Lynsey ChutelLubumbashi, DR Congo
Positioning a stand at the entrance to one of Lubumbashi’s largest breweries is part entrepreneurial savvy, part defiance by Mwehu Kashala. Each day he sells mobile phone airtime vouchers under a large umbrella, displaying the disposable vouchers on a rickety table. It’s been his main source of income since he lost his job a decade ago from the textile factory that used to operate from the same large industrial complex that is now a brewery.
The Syntexkin textile factory was the economic heart and cultural soul of Lubumbashi. The Democratic Republic of Congo was known for its intricate fabrics, and this is one of the factories that produced them for decades. Syntexkin would produce thousands of rectangles of cotton cloth with myriad designs from patterns made of everyday objects to swirls that are almost abstract. The cloth is often brightly colored, always bold, and instantly recognizable as uniquely African.
Then in the early 2000s production buckled and eventually collapsed under an influx of cheap imports from China, unravelling the local economy. The cultural significance of these prints was not enough to save the factory or the jobs of hundreds of family breadwinners.
The fabric known as kangas are everywhere, even today. Their cuts have evolved, from simple wraps to tailored suits—the matching of their graphic print along a modern seam is no easy task. It is also what springs to mind when people from outside the country and continent think of when they hear the generic words “African print,” or Ankara.
Similar prints are worn in other African countries, and increasingly by a diaspora trying to reconnect with an African aesthetic. In the DRC, these printed fabrics about a yard wide and one and a half yards long have been a way of life for generations. It is why the loss of the commercial control of this print is so great.
Kashala, now 58, started working in the textile factory at 17, after lying about his age so that he could support his family. He spent his days working on the sewing machines, making sure that the industrial-sized bobbin never got stuck and that reams of fabric always ran through as smoothly.
By the 1990s, he’d worked his way up to a line manager of sorts, overseeing about 30 people in a factory of about 1,300 workers. The factory floor was a hive of activity, Kashala remembers. In one section workers mixed the inks that would dye the fabrics, in another they set the intricate design to a template, and in another they stamped the pattern onto fabric by hand, meticulously matching the lines and shapes with the naked eye. Kashala, a stern man who rarely smiles and always shines his shoes, ran a tight ship. Even today, his stall is never unmanned, with his unemployed son stepping in when necessary.
Years ago on the factory floor, there were whole teams responsible for applying specific families of color tones and others, like Kashala, who made sure the levers, gears and bobbins of the large sewing machines were always in perfect working condition. As the eldest of 17 orphaned children, Kashala made enough to feed his siblings, and then his own family, taking a second wife as the factory thrived.
Then the machines began to slow as demand for the textiles dropped. Kashala and other workers formed something of a civilian consumer watchdog group, checking local markets and shops to get to the bottom of why fewer Congolese were buying their fabrics. They inspected the hem of the cloth for the code that each factory prints as its signature, and interrogated vendors until they learned China had entered Lubumbashi’s markets.
The Chinese entry was subtle, despite the large volumes of cloth that came to the Congo. At first they only supplied the bales of plain cotton fabric, according to Kashala. Then printed fabric began to arrive, the quality seeming to improve with every run until they were able to mimic the Congolese designs. Soon, it required a meticulous eye to notice the difference.
“We started changing our patterns and hiding them away from the Chinese,” he said. “At one point we changed the sticker the Chinese had been mimicking so that we could check in the shops to see who was selling which one.”
The subtle change of a number or letter in the code at the hem of the cloth was not enough. Each time the factory workers changed it, they would soon find a cheaper copy flooding the market. The unique designs they’d created were duplicated and printed in China on thinner fabric and brought back to the DRC and other African nations and sold for a lower price.
Syntexkin sold its fabrics for about 2000 Congolese francs (just over $1) for a piece of cloth measuring less than three yards, says Kashala. The Chinese sold theirs at about half that, and even the government took their business to Chinese dealers.
Full article: https://qz.com/1127450/chinas-role-in-dr-congos-textile-industry-collapse/