How cloth manufacturer ‘Vlisco’ wins African upper class

Cloth manufacturer Vlisco is an upmarket brand that produces one-of-a-kind, colourful fabrics in The Netherlands and ships them to West and Central Africa. Its African client base turns these textiles into beautifully custom-designed, hand-made dresses. CEO Hans Ouwendijk: “Not we, but our customers label Vlisco the ‘Louis Vuitton’ of Africa.”

Vlisco is a luxury brand, exclusively enjoyed by Africa’s middle and upper class”, CEO Hans Ouwendijk points out. Cloth manufacturer Vlisco delivers superior quality fabrics that stand out by colour and by print. The Vlisco brand fully leans on its production facilities in The Netherlands, and therefore, in Africa, is referred to as ‘les wax hollandaises’. Once a fabric has arrived in Africa, local workers take over. The company’s customers enjoy the advantage of relatively cheap labour. Ouwendijk: “Of a finished design, only a relatively small part of the costs are spent on the wages of the person assembling it.”

Engaging customers

In 2010, Vlisco Group was purchased by Actis and acquired a new CEO, Hans Ouwendijk. Rigid changes led to a discovery of previously unexploited markets. The company now sells in West and Central Africa – Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, the DRC, Burkina Faso, Niger, Congo, Mali, Benin, Togo and Angola – and marginally reaches Kenya in the East, as well as South Africa in the South. But more than that, demand increasingly stems from customers in Europe and the United States. “When I became CEO”, Hans says, “Vlisco Group was in dire need of a new strategy. The company lacked a marketing department and was too narrowly focused on its design and production branches. Today we actively engage our customers; we speak to them in person. We do this not only to better understand their preferences, but also to fathom their way of thinking, and grasp what their perception of beauty is.”

Strategic redesign

The company’s strategic redesign paid off: “When I started at Vlisco Group, my ambition was to double annual turnover in five years. Against all economic and financial odds, we are well on our way to reach this target, with the company’s annual turnover having soared from 170 million euros in 2009, to almost 300 million euros in 2013. We now employ 900 people in The Netherlands, as well as we have 1800 employees in Africa in our sales and (Ghanaian and Ivory) production locations; we launched new product lines such as bags and scarfs, and are about to open new stores across Africa.”

Irrepressible growth

“Africa is an extraordinary market”, says Hans. “Both to explore and to develop. Whereas growth as it has long driven Asian markets appears to stagnate in that region, Africa irrepressibly grows. Its middle class expands without ceasing, as does this class’s disposable income. As for me, more European companies should consider Africa as a potential future trading partner, as well as European governments should be supportive of their ventures.”

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