Designer and entrepreneur, Aissa Dione, has made it her mission to revive Senegal's ailing textile industry. She has cut out a niche for herself by supplying world-class interior design companies.
An old brick industrial hall, the size of a small cathedral, reverberates to the sounds of machines. We are in Rufisque, a small town outside the Senegalese capital Dakar, where an economic miracle is being engineered: the company produces world-class textiles from original African designs. The instigator of all this is designer, thinker and entrepreneur Aissa Dione.
'I began with this company in 1992. I was working from home with a single weaver. Before too long, there were 15 working with me and I moved to an area specifically designed for small and medium enterprises. I wanted to re-launch textile production - but in a different way.'
Like most of West Africa, Senegal grows cotton and by that virtue alone, the country should have a vibrant textile industry. As a matter of fact, it did have such an industry but Aissa Dione is of the opinion that they were disastrously managed. 'They concentrated on the mass market. Large quantities, low price. Now, that of course was never going to work. Our competitors are Asian countries and they can serve this mass market ten times better than we.'
Spike in imports
Many other things went wrong too. Rapid - and often forced - liberalization of previously protected markets meant that the local producers were no match for the cheap imports that started flooding in. Rapid liberalization was in strict compliance with the policies set out by the likes of the World Bank and the IMF but it helped ruin an entire industry.
And there was a second effect. The spike in imports also further strengthened the hand of those who trade in all sorts of things - but do not produce anything. In short: the traders. With a feeling for understatement, Aissa Dione says: 'If you talk about economic development, it is odd that we, the producers, the creators of employment, do not have access to credit and do not get the kind of tax breaks the traders get.'
Her solution? Go to the high end of the market. Aissa Dione delivers to the absolute top in interior designing, such as HERMES, Christian Liaigre and Peter Marino. Her designs also grace the interior of the new Dakar Onomo Hotel, near the airport. And of course, her work is present in major design salons, from Paris to Johannesburg and New York. But in the back of her mind is that dream of revival.
'I strongly believe in small-scale industries, as a way to bring development to West Africa. We grow a million tons of cotton in this region and we export 99% of that. If I can process that cotton here, at home, I can increase my revenue fifty or one hundred times.'
The missing link
But the destruction of Senegal's textile industry has meant that the production chain, from the field to the shop, has been broken. The missing link: a spinning mill. It costs about a million euros to acquire one, but Aissa Dione wants it badly. 'I want to connect the mill with our cotton growers and in this way we restore the entire production chain.'
But is there enough market? 'Of course, we are selling,' says Dione. 'Not just at the high end of the market. There is an upcoming middle class here and they want to buy quality materials, produced here.'
Textile has always been at the heart of industrial revolutions and accelerated economic development. And what matters most in unemployment-battered Senegal: a revived industry creates jobs, thousands of them in Aissa Dione's estimation. 'I do realize that I am swimming against the economic tide, 'she admits. 'But at the same time, I know that this is the only way you can develop. We are showing the way forward.'