|Don't let the patterns fool you; these are PRC-made through and through.|
The Nigerian stretch is the final leg of a 10,000km journey. It begins in Chinese factories, churning out imitations of the textiles that Nigerians previously produced for themselves, with their signature prime colours and waxiness to the touch. By the boatload they arrive in west Africa’s ports, chiefly Cotonou in Benin, a tiny country beside Nigeria whose major economic activity is the transshipment of contraband. At the ports the counterfeit consignments are loaded on to trucks and either driven straight over the land border between Benin and western Nigeria or up through Niger and round to the border post with its taciturn chief. The trade is estimated to be worth about $2bn a year, equivalent to about a fifth of all annual recorded imports of textiles, clothing, fabric and yarn into the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.The Chinese being in the business of customer satisfaction, they have successfully copied garments in the local style, to the chagrin of Nigerian producers who simply cannot compete. For all its energy exports, the truth is that the electricity infrastructure of Nigeria is woefully inadequate, severely handicapping what's left of the local textile industry as high operating costs put them out of business:
At Raymond Okwuanyinu’s stall I found rolls and rolls of the coloured fabric that is used for fashioning a popular style of billowing trousers. Here there was no attempt at subterfuge. Raymond told me it was a matter of simple economics. Nigeria may be the largest source of African energy exports, but it generates only enough electricity to power one toaster for every 44 of its own people. Billions of dollars assigned to fix the rundown power stations and the dilapidated grid have been squandered or pilfered. A privatisation drive in recent years has raised some tentative hope of improvement, but for now Nigeria produces only half as much electricity as North Korea.The decimation of local industry is nearly absolute as few local producers remain:
Even those lucky enough to be connected to a functioning cable face the maddening task of negotiating with what used to be called the National Electric Power Authority or Nepa (but known as Never Expect Power Anytime). It was rebranded as the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, or PHCN (Please Have Candles Nearby or, simply, Problem Has Changed Name). Most must make do with spluttering diesel generators. In a country where 62 per cent of people live on less than $1.25 a day, running a generator costs about twice as much as the average Briton pays for electricity.
The crippling cost of electricity makes Nigerian textiles expensive to produce. Raymond, the Kaduna trader, told me he could sell trousers made from Chinese fabric at two-thirds the price of those made from Nigerian fabric and still turn a profit. Hillary Umunna, a few stalls over, concurred. The government’s attempt to support the Nigerian textile sector by banning imports was futile, Hillary opined, his tailor’s tape-measure draped around his shoulders. “These things now,” he said, gesturing at his wares, “they say it is contraband. They can’t produce it, but they ban it. So we have to smuggle.”
In the mid-1980s Nigeria had 175 textile mills. Over the quarter-century that followed, all but 25 shut down. Many of those that have struggled on do so only at a fraction of their capacity. Of the 350,000 people the industry employed in its heyday, making it comfortably Nigeria’s most important manufacturing sector, all but 25,000 have lost their jobs. Imports comprise 85 per cent of the market, despite the fact that importing textiles is illegal. The World Bank has estimated that textiles smuggled into Nigeria through Benin are worth $2.2bn a year, compared with local Nigerian production that has shrivelled to $40m annually. A team of experts working for the United Nations concluded in 2009, “The Nigerian textile industry is on the verge of a total collapse.” Given the power crisis, the near-impassable state of Nigeria’s roads and the deluge of counterfeit clothes, it is a wonder that the industry kept going as long as it did.