Africa, Asia-Pacific, Economy & Trade, Global Governance, Globalisation, Headlines

ECONOMY-TOGO: The High Cost of Cheap Chic

Noel Kokou Tadegnon

LOME, Nov 7 2004 (IPS) - Prized by women in West and Central Africa, “Real Dutch Wax” cloth – with its distinctive colours and patterns – has for three decades been a staple in the wardrobes of those wealthy enough to afford it. The name refers to the process of using wax to dye material.

These days, even more women are stepping out in clothes that appear to be made from Dutch wax fabric. On closer inspection, however, the cloth turns out to be a clever reproduction of the real thing.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, many in Togo are unimpressed at the flourishing trade in cloth which copies designs from fabrics produced by the traditional manufacturer of Dutch wax textiles – Vlisco, based in Holland.

“We condemn the flooding of the Togolese market with fake cloth that uses patented designs,” says Beneti Gagalo of the Togolese Consumers’ Association.

A similar sentiment is voiced by Evelyn Trénou, general secretary of the Cloth Resellers Association of Togo (l’Association des revendeuses de pagnes du Togo, ARPT), who alleges that most of the counterfeit fabric comes from the Far East. But, local business people have also been prominent in promoting this trade, it appears.

“Merchants like us who have import licenses are responsible for this problem. They also import other products from China and they were the ones who suggested to the Chinese that they produce counterfeit cloth,” Trénou told IPS.

Producers of the fake wax material operate with ruthless efficiency.

“Seven to eight weeks after cloths with new designs go on the market, they’re copied and appear in their counterfeit form,” Frederique Ferraille, chief executive officer of the Vlisco African Company (VAC Togo), which imports real wax fabrics, said in an interview with IPS.

The Vlisco Group, based in Holland, owns 66 percent of VAC Togo, while Togolese citizens own 34 percent of shares.

Dede Creppy, president of the ARPT, says the influx of fake cloth – which began almost five years ago – is taking a toll on sellers of the genuine article, as well as on the national economy. Vendors of counterfeit cloth pay less tax, because their products are cheaper.

“While a genuine ‘half-length’ of cloth costs 30,000 CFA francs (about 58 dollars), a counterfeit one sells for about 8,000 CFA francs (about 15 dollars),” Ferraille says.

Adds Anani Atti, a member of the Togolese Standards Assocation, “Counterfeiting is a good way to kill the national economy.”

Sellers of genuine wax fabrics claim the quality of fake cloth is inferior to their own.

“The bad side of the counterfeiting phenomenon includes consumer deception, poor quality and decreased productivity,” observes Kofi Dravi Ahiekpor, a textile designer based in the capital, Lome.

However, these allegations have done little to discourage the public from buying pirated designs.

“I think it’s great that now we’ve got cheaper cloth, because purchasing versions that cost upwards of 25,000 CFA francs (about 48 dollars) was difficult, if not impossible, for us,” says Madeleine Atisso, a hairdresser in Lome.

Teacher Holali Sedjro agrees. “With the arrival of these 8,000 CFA franc cloths on the market, everyone can wear one. Just a short time ago that was a luxury. I think it’s great – now, even a poor person can dress nicely,” she said.

Trénou takes little comfort from the fact that many women can now be chic on a shoestring.

“Today I make only a third of what I used to earn,” she says. In the 1980s, Trénou notes, VAC was able to sell nine container loads of cloth a month. Today, it clears about three loads. Ferraille believes he may well have to close shop.

Genuine Dutch wax fabrics are distributed in Togo to wholesalers and large retailers that sell them to local clients and customers elsewhere in Africa. During the 1980s, VAC supplied about 30 wholesalers and 500 to 600 dealers. Now, barely 20 wholesalers are on its books.

“There’s been less movement and there are more problems in the market…There’s been some underhanded competition in the cloth business,” says Ferraille.

On the bright side, a law outlawing counterfeits was passed in Togo in 2001.

At present, a number of pirating cases are being investigated by the courts with the help of customs officials and Togo’s Ministry of Trade. This follows the seizure of several containers of fake cloth from China.

The Togolese government has also approached VAC in order to study the counterfeiting problem further.

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