Africa is still largely considered by the outside world as little more than an exporter of primary raw products to industrialised countries and the importer of finished goods from abroad. While this legacy of the colonial economic structure still holds broadly true in parts of the continent, the landscape is changing and doing so very rapidly. Anver Versi reports.
While the industrial age has still not swept across the continent, hundreds of thousands of firms up and down Africa are at full stretch producing an astonishing variety of everyday items, which range from toothpaste and packaged foods to cars and even aircraft.
There is plenty of archaeological and anecdotal evidence to suggest that African skills in manufacturing, engineering and architecture go deep into the continent’s prehistory. The Egyptian and Sudanese pyramid complexes, the libraries and sophisticated trading systems of Timbuktu, the great Zimbabwe stone structures and the highly advanced ‘bio-mimicry’ employed in the construction of the great mosque of Djenne all attest to this.
Old Africa’s advanced manufacturing techniques are clearly demonstrated in the exquisite Benin ‘Bronzes’ (which were in fact made out of brass), a collection of hundreds of plaques, heads and other sculptures depicting life and legend in the 18th- century Benin empire.
When the ‘bronzes’, which were looted by the British, were first exhibited in Britain, the reaction was one of incredulity. Art experts claimed, “The sculptures must have been made by the Portuguese, the Egyptians or the lost tribes of Israel.” But this was myopism on a grand scale. Africans were experts in working and shaping metal, wood, fabrics, leather, fibres, ivory and bone to produce weapons, tools, textiles, building materials and superbly designed decorative items. The skills of African gold and silver- smiths were legendary even in Biblical times.
Although the colonial interregnum devastated African manufacturing, many of the ancient skills were passed on and reverberate even today in a number of iconic products that are still uniquely African.
But Africans are probably the most innovative people in the world and they continue to absorb and adapt modern items with traditional skills to create new and exciting products. In the following section, as the continent moves inevitably towards a new industrial age, we cast an eye on just a few of Africa’s most iconic products.
African icons – Textiles
Legend, and the Old Testament Bible tell us that when the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in Israel she took with her four and a half tons of gold in the form of exquisitely designed objects and also items made of wood and leather that dazzled King Solomon’s court. She presented clothing that was so soft, thin and transparent that it was believed the material had been spun out of spiders’ webs.
The tradition lived on. Centuries later, the 19th-century English explorer Richard Burton was so delighted with the sashes and robes he found in Harar in Ethiopia that he wrote that the items, being handwoven, far surpassed “the rapid produce of European manufactories in beauty and durability as the perfect hand of man excels the finest machine.”
The ‘perfect hand of man’ is still very much in evidence in the Kente and Adinkra cloth made in Ghana. Kente cloth is an Ashanti royal and sacred cloth which used to be worn only in times of extreme importance and was the cloth of kings. It is made by the Ashanti and Akan people, mainly in Ghana, but is also produced by the Akan in Côte d’Ivoire.
Kente has dazzling, multicoloured patterns of bright colours, geometric shapes, and bold designs. The intricacies of the patterns and colours have symbolic and social meaning – some suggest royalty or high office and some are worn only on special, sacred occasions. Most of the designs have distinct names. The best Kente can cost thousands of pounds. Today, the use of Kente has become very widespread throughout West Africa and is worn by many African-Americans.
Adinkra, with its distinctive motifs symbolising wise proverbs, is believed to be the first patterned textile to emerge in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Bògòlanfini cloth, produced in Mali, is yet another iconic textile from Africa. The cloth is dyed a yellow colour, is sun-dried and then painted with designs using a piece of metal or wood. The patterns are rich in cultural significance, referring to historical events or mythological concepts. The cloth has become an important export to the US where it is marketed as ‘mud cloth’ and is in big demand by the African-American community.
Other famous textiles from Africa include the ubiquitous Kitenge and Khanga cloth worn by women of all classes and ages throughout East Africa, and that now has a thriving export market. Kitenge is similar to the Khanga and Kikoyi but is made of thicker material and often carries religious or spiritual patterns, and intriguing or humorous phrases in Kiswahili. It is an all-purpose garment used as a convenient wrap-around, as a scarf or head covering, as a sling for babies, as a ‘basket’ to carry things in and as a bed-cloth.
The Kikoyi is worn as a wrap by many coastal men.
But wherever you go in Africa, you will find distinct textiles that have often become national symbols – for example, the beautiful blankets with amazingly clean geometric patterns worn by the Basuto of Lesotho.
As elsewhere in the world, Africa’s fabulous traditional textiles have come under pressure from cheap imports and mass-produced garments made locally but the sheer beauty and feel of the traditional textiles have ensured their survival.
Africa’s tradition of producing outstanding jewellery, first revealed to the world by the Queen of Sheba and later by Mansa Musa (who carried so many golden objects on his way to the Hajj in Saudi Arabia that the price of gold collapsed) continues to live on.
You will also find exquisite gold jewellery, often with religious and spiritual motifs, in markets in Ethiopia, Senegal, Mali, Ghana and northern Nigeria. On special occasions, the Asantehene, the ruler of the Ashanti in Ghana, is so weighed down with gold that special supports are provided to help him bear the weight.
Africa’s textiles, patterns and designs have inspired many designers, both African and non-African, in creating exotic new fashions. For example, designer Erika Freund was so impressed by the possibilities in banana bark on a visit to Tanzania that she founded Mikuti in 2009 to launch a jewellery and fashion series based on the use of natural African products. She has exhibited in New York, Miami, London and various other sites to wide acclaim.
The Safari Suit
The Safari Suit, made famous by the US writer Ernest Hemingway, and later became the standard costume for Hollywood films set in Africa, such as the Tarzan series, King Solomon’s Mines, Born Free, Hatari! and Out of Africa, is believed to have been first designed in Nairobi.
The tailoring outfit, Ahmed Brothers, who kitted out film stars, big game hunters, adventurers and wildlife photographers, are generally credited with the iconic design using khaki material and incorporating several pockets to cater for life in the bush. The suits came complete with a wide-brimmed hat, often finished off with a strip of lion or leopard skin, boots and belts designed to take ammunition.
The Safari Suit later metamorphosed into the Safari Jacket, a loose but smartly tailored shirt with pockets designed to carry pens and a diary that became the ‘official’ uniform of businessmen in East Africa and even found favour further down in Zambia where it emerged as the ‘Kaunda suit’ after the country’s first president who wore the costume exclusively.
Africa has a long tradition of making leather sandals, but in urban environments the soles tended to get worn out quickly on the rough terrain. Then an ingenious solution was found – why not use old tyres as the soles? They were flexible and above all, highly durable. Tyre-soled footwear became highly popular all over East Africa and in Ethiopia.
The popularity of this form of footwear provided the starting point for an extraordinary business venture that is now worth millions of dollars. By adding stylish cotton and leather uppers to the tyre soles, Ethiopia’s Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu created a new brand of footwear called soleRebels. Intelligent use of the Internet turned her flip flops, loafers and trainers into an international brand selling in markets as distant as Japan, the US and Europe.
Alemu says, “People buy soleRebels because they are good, not just because they are green or from Ethiopia. Our product speaks for itself.”
Another Ethiopian entrepreneur who has taken advantage of the fact that Ethiopia is one of the largest producers of leather in the world is Mehdi Slimani who is producing the first all-African sneakers under the Sawa shoes brand. Like Alemu, he does not want people to buy his shoes ‘because they are made in Africa’ but says: “I prefer to hear that people buy our shoes because they are comfortable. Sawa will be a success long after people forget where we come from.”
Beer brewing and spirit distillation in Africa go back to prehistoric times, but there are few more iconic African products than Tusker beer. It was first brewed in 1922 when an Englishman, George Hurst, established Kenya Breweries and decided to ditch the imported malt extracts in favour of locally grown malted barley and water from the Aberdare mountains, vastly improving the taste and texture of the beer then available in Kenya.
Hurst was killed a little later when he was trampled by a bull elephant during a hunting expedition and the new brew was therefore called Tusker. A legend was born. Today Tusker is the biggest selling brand in the whole East African region and is exported widely around the world. Beer drinkers, particularly from the UK and Germany are reported to make pilgrimages to Kenya to drink the famous brew in situ.
Another beverage icon is Amarula, a cream liquor made from the fruits of the marula tree in South Africa. It is the first of its kind and a true original from the continent. Waragi, a strong gin distilled from banana, cassava, millet or sugar cane is famous throughout the East African region.
South Africa’s Castle beer can also be found virtually everywhere on the continent.
South Africa is one of the leading producers of wine in the world. South African wines are very popular in the UK and beginning to get a foothold in Europe’s traditional wine-producing regions of France, Italy and Spain.
Two South African companies, Paramount Group and Aerosud Holdings are producing the first defence-oriented aircraft to be wholly made and assembled in Africa. The Ahrlac is a combination of a drone, a surveillance aircraft and an attack helicopter. It will be the first aircraft to be produced in Africa after the Rooivalk attack helicopter of the ’80s. Ethiopia also produced its own tanks and armoured vehicles during its wars with Eritrea and Somalia.
Another great first for Africa is the electric-powered Joule made by South Africa’s Optimal Energy with South African-born automotive designer Keith Helfet. A six-seater multi-purpose vehicle, the Joule, was first unveiled at the Paris Motor Show in 2008 and the virtually finished version was displayed at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show. Keith Helfet, as chief stylist for Jaguar, was responsible for the XJ220, the XK180 and the F-Type. Today Africa, tomorrow the world?
BMWs have been assembled in South Africa since the 1960s at its Rosslyn plant. In 1994 BMW South Africa ended local production of the 5- and 7-Series in order to concentrate on production of the 3-Series for the export market. South African-built BMWs are now exported to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as the rest of Africa.
In 2012 the company gained the necessary permit from the Chinese authorities to export to China. Overall, the firm expects capacity at the Rosslyn plant to reach more than 90,000 units per year.
All Mercedes right-hand drive cars are made in South Africa and exported to the UK and other commonwealth countries that drive on the left. South Africa also makes VW, Toyota and Tata Motors vehicles. Elsewhere, in 2012, Peugeot Automobile Nigeria (PAN) launched a new Alsvin Sedan model to be manufactured in Nigeria. British engine manufacturer Ricardo and Chinese car firm Lifan are working in Ethiopia to come up with an engine for the Lifan X-60, a sports utility vehicle designed for Africa.
Africa’s technological revolution
Africa has taken to IT technology like a duck to water. Mobile technology seems perfectly designed for Africa’s needs and Africa in turn has applied its own inventive genius and adapted the mobile phone into uses that its original makers never imagined possible. Here are some of the latest African innovations.
1 Mobile miracle
The mobile money transfer service M-PESA which Safaricom launched in 2007 has revolutionised banking practices in Africa and has inspired the rest of the world. Last year, the British bank Barclays launched Pingit, Europe’s first mobile money transfer system. A consortium of UK banks including HSBC, Lloyds and RBS will offer a similar service from 2014. Across the Atlantic, Hillary Clinton has famously been quoted questioning why the ‘brilliant innovation’ had not reached the US.
2 African smart phone
Last December, Congo-based company VMK launched what it claims is the first African-designed smart-phone and tablet – although it is manufactured in China and powered by Android. The South African firm Wise Tablets has also developed its own extremely competitive tablets, starting at R1500 ($163) for the Wi-Fi-only, seven-inch version.
3 Nollywood on the go
iROKOtv, the world’s biggest online Nigerian movie distributor, is making great strides in mobile video – as opposed to focusing purely on an online video-watching service. In January, it announced that it was teaming up with Nokia to develop a mobile app allowing Nokia Lumia Windows Phone 8 users to watch Nollywood movies.
4 Mobile music
Spinlet, a cloud-based music platform launched in Nigeria in 2012, enables African music artists to upload their singles and albums for sale. Spinlet enables users to access music via their mobile phones, rather than online.
5 Smart health
Kenya’ Changamka (‘Be happy’ in Kiswahili), offers health-card smart-cards in Nairobi, Nakuru and Mombasa. These allow Kenyans who are outside the private health system to save and pay for treatments via a prepaid wallet system, which can be topped up using M-Pesa.
6 Farmers friend
M-Farm is a mobile app that allows farmers to access market information in real time. Co-founders Jamila Abass and Susaneve Oguya say: “This product is unique because the farmer does not need to leave his farm to transact, and every transaction is done using the normal phone available to the farmers. The beauty of the product is that it costs Ksh1 to the farmer. Farmers are getting access to better markets and closing deals that are improving their livelihoods.”