The Modern Tale of Nigerian Wax-Resist Textiles

July 2009


What do you think African art is? Masks or sculptures? The idea would be laughable to most Africans, who consider textile design the African art par excellence. But many forms of African textile design have disappeared. Now one more – wax-resist textile design – is under threat. Slowly, the last mills are closing their doors, one after the other: wax-resist textile design might soon be a lost art.

“African designs and designers like me are an endangered species,” says Patricia Akarume who worked in a textile mill until it closed down in 2004. “Today, there are hundreds like me who have skills which have become redundant due to unfair global trade practices such as copying designs, counterfeiting trademarks and falsifying place of origin descriptions. African prints depict the heritage of our tribes and each motif and pattern tells a story.” Before we tell Ms Akarume’s story, the story of modern Nigerian wax-resist textiles, let us go back to where it all started.

Batik wax-resist textiles were first imported from Indonesia in the 19th century. The African relish of colorful fabrics made them an instant success. The method of fabrication was soon customized and designs adapted to reflect local traditional culture.

The customization that produces the cloth beloved in the continent began by accident. Dutch textile manufacturers, in adapting the Indonesian wax-resist method to a dual-roller system, experienced a few technical problems: their method could not remove all the wax from the textiles, which left spots that resisted color and, to make matters worse, when a new color was added it would bleed onto the adjacent color. The dual-roller fabric was intended for the Indonesian market, but the Indonesians viewed the fabric with its spots and bleeding colors as spoiled and had no use for it. But, somehow, the “spoiled” fabric made its way to the African marketplace – and clients fell in love with it.


As African countries gained independence in the 20th century, they built their own textile mills and started creating designs that reflect traditional African culture, where each ethnic group has its own preferences for colors and designs. To the knowing eye, the design on a textile reveals a story, often meaningful to the wearer. The colors may also provide information about the wearer’s tribal origin, social standing, age and marital status. Dress plays an important role in African society and has even been used as a form of protest. Designs and the way they were worn often made quiet but effective commentary on the colonial establishment. Today Dutch manufacturers still retain the high end of the African wax-resist fabric market, but the rest of the market belongs to local manufacturers.

From riches to rags…

The Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA), a quota system established in 1974 to protect the domestic textile industries of Canada, the U.S. and certain countries in Europe from emerging Asian producers, gave advantages to small textile-exporting countries that were not bound by quota constraints or that enjoyed preferential access to European and U.S. markets. Under the MFA, which created conditions benefiting it, the nascent African textile industry thrived, reaching a peak of over 200 mills in 1985.

The industry was sent reeling when new World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations came into effect in January 2005, bursting the textile bubble that had arisen from the MFA quota system. According to the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation the phasing-out of the quota system cost the African textile industry over 250,000 jobs in a few short years. The dust has just started to settle and fewer than 40 mills remain, providing employment to fewer than 40,000 people. The survivors, giving up on the European and American markets, turned their focus to building and safeguarding their home markets.

The Nigerian story

Nigeria now holds 63 percent of the remaining West African textile manufacturing capacity. Nigerian wax-resist textiles are found in almost every marketplace in sub-Saharan Africa. But Nigerian manufacturers face another challenge in the African market: cheap Asian imports. The Nigerian government applied trade tariffs on imported textiles to protect what was left of the industry and give it time to mature.

But that move may not have been enough. What floods market stalls in Nairobi, échoppes in Dakar and the streets of Lagos are counterfeit Nigerian wax-resist textiles. In West Africa, it is estimated that smuggled textiles that counterfeit West African textile trademarks have taken over 85 percent of the market. The situation is out of control and is a serious threat to the beleaguered textile industry.

This fabric counterfeiters the Nichem trademark and falsely indicates Nigeria as country of origin. (Photo Manchester Trade Ltd.)

Ms. Akarume tells the story firsthand: “Afprint took the threat from imports seriously and started retooling its mill. To meet the changing tastes and preferences, we installed the latest CAD/CAM [computer assisted design and manufacture] equipment. We moved from 30 designs a month to 100 with several collections. But the smugglers outwitted the local mills. They started picking our popular designs which they would send to their factories electronically for reproduction. But many consumers still preferred the original cloth made in Nigeria. It did not take long for the unscrupulous traders to discover this and soon the markets were flooded with copied designs, stamped with ‘Made in Nigeria’ and counterfeit popular trademarks, selling at 30 percent lower price.”

The smuggled textiles are not wax-resist dyed, but rather high-velocity textile prints produced in half the time for a fraction of the price. The printed textiles “fake” the bleeding effect of the color and the dye-resistant spots of the authentic product. They use chemical rather than natural dyes. The goods are usually smuggled into the country to avoid paying duties and taxes due to the government.

The textiles, found to originate mostly in China, specifically target and infringe well-known Nigerian trademarks, carry “Made in Nigeria” or “Made as Nigeria” on the selvedges (margins or edges of a woven fabric) and blatantly fake statutory quality standard markings to deliberately mislead consumers. Some of the companies involved even display Nigerian trademarks on their websites.

If this trade continues at its current rate, it is not just the wax-resist textile mills that may disappear, but also sub-Saharan cotton cultivation, natural dye-making and all the support industries around them.

The role of trademarks in the industry

A recent book by Stéphanie Ngo Mbem (see WIPO Magazine 1/2009) discusses the protection of industrial designs as key to development in Africa. The low volume of design registration in Africa’s highly creative society is generally attributed to a lack of knowledge that such protection exists and lack of funds to pay for registration. But many African textile designers have also expressed the view that it is pointless to register their designs: If counterfeiters can copy trademarks and stamps of origin with impunity, how would registering a design change anything?

The more “traditional” designs may not, in any case, be protected under the conventional IP system. Companies like the Nigerian textile firm Nichem that create over 200 new designs a year note that these creations – many of them modern and eclectic – can benefit from copyright protection. However, there is no denying that West African textile companies, in the same manner as the fashion houses and textile creators of Europe, rely heavily on their trademarks to protect their goods from counterfeiting.

So far, however, trademark registration has failed them. The IP system, and more specifically trademarks, cannot play its role as a driver for economic development without the participation of right holders, proper infrastructure, collaboration among government agencies and international cooperation with neighboring countries and exporting countries. Local markets too need a functioning IP system and a global network to survive.

The first step in encouraging stakeholders and users of the IP system, as well as in supporting the textile industry, is to enforce IP rights. Coordinated efforts are required from stakeholders and government agencies such as IP offices, police, customs, the judiciary and the revenue and taxation offices.

The challenges

(Photo WIPO/Castonguay)

West African textile companies need to be as vigilant in protecting their trademarks as European fashion houses that actively defend their rights by sending cease and desist notices to vendors and challenging trademark infringers in court. The creation of a collective trademark for wax-resist textiles mills could bring those concerned together and would create a single entity with which authorities could work to tackle the problem.

A high-visibility leader in this area would also be helpful, of the same ilk as Dr. Dora Nkem Akunyili, to take up the fight against the counterfeiters of textile trademarks. Dr. Akunyili – named “One of the eighteen heroes of our time” by Time Magazine in 2006 – spearheaded the fight against counterfeit drugs when she became Director General of Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) in 2001. Before she took over her post, a staggering 80 percent of the medicines sold in Nigeria were deficient in one way or another. She restricted the points of entry for drugs into Nigeria, had officials trained to work in the selected ports, conducted hundreds of raids, attracted media attention and gathered the support she needed within her government as well as internationally (see Joining Forces to Combat Counterfeiting, WIPO Magazine 1/2006).

The main components of the NAFDAC campaign against counterfeiting are training, raids, attracting media attention and cooperation with stakeholders, neighboring countries and exporting countries. These same tactics can be applied in the fight against counterfeit textiles.

Training: Ports are the point of entry of many counterfeit goods – from fake medicines to textiles. The trademark owners need to work hand in hand with customs controls and port authorities who will need training to recognize and identify trademarks, so that they can seize and destroy textiles carrying false markings.

Raids and media: Textiles with counterfeited trademark are sold openly in marketplaces and without any fear of reprisals. Vendors do not seem to be aware that it is illegal to sell these goods. Raids may only be a temporary setback for counterfeiters but they attract media attention, quickly spreading the word among vendors that the illegal sale of goods will no longer be tolerated.

Cooperation – neighboring countries: Counterfeit textiles are being sold across Africa. The border patrols required to curb smuggling and seize counterfeits would, therefore, demand more than coordinated efforts between Nigeria and its neighbors, Benin, Chad, Cameroon and Niger. But it would certainly be a start.

Cooperation – exporting countries: International cooperation with exporting countries could well play a pivotal role in enforcing trademarks. Dr. Akunyili gained the cooperation of the Chinese and Indian governments in her fight against counterfeit drugs; both countries had a number of companies that had been indicted for manufacturing fake drugs. China has invested much in Africa, becoming one of Africa’s primary partners for development. Would there be a possibility for cooperation between Nigeria and China on customs and port controls, modeled, for example, on the China and European initiative which aims to tighten enforcement and crackdown on counterfeiting by sharing information among ports (see Ports in China and EU Share Information to Fight Counterfeiting, WIPO Magazine 1/2008)?

The experience of other countries

The Nigerian case is by no means unique. For example, Panamanian molas – traditional wool textiles – were threatened by imports from China (see Panama: Empowering Indigenous Women through a Better Protection and Marketing of Handicrafts, WIPO Magazine 6/2005). The Omani khanjars (daggers) were also threatened by imports from Pakistan. What steps did the two countries take?

First, they prohibited the imports of those goods on the grounds that they infringed national IP rights or special rights established in traditional cultural expressions. Second, Panama established a national regime of protection and registration of handicrafts, including textiles. Oman is still in the process of doing this.

The option to issue a legal statute declaring wax-resist textiles a matter of Nigerian IP and to prohibit imports is open to Nigeria. The country would then also need to develop a mechanism for registration and protection of handicrafts. One of the elements of that protection could be certification marks. Based on these marks, Nigeria would be able to prevent exports of fake wax-resist textiles to other countries as well. IP rights in traditional knowledge are not internationally recognized, but certification marks are.

Textile design – African art

The problem of counterfeit textiles is not such a heart-wrenching story as that of counterfeit drugs. Still, it is a human story – mills closing, jobs lost, an art form disappearing. Further cooperation between the government and all stakeholders will help turnaround this trend which threatens one of Africa's best known products.


African Prints – The stories in the designs and colors

In pre-colonial times, standardized widths of cloth were used as a form of money in many regions of Africa. A regular number of the standard lengths were required to make a woman’s wrap, which served as a unit of value. May this be the origin of Africa’s love of breadths of bright beautiful fabrics?

Colors in African prints have an intimate association with tribes and regions. Sepia-ochre is generally accepted across Africa as the color used to represent earth, however, yellow is the color of initiation in Nigeria, while the combination of yellow/red belongs to the Igbo tribe of southeastern Nigeria.

African print designs fall into fours main categories:

  • women’s lives (family, love, housework);
  • town life and what it brings, good or bad (alphabet, television, money, power);
  • nature (animals, flowers); and
  • rhythms (music, drums).

Motifs in traditional African print designs often convey a metaphor and the design spins a tale. Beads in designs represent the African saying “Precious beads make no noise,” meaning that a good person does not need to blow his own horn. In the fabric below (right), the design depicts town life and uses the bottle-opener (cork screw) motif to connote the power it has brought.

The Nigerian Aso Ebi dress tradition encourages members of a particular social group or those attending a wedding, naming ceremony or burial to adhere to a design or color code. On weekends, it is common to see groups of people in such “uniforms” at bus stops and churches. The classic dice design below (left) symbolizes nobility and is often the “uniform” of senior women.

(Photo: ABC Wax (Cha Group))

Variety is the hall mark of African print designs. There is an eclectic mix of old classics like the dice and bottle opener, and more contemporary designs with abstract motifs. ABC Wax in Ghana and Nichem in Nigeria, both part of the Cha Group, have libraries of over 35,000 designs with 200 new designs being created every year.

By Sylvie Castonguay, WIPO Magazine Editorial Team, Communications Division


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