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Africa’s influencer industry is growing but the continent's creatives have barriers to overcome.

By Adedoyin Adeniji

Sept 9, 2020

Once upon a time, the word “influencer” was prone to eliciting responses of derision and mockery. People conferred delusions of grandeur upon those “vain” enough to call themselves “influencers”. But with the global influencer industry about to hit $15 billion and Merriam-Webster officially adding the term to their dictionary in 2019, it is clear that the impact of influencers in today’s society cannot be disputed. To influence is to affect, and the advent of social media apps like Instagram in the 2010s has changed how we’re able to do this.

Africa’s burgeoning internet population and growing e-commerce sector are making social media marketing necessary tools for brands looking to market in the region. With consumer spending expected to double across the continent, the African fashion and lifestyle industry is rapidly seeking ways to digitize and to convert social capital into sales, and international platforms like Tiktok are paying attention to the region’s creatives and the growing impact of Afrocentric marketing. African influencers are well positioned to help brands connect with African consumers but content creation across the continent is no easy feat as the African influencer industry is still carving its own niche and conquering certain barriers.

Post colonialism, the African clothing industry was largely ignored as the global fashion industry looked to Europeans to decide what was in and to Africa to dump whatever was out. Designers, textile manufacturers and other players in Africa’s fashion landscape struggled to be treated as worthy trendsetters and tastemakers. Nigerian PR and Communications consultant, Wemi Esho, says, “When Africa would even get mentioned, it was just a brief acknowledgement of South Africa’s fashion scene. Social media helped democratize fashion and change this [tendency].” West African fashion stakeholders like Loza Mahléombho, Ugo Monye, Lisa Folawiyo, Mobolaji Dawodu, Oroma Elewa, Maki Oh, and Oxosi through their digital presence helped shift how the world engages with contemporary African fashion at large, making room for fashion influencers from the continent that would come thereafter.  

Nigerian fashion content creator Onyii Bekeh (@onyiibekeh), never considered being an influencer as a career choice. As a medical student, she had her eyes set on the corporate world. A coworker who noticed her artistic bent encouraged her to monetize her creativity. But converting social currency from her into actual currency wasn’t simple for Onyii. Even with her growing engagement rate from the 36k people who follow her and the growing credibility of influencer marketing, she still had to deal with national brands who negotiate pay like “tomatoes at the market” and offer “exposure” in exchange for content.

There is no question about the creativity and skill that African fashion influencers possess—they match the global fashion industry’s aesthetic standard while still maintaining cultural context. African fashion influencers understand the market for which they are content creating and brands know this. Regional fashion houses like Orange Culture are invested in bolstering the continent’s creatives. In the last year, the brand has launched collaborations with young Nigerian digital creatives like Temi Otedola (@temiotedola) and Denola Grey (@denolagrey) who have hundreds of thousands of people following their fashion content and advice. Speaking to Industrie Africa, Orange Culture founder Adebayo Oke-Lawal (@theorangenerd) says, “African influencers have the power to tell stories. They are here to amplify the voices of the brands and find unique ways to tell the stories of the brands through the clothes. They make clothes more relatable to their following—sometimes seeing clothes on models can be quite intimidating.”  

Photo: Joy Kendi

Oke-Lawal isn’t wrong. Despite the growing prevalence of celebrities entering into the blogging and content creating world, Gen Z and millennial consumers still prefer to see authentic and relatable marketing. Younger consumers feel better buying from brands when these products are marketed by people who look like them. African fashion influencers, despite growing popularity that may suggest inauthenticity, are still able to navigate the line between “the aspirational that is embedded in celebrity fashion culture and the reality of the fashion consumers who follow them.”

The desire of continental brands and influencers to support each other can only do so much amidst economic hardship. It was incredibly hard for Kenyan fashion and lifestyle influencer, Joy Kendi (@justjoykendi), eight years ago when she transitioned from blogging to being an influencer. Back then, national brands were wary of allocating money from their low profit margins toward influencer marketing. Still, Kendi kept creating and soon national and foreign brands like Kenyan RTW label AAchera and Maybelline respectively came knocking. For Kendi, pushing national fashion brands above international brands is difficult despite her passion for the Kenyan fashion industry. A lot of her followers cannot afford the “made in Kenya” pieces as Kenyan fashion brands have had to raise prices due to government tariffs and taxes or risk going under.

Constraints such as lack of governmental support and access to capital limit the work of African designers and now, by default, African fashion and lifestyle influencers suffer as well. Denola Grey, explains, “You can go downtown Manhattan to shoot a campaign and not worry about harassment, but when I walk down Marina, Lagos trying to create, overeager police officers question my right to use this public space”. Nigerian influencers report having to pay to shoot in certain spaces public and/or private and how this limits them.  

Grey, who has also worked with non-African brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Abercrombie & Fitch, knows it isn’t all rosy collaborating with foreign brands either. He believes that non-African brands need to respect Africans and Africa as a creative hub. He explains, “Some brands see that you’re based in Africa and try to underpay you.” Grey says his friends who live in the diaspora and have lower engagement stats are offered more by these same brands due to their locations in North America and the UK.

“You already deal with pay disparities as a Black influencer, now when you add in location, it’s a whole ‘nother thing, and it makes no sense because Africans pay the same price as others for these items,” seconds Ghanaian blogger Amoafoa (@_amoafoa_) who had to change the structure of her business a year ago. She started out creating content in 2014 while she was in college in the USA. Upon graduation, she moved back to Ghana, excited to work with national brands and meet other influencers, but the couture model that many fashion designers on the continent employ made it hard for her to recommend them to her followers who were accustomed to shopping from ready-to-wear brands like NA-KD and Revolve who have the resources to overproduce. Foreign brands with whom she had preexisting relationships were not interested in shipping marketing materials to Ghana for fear of their items going missing. Amoafoa, who earns a decent amount of her income through affiliate marketing, navigates this problem by using third party agencies and friends who live abroad as proxies for delivery. She hopes that with the growth of brands and platforms like Isla Woman, Threaded Tribes and Larry Jay, the Ghanaian fashion industry will get its due. 

Photo: Amoafoa

These barriers that African influencers face notwithstanding, the infancy of the African influencer industry gives content creators on the continent an edge in correcting the ills with which the global influencer industry has come to be associated. Critics have condemned fashion influencers in the West for boosting fast fashion and upholding unrealistic harmful aspirations. African influencers can use their platforms to boost the sustainable practices that many fashion consumers and creators on the continent already employ such as sourcing locally, zero-waste policies, collaborating with local artisans, mending garments, and buying vintage or thrifted pieces.

The relationship between African fashion influencers and African designers is symbiotic and both parties stand to benefit from the other’s progress. “With the African fashion industry growing, it’s only normal that we start to see more of the influencers and bloggers who help to define [its] culture,” says Dubai-based fashion consultant and long-time content creator Anum Bashir (@desertmannequin), who has worked with Nigerian fashion institutions like Lagos Fashion Week. Structures are rising to help boost the growth of African creative industries. More merchandisers are rising across the continent to help brands reach a wider audience addressing the problem of distribution that some designers face. In South Africa, influencer agencies are rapidly growing in number, and the media is reporting on influencer pay in order to help influencers better navigate the industry.

As fashion on the continent seeks to establish itself as separate from western influences, African content creators can help this shift by promoting the work of young African designers to their growing global audience and advocating for reform for the African creative scene. Our influencers can serve as the bridge between designers and consumers, using their social media savvy to push narratives that benefit the local industry and continent at large.