In West Africa, the name Vlisco evokes heritage, quality and individuality. Established more than 160 years ago in The Netherlands, the Vlisco Group’s textiles are at the heart of fashion in West and Central Africa. The company designs, manufactures and distributes 70 million yards of branded fabrics annually through its operations and retail presence in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). Vlisco also directly employs 2,700 people, 1,700 of whom are based in West Africa. Given the scope and reach of its operations, it helps to create thousands of additional indirect jobs for salespeople, shopkeepers and tailors. The group’s brands include Vlisco, Woodin, GTP and Uniwax.
In 2010, the company was acquired by Actis, a global private equity firm investing in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Actis’ mantra – the positive power of capital – highlights the firm’s focus on integrating environmental, social and governance factors into all of its investment decisions. Actis has worked closely with Vlisco’s management team to accelerate the development and implementation of the company’s environmental and social strategy. This strategy is driven by Vlisco’s mission – to expand its business and make a greater economic and social impact in African markets.
E&S Positive Impact:
Integrating environmental and social responsibility into the business
Vlisco’s environmental and social (E&S) strategy includes three central pillars:
The company wants to contribute economically, socially and environmentally to the markets in which it operates and sells its products. Vlisco believes that a successful business model can combine commercial success with social and environmental improvements, particularly given that textile manufacturing and printing can have a significant environmental impact.
Building a sustainable and localised supply chain
“Over the past few years, we have made an effort to entrench the company in the African reality,” said Jan van der Horst, Director of Corporate Affairs at Vlisco and head of the CSR programme. “We are focused on using local expertise, whether it is in cotton production or marketing.” For example, the company now uses a local marketing firm in Côte d’Ivoire, rather than a European firm that operates globally.
Vlisco’s activities in West Africa, through its two factories in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, have generated US$49 million in value added to the local economy and created 19,400 indirect jobs through its supply chain .
A large part of Vlisco’s shift in strategy has occurred through an increasing focus on the localisation of its supply chains.
West Africa is an important cotton producer, a cash crop for small farmers. However, over the past 25 years, what was once a robust industry in cotton spinning and weaving has diminished considerably. Consequently, sourcing cotton locally is a challenge.
Today, about 18 million yards, or 41%, of the fabric for Vlisco’s factories in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are sourced in Africa (the remainder is from Asia). Vlisco has reached this milestone through the following projects:
Vlisco has also been sourcing items for its ready-to-wear collection from small workshops in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, which employ 20 to 40 people. The value of this approach to Vlisco is significant because it reinforces its brand promise to offer its customers unique African textiles and products, with a distinct cultural identity. In addition, Vlisco is helping the workshops to meet labour and health and safety standards through a sourcing code of conduct, thus improving the lives of the artisans.
Overall, the socio-economic benefits of building a localised supply chain include:
“Vlisco is an amazing business that is able to contribute across the entire value chain from the farmer to the seamstress, coupled with a portfolio of trusted brands which inspire millions of people across Africa and beyond,” said Murray Grant, the partner at Actis responsible for acquiring Vlisco and a current board member. “Like any business it is only as good as its people and the values they hold. They are passionate about how they can improve the way their business engages in the countries and communities they operate in and this in turn reinforces the value of their brands. It has been a privilege to challenge and empower this business to go even further.”
Vlisco and the environment
Vlisco has introduced environmental initiatives in order to reduce the company’s environmental footprint and costs:
Empowering underprivileged women
One of the defining characteristics of Vlisco is that women are at the centre of its business – as customers, distributors and, importantly, as the focus of one of the company’s social initiatives.
DR Congo, which is one of Vlisco’s key markets, remains politically and economically fragile following civil war, and humanitarian emergencies persist in parts of the country. It is estimated that the country has 2.3 million displaced persons.
In 2012, Vlisco launched a tailoring program for underprivileged women in Goma, in eastern DRC, to help them attain financial autonomy. Thirty women have completed the six-month training programme, where they learned basic tailoring skills, enabling them to earn a living and begin rebuilding their lives. The programme also includes financial and commercial training, to assist these women to go on to work independently as seamstresses and entrepreneurs. Vlisco is working with a technical institute, the l’Institut Supérieur des Arts et Métiers, to expand the training program across the country.
For Vlisco, the benefits are two-fold. First, the seamstress academies support the company’s drive to empower African women, by helping them to build the skills needed to become a part of the supply chain and benefit economically. Second, the value of such an initiative to Vlisco’s brand and reputation is significant, despite the fact that it is a well-established company in West Africa. In addition, through social reintegration, the women can begin to contribute to the wider economy in DRC, which is one of Vlisco’s key markets.
The program has being expanded, with the launch of a tailoring academy in Ghana in collaboration with a fashion school, targeting young women who have been unable to pursue a tailoring career due to socioeconomic constraints. The initiative is also expected to roll out in Nigeria in late 2014.
With Actis’ support, CSR has established itself in Vlisco’s business principles. “There is a momentum within the company now,” explained Jan.
There is work left to be done. The company’s labour, environmental and local sourcing programmes will continue to develop, as it sets new goals and expands its African footprint.
“There is no question that being active in CSR takes more effort,” said Jan. “It is more work and it requires extra support, but we are gradually winning over hearts. The effort is worth it.”
 “Socio-economic impact of Vlisco’s grey cloth sourcing in Western Africa,” Steward Redqueen, June 2014.