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A Closer Look At The Inert Investment In African Fashion Education

Updated: Dec 19, 2022

The value of the global fashion industry is projected to double in the next 10 years, generating up to US$ 5 trillion annually. Africa has the world's youngest population, the quality of and access to education in the continent is abysmal and the fashion and manufacturing industry is the continent's second-largest employer after agriculture.

With these facts it would be logical to expect a focus on fashion education in preparing Africa for the future; why then is there no interest in investing in African fashion education?

In 2015 the African Development Bank, in stimulating the impact of the continent's creative arts developed Fashionomics – an initiative aimed at facilitating Africa's participation in the global textile and fashion industry value chain. However, the focus of this initiative is "increasing access to finance for entrepreneurs and incubating and accelerating start-ups" and does not expand to the education sector.

Questions often left unanswered from these propositions to stimulate the African fashion and manufacturing value chain start with where skilled and educated African practitioners at all these various stages of the supply chain will come from if the continent's level of education is as poor as it is. Whose role is it to educate the continent? What benefits does Africa stand to gain with the world's youngest population if the majority are uneducated and unskilled labourers at the lowest strata of the fashion and manufacturing industry?

Is African fashion education a poor investment?

1. Investors are profit-driven and lack impetus

Reports about the state of fashion in the continent are exclusively focused on revenue generation and projections, and investments are channelled to SMEs and start-ups. As education does not have direct profitability for the investors and businesses, majority opt to get involved with graduates rather, and lack any impetus to support access to fashion education.

2. Poor quality of fashion education in the continent

CIAFE reported on the state of African fashion education in 2021, and the majority of the institutions surveyed pointed to poor outputs. The poor state of the institutions and majority of the industry lacking any evidence of compliance with regulators stifles any confidence in African fashion education.

However, there are some notable institutions that are on par with global fashion education standards. These produce the graduates that have gone on to win prestigious international competitions, propelling their brands to global exposure.

3. Formal higher education vs informal skills development

The advent of the internet has impacted many industries, not least higher education. With numerous advantages that have been brought about by the accessibility of learning, informal education has proliferated. The debate about the value of formal education within the creative economies is one that has no unilateral outcome and is further fuelled by many entrepreneurs within fields such as fashion, music and film who enjoy successful careers without formal higher education. Consequently, higher education institutions must often contend with informal learning contexts such as digital video content streaming platform YouTube, short courses from unregistered colleges and self-taught practitioners. This poses a challenge in financing higher education within the creative economies and requires that institutions of learning defend their relevance to any prospective investors and sponsors.

4. Poor advocacy for fashion education

Furthering the point above, higher education institutions within fashion must be active in advocating for funding. It is necessary to study the extent to which fashion institutions actively seek funding for students, and their role in assisting bridge the gap of unequal access to higher education.

The international scene offers prospective students a detailed outline of the cost associated with enrolment, including accommodation, food, and study material to assist in planning. A prospective student can estimate the total amount of funds needed to complete each year of their studies and will not be met with unexpected costs after enrolment, which may result in deregistration.

Without any funding from the government, the private institutions offer often-once-once-off bursaries subsidised by industry in support of a given campaign through competitions. The bursaries are usually reserved only for the winner of the competition. Another form of finance available is partial funding from industry partners, but only for the tuition costs and excluding all other fees associated with the studies. The rest of the students were channelled to financial institutions for student loans. These efforts are not enough to make a meaningful impact and make fashion higher education accessible to all students from various socio-economic backgrounds.

5. Fashion is not considered an esteemed profession

By 2021 there were only five South Africans who had completed doctoral studies in fashion design. Although commendable, there is still a lot that needs to be done in cementing fashion education as a viable and esteemed profession, both through research and a focus on professional qualifications.

UIG For Sustainable Development Goal 4: Government And Institutional Funding For African Fashion Education

Funding in Africa's fashion higher education sector is a big challenge throughout the continent. In South Africa funding is accessible to public higher education institutions, and there are about five public institutions that offer fashion programmes. The fashion higher education market is dominated by private institutions. The local South African National Student Financial Aid Scheme is reserved for universities and TVETs, leaving the private institutions to rely on loans and education financing models, which are not always ideal for the students who need the funding as they accumulate student debt. Consequently, students often opt for the traditional programmes because with these, they have access to financial assistance.

Sipho Mbatha's study on Status quo of the South African clothing industry's university-industry-government collaborations is the only literature available that investigates the triple helix within the South African clothing and manufacturing industry. Mbatha found that these three components of the helix each operated in isolation and that the current triple helix model may negatively affect the South African industry's efficacy in realising the sustainable development goals.

However, there is no reason why a similar model cannot be applied to fund fashion students, where the governments can subsidise the private institutions and build capacity within other areas of the industry other than fashion design. Not-for-profit organisations Fashion Education Foundation and African Fashion Foundation seem to be the only entities aimed at specifically financing fashion education for Africans; however, there is no information available to assess the efficacy of the former, whereas the latter funds studies outside of the continent. The African Fashion Foundation's Roberta Annan scholarship supports Africans from Sub-Saharan Africa who are registered for the Vogue Fashion Foundation Programme and will complete the BA (Hons) in Fashion Communication or Industry Practice degrees at the Conde Nast College of Fashion and Design.

Popular financial support for fashion in the continent comes in the form of accelerator programmes to fund graduates. Accelerator programmes such as AfDB's Fashionomics, Birimian, African Fashion International and many other firms target their funds at start-ups within the luxury market. None of these have programmes that fund fashion education.

A collaboration between private higher education, local governments and industry would not only be useful for funding the students through the course of their studies but would also solidify a trajectory from higher education to the world-of-work.

Missed Opportunities In Fashion Education Within The Continent

Education as a vehicle for social mobility: The AfDB notes that "the fashion industry holds considerable potential to motivate and bring change to some of the most disadvantaged people, especially women and youth while advancing structural transformation." Education is one of the key drivers of social mobility, and progress is hampered by inequality of opportunities for higher education, condemning Africans to employment as unskilled labour.

Future-proofing African Fashion and Manufacturing industry: Access to higher education would arm a generation of Africans that will be the youngest in the world to lead the continent's value chain.

No foreign students: With lack of funding, Africans can hardly attend institutions outside their countries, leaving institutions with an overwhelming amount of locals and delaying the efforts towards internationalisation of education.

It is a fact that any development in the wider textile, apparel and manufacturing in the continent must include support for educating the Africans and African fashion institutions. This will also further the cause of the Made-in-Africa economic concept.

Funding should be made available to regulatory-compliant higher education institutions to support them in training African fashion practitioners who will drive the fashion and manufacturing industry that currently enjoys numerous stimulus opportunities. This is especially crucial in the African continent, which has six of the ten most unequal countries in the world.

By Nande Sulelo, Discipline Leader (Media programmes) at the STADIO School of Fashion


  • Fashion Education

  • African Fashion and Manufacturing

  • Education Funding


  • Fashionomics,

  • CIAFE, The State of Fashion Education in Africa 2021

  • Mbatha, S. and Mastamet-Mason, A., 2021. Status quo of the South African clothing industry's university-industry-government collaborations. African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation and Development, pp.1-11.

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