Your favorite wax print wasn’t really African and a Chinese takeover means it never will be

A wax-print cloth store owner in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in the 1990s
A wax-print cloth store owner in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in the 1990s
Image: AP Photo/Jean-Marc Bouju
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When you think of African fashion, you often think of the variety of brightly dyed fabrics worn on the continent and in the diaspora as shirts, pants, dresses, skirts and even the occasional head wrap on that cool “woke” black girlfriend. In Africa, they are everywhere at every time—from funerals and weddings, to markets and casual Fridays at the office.

The ubiquitous batik-inspired wax print or—as it’s known in some countries—”Ankara” has come to denote Africanness. It is a fabric that represents African authenticity and helps people in other far-flung corners of the world connect with the continent. But in truth the Ankara cloth didn’t even originate in Africa.

In her recent feature documentary, Wax Print, British-Nigerian filmmaker and fashion designer Aiwan Obinyan explains those origins, uncovering the very international history of the fabric. She traces its roots to the Indonesian batik-style of pattern making. During the Dutch colonization of Indonesia in the early nineteenth century, the colonizers adopted this style of pattern making from the Indonesians and began mechanizing the process. Missionaries in West and Central Africa in the pre-colonial days contacted enterprising Scottish merchant, Ebenezer Brown Fleming, expressing a desire for materials that Africans could wear.

“At that point they were trying to convert the Africans and make them better Christians, get them to cover up and be more English,” Obinyan explains. “They were asking for cloth that would match the environment and be palatable to the men and women there.”

Wax prints and other textiles on sale in Bouake, Ivory Coast
Wax prints and other textiles on sale in Bouake, Ivory Coast
Image: Reuters/Thierry Gouegnon

Fleming commissioned the cloth in the Netherlands and the missionaries began selling the print, particularly to African women thus ushering wax print’s arrival on the continent. The trade became so successful that soon African women began telling the missionaries the colors and designs they wanted. The missionaries passed their requests to Fleming who in turn informed the Dutch manufacturers.

While Ankara’s history might seem surprising to some and raise questions about its authenticity, the fate of the fabric today poses even more challenges to its African identity. China’s incursion into the wax print trade—from counterfeiting to establishing legitimate wax print factories—further threatens the Africanness of the fabric, especially as local manufacturers struggle to produce and claim ownership of a material whose main consumers are Africans.

The documentary shows Chinese companies began making inroads into the wax-print market in the 1970s, but the materials they produced at the time were inferior, poorly printed copies of designs from big manufacturers such as Vlisco in the Netherlands. By the 1990s, however, they improved their technique by poaching designers from the big companies and resorting to other tactics.

“There was a lot of design espionage, business espionage and stealing of techniques and machinery ideas and patterns to create their own in China,” Obinyan says. Eventually, the Chinese manufacturers began creating decent counterfeit wax print that “looked, felt and even smelled” like the authentic Vlisco-like wax prints. Today, emerging Chinese manufacturers like Hi Target and Supreme are wax print companies in their own right with distinct designs produced at a very high standard and sold cheaply.

While the growing competition and rise of inexpensive high-grade wax prints are good news to African consumers, it’s bad news to African players in the industry, including both established and fledgling local manufacturers.

A model displays an outfit by designer Kil Fashion in Lagos
A model displays an outfit by designer Kil Fashion in Lagos
Image: AP Photo/Sunday Alamba

The casualties of China’s encroachment into the Ankara business extends beyond manufacturers. Famous wax print distributors known as Mama Benzes (or Nana Benzes) are going out of business. These African businesswomen are vestiges of a once lucrative distribution network— from the pre-colonial era to the late twentieth century—that afforded them socioeconomic and political clout and even, yes, Mercedes Benzes. In the mid-twentieth century, they established business ties with British merchants importing wax print fabric and gained exclusive rights to trading wax prints.

Their wealth turned them into formidable cultural icons who shaped societies from Lagos to Kinshasa. In Lome, in particular, their socioeconomic might was such that they were instrumental in defining the political culture of Togo’s independence movement. Today, however, their influence and presence appear to be waning owing to China’s growing disruption of the wax print industry

“We don’t see Mama Benzes the way we did back in the 1930s to the seventies or the eighties,” Obinyan explains. “[The Chinese incursion] has disempowered African women in one of the key trades for African women.

“African women have been cut out both by the Chinese and the Europeans who basically found ways to do it themselves and cut them out completely. Hence why most Mama Benzes in Togo now sell rice rather than wax print because there is no money in it.”

Considering wax print’s history and how contemporary efforts by Africans to claim the material continue to be thwarted, one can’t help but wonder just how African the fabric is—a key question that Obinyan explores in the documentary. Will its authenticity continue to be defined mainly by the cultural significance Africans themselves place on it?

But even with African demand for and influence of the textile, it is not lost that having a relationship with the print that is mainly skewed towards consumerism puts Africans at a disadvantage in the long run. Obinyan puts it aptly: “From the buyer’s perspective they benefit because it’s cheap, but cheapness at what cost?”

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