Why Senegal Is on Global Fashion’s Radar

When brands draft their expansion plans for West Africa, market size is not the only factor to consider before mapping out a retail footprint. Though it is often overshadowed by regional heavyweights Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal has been quietly attracting global brands for over a decade thanks in part to its vibrant fashion culture.

Earlier this year, Tommy Hilfiger opened a shop in the Senegalese capital Dakar at the city’s Sahm shopping mall, which underwent a major expansion before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The American brand’s local partner is Mercure International, a pan-African company with deep roots in Senegal operating stores for other international brands such as the Levi’s outlet it opened in Dakar’s upmarket Sea Plaza mall a few years earlier.

“Senegal is not the biggest economy in the region, but its relative peaceful environment, favourable laws and dynamic fashion industry are some of the reasons for Sea Plaza’s birth here,” says Hamidou Badji, director of the shopping mall and head of strategy and business development at parent company Teyliom Group, a pan-African conglomerate founded in 2001 by Senegalese business mogul Yerim Sow.

Located on the Corniche, along the road linking the international airport to the city centre, Sea Plaza overlooks the Atlantic Ocean, allowing enough inflow of natural light to help highlight the marble flooring that ushers visitors to the 84 boutiques spread over two levels.

When the mall opened 12 years ago, more than 60 percent of its fashion stores were occupied by foreign brands. Today the proportion hasn’t changed much, with Adidas, Aldo, Benetton, Boss by Hugo Boss and Mango rubbing shoulders with homegrown names and multi-brand retailers such as Awa Diongue’s Nitya by Boursine.

The fact that the Teyliom Group operates in more than 12 mostly francophone countries across Africa in sectors as diverse as property, telecommunications, industry, finance, aviation and energy but has only launched one retail complex — Senegal’s Sea Plaza — suggests that the relatively small country of 17 million people has something special to offer global brands.

“Senegal is not the biggest economy in the region, but its relative peaceful environment, favourable laws and dynamic fashion industry are some of the reasons for Sea Plaza’s birth here.”

Senegal’s rich local fashion scene has not only helped shape generations of sophisticated, fashion-conscious consumers for foreign brands to court, it has also created a halo effect for them to bask in.

“[Senegalese fashion designers] have been ambassadors of our excellence [across the wider West and Central African regions] and therefore [international] investors are tempted to set off from here — the root,” says Badji.

A couture capital with street style cred

In West Africa, Senegal is considered a capital of couture craftsmanship and Dakar is its centre of eye-catching street style. The country is home to many talented designers, some of whom have emigrated to work elsewhere in the region or created platforms with either continental or global reach.

Take Adama Ndiaye, a household name in the local fashion industry with her own label Adama Paris. Ndiaye is the founder of both the long-running Dakar Fashion Week and the broadcast media Fashion Africa Channel. Her products, some of which are manufactured in Morocco, are available locally and at select retailers in Europe, the US and Asia.

Even during the height of pandemic restrictions, Ndiaye found a way to organise fashion week. Held outdoors in a field of baobab trees, the 2020 edition featured themes of sustainability and slow fashion. Throughout the year, other events are held by local entrepreneurs in Dakar.

One is Collé Sow Ardo, a specialist of ready-to-wear designed from woven loincloth who holds a pan-African fashion event known as Sira Vision. Like many of her contemporaries, she has a local boutique of her own and wholesale channels in other French-speaking African markets — in this case, in Brazzaville, Congo and Libreville, Gabon.

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Another bigwig in Senegal’s apparel business is Oumou Sy. Often dubbed the queen of Senegalese couture, she has sold traditional attire and jewellery for decades. Having opened a local modelling and fashion academy, she now counts celebrity clients such as Grammy award-winning Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. Other designer names to know include Shalimar Couture by Diouma Dieng Diakhaté and newcomer Diarra Bousso.

The broader creative industries in Dakar are also flourishing with the launch of several art festivals which often feature style-conscious photographers like Omar Victor Diop who help to put the country on the international fashion radar.

A mix of traditional and western attire

Brand awareness of global luxury and designer labels is relatively high in Dakar, a cosmopolitan city with French colonial era influences boasting 3.9 million people in the wider metropolitan area.

However, a preference for local fashion is evident among certain urbanites and consumers beyond the capital, thanks to the country’s unique combination of lifestyle, climate, customs and religion. And since Muslims make up 94 percent of the country, modesty remains an important factor for many. Some 8 out of 10 Senegalese wear traditional attire at least one day of the week, according to a survey by a local newspaper.

“You cannot wear jeans or a suit to a traditional marriage… You have to dress properly according to tradition and domestic trends, like [wearing] the very popular Senegalese boubou. Friday is for jummah (Muslim Friday midday prayer), which demands decent outfits as well,” says Dakar-based model, Mareme N’diaye.

The boubou, which is also popular in other West African countries, is a light and flowing garment, made from wax prints or bazin fabrics for men and women.

“I really don’t see the reasons behind [certain customer] complaints that high-street and mid-market [foreign] brands available at the malls are too expensive. Some boubous cost more,” says Assane Mbaye, culture journalist at local newspaper Sud Quotidien.

Ultimately, however, many Senegalese, “must go to work and need to dress in corporate clothes and… people go to sport arenas, restaurants, parks and beaches during the weekend [so] those who can afford [new light prêt-a-porter clothes] go to malls and boutiques to get them,” N’diaye adds. “Most of which are not made here.”

Rue Jules Ferry and other streets in the Dakar-Plateau area of the city are home to a cluster of small upmarket multi-brand boutiques selling both local and international brands which serve upper middle-class residents. But the real powerhouse retailer in Senegal is a man who has built an empire around an import business underpinned by franchise agreements with international fashion and sportswear brands.

The sportswear connection

Adnan Houdrouge is the founder of Mercure International, a group which operates in 12 mostly francophone African countries but is headquartered off-shore in Monaco. Born in Dakar, he is a member of Senegal’s sizeable Lebanese community which has been a conduit for international trade in the country for over a century.

Brands like those in Mercure’s portfolio target not only middle and upper-middle class Senegalese and Senegalese-Lebanese, but also the many French nationals and other expats based in the country.

Though Mercure was formed in the 1980s, its stable of international brands expanded significantly in the 2000s. Alongside its City Sport multi-brand outlets and Casino hypermarkets, the group has signed distribution or franchise deals with brands including Nike, Adidas, Diesel, Boss by Hugo Boss, Guess, Aldo, Courir, Go Sport and Levi’s for much of the francophone Africa region.

Mercure is also said to have financial interests in some of the Senegalese shopping centres where it operates stores for its partner brands such as Dakar City and Sahm.

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Johanna Houdrouge, daughter of the company’s founder, is particularly active in the local arm of the business as she was also born in Senegal.

It’s no coincidence that the sportswear category is a big earner in Senegal for the Houdrouge family. According to former wrestling coach Cisse Abdul, big foreign athletic brands are in demand because many locals are fitness enthusiasts thanks in part to the legacy of world-famous Senegalese footballers and sportsmen.

“There are gyms at every street corner,” he says. “Although, there are cheaper used sports clothes flooding the market, lots of people still opt for new [products from top brands] for their durability,” Abdul says.

“Don’t forget the influence of the rap and hip hop culture we have here on our dress codes. Beside the very popular Senegalese music — the mbalax — folks, mostly the younger generation, also listen to foreign music especially American rap tunes, which some local artists also adapt in their recordings [so] it’s not uncommon to spot young men on the street wearing loose fit sweatshirts and hoodies, branded baseball caps, basketball jerseys over jeans trousers with Timberland boots to match,” Abdul adds.

At the Sea Plaza shopping mall, where the Houdrouge family operates sportswear and fashion stores, Teyliom’s Badji says that daily visitor numbers have grown to almost 6000, prompting interest from more brands — both foreign and local — to rent space there.

Though there may be future opportunities for international fashion players in other cities such as Saint Louis, most international fashion retail remains concentrated in Dakar.

Challenges offset by significant opportunities

Like in many emerging markets around the world, there are several barriers to entry and considerable challenges for foreign companies once they start operating in Senegal.

This explains why many brands feel they need to navigate the market with the help of a local franchise or joint-venture partner. According to the US International Trade Administration, corruption and slow bureaucracy are factors that keep the country ranking low in terms of ease of doing business, even though improvements have been made in recent years.

For fashion players, counterfeiters and grey market traders are a significant problem. Consumers who shop outside the big malls often fall victim to fakes at local markets.

“Sometimes you can’t tell them apart — the original from the fake. They look authentic but the only difference is price. They sell cheaper but are soon exposed to wear and tear,” says Issoufou Soumaré, researcher in economics and management at Cheikh-Anta-Diop University in Dakar.

“Secondly, we don’t know who is authorised to wholesale or retail international brands there. At the malls we know they most likely have a licence but what about those selling at open markets?”

Razack Badji is a businessman at the huge Kermel Market situated in the heart of Dakar. He runs a fashion shop and gets deliveries every two weeks but says he does not know whether his goods come from authentic manufacturers.

“We are supplied most of the top European clothing brands. Our suppliers bring goods from Lebanon, China, Turkey and Morocco with stickers on the clothes. They are cheaper than those sold in the malls but we don’t know if they are from the true designers. Sometimes we are harassed by the police or municipal officials to show our licence. We negotiate and settle with cash and that’s it,” he says.

For local Senegalese designers, the scourge is not counterfeits but feugue-diaye, which means second-hand clothing in the local Wolof language. According to UN Comtrade, the trade in Senegal is estimated to amount to 18,500 tonnes of used clothing imports each year. Many believe that such cheap used foreign brand clothing undermines demand for locally made new clothes.

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Post-pandemic investment prospects

The fact that Senegal has outsized regional economic and political influence helps make it a more attractive market than countries with similar populations. One reason for this is that Dakar is home to the headquarters of the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) which serves countries sharing the CFA franc as currency: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo.

“Senegal is the focal point when it comes to business and finance in the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) which is the equivalent of the [former] EEC (European Economic Community). Every big business has a presence here. Investors are craving to come here,” says Soumaré.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, Senegal was one of the fastest-growing economies on the African continent and, though Covid-19 hit the country hard, it is now rebounding thanks in part to funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“Senegal is the focal point when it comes to business and finance in the West African Economic and Monetary Union… Every big business has a presence here. Investors are craving to come here.”

According to a statement made in March by Edward Gemayel, an advisor in the African Department at the IMF, “the Senegalese economy regained its pre-pandemic trend path in 2021, led by strong industrial production and the services sector. Real GDP growth is estimated at 6.1 percent, about one percentage point higher than previously anticipated.”

“The war in Ukraine is, however, casting a shadow on the macroeconomic outlook [in Senegal]. Rising global food and energy prices have added to existing policy challenges, including the lingering effects of the pandemic, regional insecurity, and rising social demands in the run up to the July parliamentary elections.”

While some local analysts have criticised Senegal’s government for its “sluggishness” in tackling youth unemployment, others believe the country is heading in the right direction, thanks to numerous economic development projects that have been completed or underway.

There is the new international airport, a new university, a new 50,000-seat stadium and the recently inaugurated $1.3 billion commuter railway that will connect Diamniadio, a satellite city currently being built about 40km from Dakar. Interestingly, several permits have been issued for the building of state-of-the-art malls in the new city.

According to Vincent Martin, director of tax M&A at Deloitte’s Luxembourg office, who recently penned a white paper describing Senegal as “ripe” for foreign investment in the post-pandemic era, “Senegal is and should remain an attractive jurisdiction… despite the current health and economic crisis.”

Though Senegal will never compete with the giants of the African continent such as Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Morocco, it does provide fashion businesses with a promising emerging market to consider as they look beyond the region’s top consumer economies.

Or as Martin puts it, “of all French-speaking African countries, [Senegal] undoubtedly offers a very welcoming environment for foreign investors thanks to the numerous advantages it provides.”

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