The Genteel
February 26, 2021


Gabriel Mollel greets the audience at Swahili Fashion Week 2012. Photograph by Simon Deiner. Source:
 From Subira Wahure's collection.
Photograph by Simon Deiner.

A country has two options when it comes to exploiting the economic potential of its natural resources: sell them, or convert them into finished products to be exported. The process isn't always so straight forward, however, especially in some African regions.

Tanzania, formed in 1964 by the union of the states of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, is the third-largest producer of gold in Africa after South Africa and Ghana, has significant natural gas reserves and is the world's only source of tanzanite, a peculiar blue-purple gemstone. Yet, despite the country's abundant natural resources, Tanzania's economy is in the midst of growing pains, with its economic output still largely based on the country's agricultural sector.

But within this picture, a new scenario is slowly emerging: a vibrant fashion industry is carefully unfurling its wings and opening itself up to the growing market potential of African consumers. Showcasing the developing fashion industry in Tanzania is Swahili Fashion Week (SFW), one of Africa's largest annual fashion events, created in 2008 by couturier Mustafa Hassanali. "It's a dynamic platform for fashion and accessory designers from Swahili-speaking countries and the African continent to showcase their talent and network with clientele in the region and in the international market," explains Hassanali to The Genteel

Tanzania's fashion landscape has notably grown over the last ten years. Numerous fashion designers have emerged, including two main fashion organisations, Tanzania Mitindo House and Naledi Tanzania. The industry is also creating jobs for a significant number of citizens, even if temporarily. During SFW, for example, over 300 people worked as security, caterers, waiters, production, light and sound technicians, set designers, models, hairstylists, make-up artists, drivers, and of course, designers.

 From Martin Kadinda's collection. 
Photograph by Simon Deiner.

The fifth edition of SFW was held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's economic centre, and was capped off on December 8 with SFW's awards ceremony at the Golden Tulip Hotel. Designer Gabriel Mollel, winner of both the Innovative Designer of the Year and Designer of the Year awards, also represented Swahili fashion at Mozambique Fashion Week (MFW) which took place December 7 to 15. 

Through an exchange programme that began five years ago, MFW hosts talented designers emerging from SFW, strengthening the already close social and economic relationship between the two countries, while promoting their respective talent and materials. The cross-border collaboration between Tanzania and Mozambique is an example of the increasing regional integration that is aiming to further economic growth for East African countries through the fashion industry with job opportunities and improved fashion education for young designers who see fashion as a career choice. 

"Since its inception, Swahili Fashion Week has helped Tanzanian young designers to participate in international fashion events, promote 'Made in Tanzania' products, as well as opened up opportunities to showcase their collections and find new markets worldwide," adds Mustafa Hassanali.

Designer Gabriel Mollel is an example of how fashion is translating into viable careers in the region. Founder of his label, Sairiamu Community Action Foundation, Mollel was born in the Maasai village of Losinoni Juu in Arusha, northern Tanzania. His early life in the Maasai culture serves as inspiration for his fashion designs, footwear and leather accessories for men and women, as well as modern Maasai wedding dresses adorned with beads, seeds and seashells. For his creations, he also uses the East African khanga, a bordered rectangular cotton cloth printed in brightly coloured designs, and the kitenge, a thicker cotton garment similar to a sarong but with edging only along its long side. It is often decorated with political, religious and tribal patterns and mainly used in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. "Winning two awards this year to me is a result of hard work and creativity," says Mollel, "This gives me power, but at the same time it is a challenge because what is hard in life is to maintain people's belief in you, whatever it is that you are doing."

Subira Rahma Wahure was another talent to emerge from SFW; combining bold African prints and floral batik fabrics with silk, chiffon and satin, Wahure reflected her ethnic origins in her gorgeous dress collection. Model and designer Martin Kadinda's line of blazers, Single Button, is appreciated not only in Tanzania but also internationally for its distinctive casual attire for kitchen parties, and smarter niche outfits for weddings.

Designer Gabriel Mollel is an example of how fashion is translating into viable careers in the region. Founder of his label, Sairiamu Community Action Foundation, Mollel was born in the Maasai village of Losinoni Juu in Arusha, northern Tanzania.

As "Made in Africa" products are gradually having a greater impact in the global marketplace, the concept itself is evolving. "It not only means promoting quality products made in Africa with the best natural resources, but it also implies promoting, exposing and marketing what is created in Africa by local designers whose collections are used in different occasions from wedding to evening outfits. This continues on building and fostering the fashion industry of Tanzania and the region at large," Hassanali asserts. 

Partnering with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), as a part of USAID COMPETE's Origin Africa initiative, a global awareness campaign to change perceptions about doing business in Africa, the designers participating in SFW attended a seminar on "Integrating Design and Marketing" to understand ways in which they can potentially contribute towards transforming fashion into the largest industry in Tanzania.

The Tanzanian fashion industry is in the early stages of being in the position to help expand the regional economy and establish itself as a key source of income and employment in the country. But to do so, the industry needs to increase its competitiveness on the international scene. The Tanzanian government can assist by focusing more on its policy of educating young people about design and in the technical knowledge of dress making. Moreover, by exploiting the country's liberalised trade regime (that was introduced back in the 1980s), even the fashion industry could encourage both foreign and domestic private investments.

In the meantime, the fashion industry continues to do its part by organising events more frequently across the region: "As for the 2013 edition, Swahili Fashion Week will be a bi-annual event, with the Kenyan edition to be held during the first half of the year and the main event to be held in the later half, in Tanzania."



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