimate, Kids wear, and Activewear product categories. 


It remains unclear whether the new deals signed in February and April have already begun to yield results, as my encounter with Kenyan garments in U.S. stores occurred in early September 2023. However, what I am certain of is that, with the right efforts, approach, and quality, African countries possess the potential to showcase their products on global shelves.

We don’t always have to rely solely on the export of natural resources; instead, we can add value locally and generate international profits. The Kenyan example, though brief, serves as a rough roadmap for international manufacturing firms considering importing raw materials from Africa. It highlights the possibility of partnering with local African industries, leveraging the youthful labor force and low production costs to add value to these raw materials within the continent rather than merely importing them.

In these stories, there are valuable lessons. This Kenyan example, in particular, provides a sketchy yet insightful guide for African countries and potential investors alike. It demonstrates the untapped potential and opportunities that lie within the continent, waiting to be explored and harnessed for mutual benefit.

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