Here’s how you diversify a nation’s economic base: take longstanding strengths in particular sectors, and build on them, creating wholly new industry clusters that are a logical extension of the original sector. That’s what Ghana’s Nora Bannerman did on a small scale in the 1980s, when she started Sleek Garments, a clothing manufacturing business based in Accra.
“It made complete sense to capitalise on Ghana’s traditional skillsets in weaving and textile production – as well as access to raw materials supplied by Ghana’s cotton farms – to start a homegrown garment business,” she says.
After all, she notes, Ghana is the birthplace of kente cloth, the vibrantly patterned, intricately woven cotton fabric that is an internationally recognised emblem of African craftsmanship and creativity.
For Nora, though, this wasn’t just an exercise in dry textbook guidance on how to scope out a viable business opportunity. Rather, it was a way to turn a lifelong passion – fashion design – into a thriving commercial enterprise. Despite her parents’ desire to see her become a doctor, Nora says she knew there was only one career path for her – and it didn’t involve going to medical school.
“I knew from the time I was a little girl what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and I set out to achieve it.” Nora parlayed her unique combination of talent, creativity, entrepreneurial drive, and business savvy into the thriving clothing company that Sleek Garments is today. A 22,000 square foot factory, located in the heart of Accra’s bustling industrial zone, runs multiple shifts and employs 120 workers who produce contract manufactured garments for US and European retailers, along with high-end women’s fashions. Nearly 90% of the workforce is female and all are paid a living wage.
High-end fashion and sound business strategy
At home, Nora is an instantly recognisable fashion icon, always elegantly dressed in the perfectly tailored outfits that are the signature style of her design house – a unique blend of traditional African dress and drape, classic lines, and fashion-forward ethos. “When you are wearing one of my looks, you know who designed it,” she says.
Nora has shown her couture line on the runways of the world’s fashion capitals. Among her most important brand ambassadors: several African first ladies whom she has dressed for the kinds of state occasions that typically garner lots of press. Importantly, this press coverage often includes photos of these celebrities wearing Nora-designed gowns.
“When people compliment these women in the public eye, they say: ‘This is from Nora Bannerman in Ghana, go and have your outfits designed by her.’ You can’t get much better advertising than that,” she says.
The embrace of Nora’s designs by high-profile individuals and groups was part of a carefully crafted marketing strategy, designed to showcase her work without spending cash she didn’t have.
Lending business expertise to trade negotiations
In the early 2000s, Nora represented the private sector in high-level, pan-African negotiations with the United States for a new trade agreement. As part of the discussions, Nora shared her experience in building a business – and the cornerstone of a new industry cluster – from scratch.
“All these men were trying to advise on how to build more businesses in Ghana. But I had already figured that out!”
The agreement – the African Growth and Opportunity Act – was a watershed for countries like Ghana, enabling duty-free import and export on a host of goods at a time when the market for global trade was taking off. Recently renewed, the agreement has made a significant difference for the Ghanaian economy as a whole and for Nora’s business, which has become an important cog in the global supply chain for retailers and other commercial customers around the world.
Doing well and doing good: not mutually exclusive goals
Even as Nora herself succeeded, she remained acutely aware that many Ghanaian women lack the skills to earn a sustainable livelihood. While nearly 70% of the country’s women work, most have low-paying and unreliable jobs in the informal economy, representing a significant proportion of those living in poverty.
At the same time, Nora’s company faced a capacity issue. “We had a major US buyer who gave us a huge order but we initially didn’t have sufficient skilled workers,” she says. So, supported by grants from the World Bank and other development institutions, Nora set up an on-site academy to train local women and men on all aspects of apparel production. This would help deepen the skilled workforce talent pipeline for her own business while generating new and more viable employment opportunities for hundreds of people.
The academy curriculum also includes the basics of running a small business. The idea is to enable more women to become business owners and develop a local supply chain to deepen and expand Ghana’s apparel industry, Nora says.
“By helping to set up small local suppliers using our quality assurance methods, we are able to subcontract the orders that are too small for us to produce, while maintaining our quality standards.”
In the 40 years since its inception, the academy has trained more than 1,500 young people and adults, helping to create about 50 thriving, women-owned businesses. “I am committed to seeing more happen for our African youth, especially for young women,” she says.
Meanwhile, with access to a larger pool of skilled workers, Nora has increased her capacity to fill large orders: from an initial order of 3,000 shirts for one US retailer, she now fills orders of up to 75,000 shirts – all bearing a “Made in Ghana” label.
The company also recently completed a cost-cutting and efficiency initiative that has reduced turnaround times for large orders – down to 90 days from 120. Nora’s director of operations, also a woman and part of the three-person senior management team, oversaw the effort.
And an active board, two-thirds of which is female, ensures good governance on financial decision making. Such actions are positioning the company for an even brighter future, as it competes for – and wins – ever-larger contracts. She anticipates tripling her workforce over the next several years to handle the workload.
“My dream is of brands coming out of Ghana, supplying world markets,” she says. “Everything is possible in this industry.”
This article was first published in the IFC’s Trailblazers–Portraits of Female Business Leadership in Emerging and Frontier Markets publication.