Vlisco’s attempt to block Black ownership is a clear example of how Europe continues to cheat the continent.
In late February, Made in Africa (MIA), a consortium of black and African investors backed by Africa’s Import-Export Bank (Afreximbank), were in the midst of acquiring Vlisco Group from Actis, the British private equity with backing from CDC, an agency of the UK government. The deal valued the iconic Dutch textile company at $193 million, according to sources close to the matter.
One week before finalizing the agreement, Actis called off the process citing a lack of clarity around MIA’s closing timeline. However, according to multiple sources confirmed by the Guardian, the only remaining step in the process was signing the agreement and obtaining consent from Vlisco’s Works Council in the Netherlands.
Finalizing the transaction would have brought Vlisco under African ownership for the first time in the company’s 175-year history. Vlisco Group, which also owns Uniwax, Woodin, and GTP, is headquartered in the Netherlands and prints luxury fabrics that are sold almost exclusively in Africa.
Critics argue that Dutch wax (also known as Ankara) is a colonial relic that should never be confused with authentic African textiles.“The Dutch have largely created a mechanical copy of our indigenous textiles like adire, then sold them back to us as a European luxury good for over 100 years. They take all the profits and invest them in Europe, leaving Africa underdeveloped and destroying our local textile market,” said Dr. Tunde Akinwumi, professor of African textile and dress history at University of Agriculture in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
Still others argue that Ankara is a symbol of African culture and heritage. While planning to keep Vlisco’s printing operations in the Netherlands to maintain the authenticity of traditional Dutch wax, MIA is seeking to create a long-term partnership between Africa and the Dutch manufacturer by migrating Vlisco’s cotton supply chain, which currently comes largely from Asia to Nigeria, supporting over 87,000 cotton small-hold farmers in northern Nigeria.
MIA also plans to diversify Vlisco’s leadership by replacing CFO Leendert van Reeuwijk, who helped turn the company around from the brink of bankruptcy in 2014 but has aspirations to become the company’s CEO. According to sources close to the matter, after it became clear that MIA was planning to eventually bring in African senior management to replace David Suddens when he retires, van Reeuwijk convinced Actis to kill the deal just one week before closing.
Instead of closing with MIA as planned, Vlisco’s European management team recently announced that they would lead a buyout with backing from Parcom, a Dutch firm with no experience investing in Africa. Parcom has agreed to let van Reeuwijk remain in control of Vlisco unopposed when Suddens retires.
According to a letter from Mishcon deReya seen by the Guardian, Parcom’s offer for Vlisco violated MIA’s exclusivity and is significantly lower than the valuation offered by Made in Africa, meaning that Actis and the British government are willing to take a significant loss on the transaction to ensure that this company remains under European control.
“It’s sad to see this kind of thing still happening in Africa today,” said Ernest Danjuma Enibi, an influential Nigerian entrepreneur and cultural critic. “A group of Africans has come together to do something for Africa and two neocolonialists were able to thwart the whole project. I hope Africans wake up and continue to fight against all modern forms of colonialism.”
Vlisco Group was forced to shut its operations in Nigeria in 2019 after being cited for foreign exchange infractions. The company remains unable to operate legally in Nigeria. Nigerian officials are contemplating an all-out imported textile ban to prevent European firms like Vlisco Group from destroying local textile markets in the future.
The real question remains: why should Africans continue to support brands that only seek to exploit and are not even prepared to countenance African Ownership?
Oluseyi Inioluwa, an economist and sociologist, is based in Lagos, Nigeria.
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