Colourful, patterned fabric with cult status in Africa has become all the rage on this season’s catwalks. The wax printed fabric is worth its weight in gold. In Togo, in the 1970s, a group of women nicknamed the “Nana Benz” made their fortune with it. Today, a new generation of “Nanettes” are taking up the mantle but they face new challenges trying to keep the business alive. Our reporters find out more about this African success story.
Hidden deep in the textile district of the Togolese capital Lomé, lies an entirely female realm: the world of the “Nana Benz”. These businesswomen, often illiterate but extremely resourceful, built a textile empire in the 1970s and ’80s that spanned all of West Africa.
They specialized in the sale of tchigan, Dutch wax-printed fabric, renowned for its vibrant colours and exceptional quality. The Nana Benz was the continent’s first female millionaires – possibly even billionaires – and their success marked the start of the emancipation of African women. With their huge turnover, they built luxury villas in the residential areas of Lomé, bought apartments in Europe and imported the first German sedans, the famous Mercedes-Benz. With this last achievement, their nickname was born.
Since then, Porsches have replaced the Mercedes and the reign of the Nana Benz has weakened. In the early 2000s, they faced intense Chinese competition, with fabric made in Shanghai and sold at prices 10 times cheaper flooding the Togolese market.