MFA A Year Afgter ; An occasional series on the textile industry Amid the brilliant riot of colour that makes up Accra's giant Makola Market, one almost has to squint to make out the letters 'ATI' on the bolt of folded fabric, a clever imitation of the 'ATL' logo of Akosombo Textiles Ltd. The pattern is distinctly African, block printed in orange and blue, yet its imitation logo is a small but sure sign the material is forged, pirated or smuggled and contributing to what many predict will be the total collapse of the African textile industry. Almost 12 months after United States textile quotas were abolished, opening up the lucrative American and European markets to cheap Chinese and Indian exports, experts estimate Africa has lost 250,000 textile-related jobs. They predict thousands more livelihoods will be lost before the market evens out, sparking fears that an industry rich in culture, history and tradition will be wiped out completely in a region of the world that remains desperate for industry and employment. 'I'm worried,' Akosombo Textiles sales manager Steve Dutton says. 'I'm worried that we'll see a time when there might not be any industry here. We're not seeing any viable ideas for the replacement of these industries.' Ghana once produced 130 million metres of brilliantly coloured fabrics, highly prized in a culture where woven Kente cloth is a symbol of royalty and fabrics figure prominently at baptisms, weddings and funerals. Now the West African country produces a mere 39 million metres of fabric. An industry that once employed 25,000 people in more than 200 large, medium and small-scale companies now employs only 2,000 in just three large companies. 'So much tradition and history is tied up with our textiles - that is why it matters greatly,' says Martina Odonkor, a development consultant who studied Ghana's symbolic Kente cloth as part of a Unesco submission to have the material declared a heritage item. 'Textiles mark a rite of passage here. That sense of importance is being lost. I'm worried about it and sad about the impact it will have on our culture but it's a reflection of our economic reality right now.' African textiles have been hammered by the booming trade in used clothing. Charitable cast-offs have actually pushed many businesses under because they have not been able to compete on price. Any gains made under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which saw African countries gain duty-free access to American markets, have been obliterated by the onslaught of cheaply made Chinese and Indian imports. The Agoa, signed in 2000, heralded a renaissance in an African industry flagging under heavy taxation and sluggish technological innovation. Swaziland alone saw dozens of textile factories open as Asian plant owners attempted to take advantage of the mountainous kingdom's access to the US market. But when the World Trade Organisation's Multi-Fibre Arrangement ended in January this year after 30 years of protective quotas in the US and European markets, the factories folded one by one. Some 15,000 jobs were lost in Swaziland and another 23,000 jobs disappeared in nearby Lesotho when 23 factories closed. The two countries have been ravaged by Aids and already hover at the bottom of the UN's human development index. South Africa was also hit hard, losing about 200,000 textile jobs over the past three years. Experts predict that the new trade rules will cost 27 million textile jobs worldwide outside China and India. A recent meeting on the future of the African textile trade held in Cape Town saw ministers from 10 fabric-producing African countries push for restructuring of the industry so they can remain competitive. 'We would never support any kind of ban on textiles because we know from experience in other countries that bans don't work. All you get is more smuggling,' Mr Dutton says. 'We understand that people have a right to choice, to buy cheaper stuff.' Mr Dutton just wants to see the playing field levelled. Ghana is overrun with smuggled fabrics, some careful imitations of copyrighted designs, others shoddy knockoffs of sacred designs once worn only by royalty. 'People started going to China, taking our own designs, made in our own industry and getting them printed very cheaply and putting them into our market,' says Julia Anokye, Ghana's deputy minister of industrial promotion. Theoretically, all imported textiles are supposed to enter the country via the port town of Takoradi, where there are customs agents trained to recognise the quality and value of goods and where a vetting committee waits to determine whether a pattern is an original or a clever rip-off of a Ghanaian design. The problem is that virtually no-one goes through Takoradi, Mr Dutton says. Most Asian imports arrive at the free port in Lome, Togo, a mere two hour's drive from the capital Accra. They are stored in a bonded warehouse and then sold to Togolese or Ghanaian traders who grease palms to slip the goods over the border, circumventing import taxes and duties which add up to nearly 35 per cent. 'When goods are smuggled, something is paid on the road but it doesn't go to the government and it's nothing like the proper amount,' Mr Dutton says. 'We're not saying they shouldn't bring it in; we're saying they should pay their taxes,' Ms Anokye says. Customs officers have confiscated 31,000 textile items this year and the trade ministry has bought speedboats to chase smugglers. Ms Anokye says the government is considering offering a tax holiday, as Nigeria does, for materials imported for making prints. There are allowances in the 2006 budget to help with upgrading machinery. The bigger issue, Mr Dutton says, is copyright piracy. 'Obviously it's done with the objective of deceiving the consumer,' he said. 'When you're looking at a symbol and it looks like the one we're using, they will be fooled.' Few people will pay more for seemingly identical items. 'Ghanaians have developed a bad habit - they want everything cheap,' Ms Anokye says. 'They know the impact, they know the adverse effect it's having on industry but the Ghanaian taste for imported goods and the taste for western style is giving us a headache,' she says. 'They like suits. You see them in jeans.' Ghana has instituted an African Dress Friday policy, encouraging people to wear Ghanaian fabrics in local styles at least once a week. 'Ostensibly, it looks like the consumer is getting a good deal but there are all kinds of implications if there are no local industries,' Mr Dutton says. Consumers are not getting nearly the savings they should be, he added, since the smugglers take a cut and the women selling the fabrics earn a huge mark-up. 'They can make more money on that than they can trading the local stuff,' he says. 'That's the engine that drives this thing along.' The idea a developing country should be able to make textiles as cheaply as a country like India or China is a myth, Mr Dutton says. Workers demand higher wages (South Africans earn two to three times what seamstresses and tailors are paid in China and Malaysia), their precision and quality cannot compare with Asian workers, things like electricity cost more and everything from dye to the base grey fabric has to be imported. 'As far as I'm concerned, what [the Chinese] produce is rubbish,' Mr Anokye says. 'Even if they sold the Chinese fabric for a penny, I wouldn't buy it. The quality is not good and the designs are not original, and because of the impact it's having on our society and industry, I wouldn't buy it.' Europe and the US have struck trading agreements with Beijing that place caps on the amount of merchandise that can be brought into various countries but Mr Dutton knows that kind of agreement would not work in Ghana, even if the country were a strong enough trading partner to demand it. There is simply too much corruption, too much room for smuggling and too many underpaid border guards willing to look the other way if it means having a little something extra to feed their families, he says. A unified front presented by the Economic Community Of West African States, a regional organisation of 16 countries founded in 1975, on duties and taxes might help stem some of the cross-border smuggling, Mr Dutton says. 'I'm not sure what the answer is,' he says. 'All we can do is try to fight on the copyright issue, on brand and design and quality. 'Things change and we have to accept that, but as things change, you have to have opportunities coming up and we're not seeing that. 'I wonder what people will be doing in 10 years.'