Who Gon’ Check Me? Vlisco, Neocolonialism and Accountability

 

Vlisco is a Dutch company that produces wax fabrics that are heavily consumed by Africans and people of African descent living in the diaspora. Your auntie’s Ankara church dress, that’s probably from Vlisco. Founded in 1846, the company has steadily become a fabric manufacturing powerhouse, tapping into both lower end and luxury markets. 1

That’s alright, isn’t it, just any old company doing global business? As we’ve seen from Primark, Amazon and other big companies, it usually isn’t, someone somewhere is getting stepped on to make this all possible and profitable.  

Considering that the company began around the height of colonialism, they took full advantage of creating fabric for the Indonesian market, and when they discovered it was difficult to sell they shifted their eyes to West Africa.2

As of 2014, the Vlisco group had an annual turnover of over 350 million USD off African inspired designs that they owned copyrights to.3 This is imitation, and it’s not flattering. Most, if not all of the people at the helm of the company are not of African descent, and the people actually coming up with designs based off of their culture are not seeing any of the profit. 

On one hand, Vlisco may argue that they have enforced localization, whereby they have moved a lot of their operations onto the African continent- employing thousands through setting up factories in West Africa.4 However, there’s the issue of ownership, profit and cultural identity. Considering their colonial beginnings, a lot of Vlisco’s success in a post-colonial setting was formed through colonial ties, not just in Africa but in South East Asia as well.  

While many people benefit from those factories, and it has helped boost the economy, they also undermine the local production of indigenous African fabrics.  A local Kente cloth weaver in Ghana does not have the global networks, machinery, or financial muscle to compete with Vlisco. And there’s the rub isn’t it? Weighing up the immediate needs of people whose livelihoods depend on these massive industrial plants versus the slower, but perhaps more sustainable investment in local fabric production. 

 

A lot of local fabric makers go out of business because their systems are not mechanised and they may not have the means to roll out huge campaigns and reach the global market.  As a result, the local textile industries in the country will not contribute as much to Ghana’s economy because many of the factories are foreign owned with access to global networks.

It’s also very difficult to monitor because there are few things more complicated and convoluted than fashion supply chains. We hear about sweatshops in Thailand and Indonesia but actually tracing the movement from fabric production to design to processing to the final product is really difficult, because it’s dependent on what companies volunteer about their operations, and most aren’t very transparent.

Vlisco’s operations may be localized but the big winner won’t be the West African countries. It will be Vlisco and Holland because the profits will be injected back into their already stable economy, and at the expense of African creativity, manpower, and local resources. This highlights the effects of neo-colonialism in the world today and the chokehold that extractive institutions have on the African continent.  

Neo-colonialism in global business and commerce happens when a dominant, imperialist country propagates capitalism by dominating less developed countries using multinational corporations.5 In Why Nations Fail, economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson explain that extractive economic institutions are those that conduct activities (often in developing countries) and their wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a few elites. They explained that African and Latin American countries are likely to suffer at the hands of extractive institutions because, after colonialism, the wealth and resources were never redistributed and remained in the hands of the elite of the day.6

The most frustrating thing about extractive institutions like Vlisco is, who will check them? Who will keep them accountable for their fervent neocolonialism and extracting of African culture and resources? These institutions are private are often in bed with government elites so the government won’t be of particular help to this cause.

A solution to this is quite difficult to find because of the complex dynamics and colonial-like power and hierarchies spanning centuries. For now, promotion and the uplifting of local and small-scale textile manufacturers will do more than buying from a multi-million-dollar business with its headquarters somewhere in Europe- far away from Africa. Miss me with that.

Footnotes
  1.  High Growth Markets Magazine, “How Dutch-Based Vlisco Became One of Africa’s Most Popular Fashion Companies,” How We Made It In Africa, September 26, 2014, https://www.howwemadeitinafrica.com/how-dutch-based-vlisco-became-one-of-africas-most-popular-fashion-companies/43676/.
  2. Beyond Victoriana, “#71 ‘African Fabrics’: The History of Dutch Wax Prints–Guest Blog by Eccentric Yoruba,” Beyond Victoriana, April 10, 2011, https://beyondvictoriana.com/2011/04/10/african-fabrics-the-history-of-dutch-wax-prints-guest-blog-by-eccentric-yoruba/.
  3. High Growth Markets Magazine, “How Dutch-Based Vlisco Became One of Africa’s Most Popular Fashion Companies,” How We Made It in Africa, September 26, 2014
  4. CDC, “Vlisco – the Benefits of Localisation,” Business Fights Poverty, August 5, 2015, https://businessfightspoverty.org/vlisco-the-benefits-of-localisation/.
  5. Sandra Halperin, “Neocolonialism,” in Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/neocolonialism.
  6. Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (London: Profile Books, Cop, 2012).