The NYT has an article today about "luxury that's by Africa and for Africa." It features a variety of entrepreneurs who have taken it upon themselves to establish Africa-based luxury brands, with goods created by local artisans. The author, Vanessa Friedman, acknowledges that "(t)he idea that luxury, which can be considered the ultimate in excessive self-indulgence, can be used to effect real economic change is a complicated proposition, and one that is often met with skepticism." But one of the business owners, Paul van Zyl, mounts a spirited defense:
"“It’s true, you get the raised eyebrow a lot,” Mr. van Zyl said of Maiyet. “But the real and robust response to that is: Ask any artisan of incredible skill if they would rather be paid $70 a running meter for their silk, which is what we pay at the luxury level, or $7 a running meter, and what the former can do in terms of transforming the lives of their workers, and the answer is pretty clear. Why should this be O.K. only when it comes to Italian and French artisans, and suspicious when it comes to African artisans? That’s the real issue.”
Yeah...that's not actually the real issue. The real issue might be the whiff of colonialism that exists around the whole thing.
Let me say this: I am very much in favor of local economic development. I am also very much in favor of innovations in local economic development, which is to say the encouragement of more businesses than the typical beaded-necklace-and-placemat projects. (Which is not to say that those necklaces aren't beautiful! But.) And I am definitely in favor of artisans getting paid according to the actual worth of the good they create, and if that's $70 and not $7, all the better.
But what the article fails to discuss is the (white) elephant in the room - race and class. All of the entrepreneurs she features are white, which might not be an issue if this wasn't taking place on a continent where, historically, white people have come in and set up businesses based on the labor of the original residents. And while two of the people in the article are from Africa, they're not exactly poor Afrikaner farmers; one, Hanneli Rupert, is the daughter of a billionaire. Of course, one can hardly argue that a business that compensates its artisans that well is exploitative, but it still doesn't really feel like meaningful progress.
I think I would feel better about the whole thing if I knew that as part of the model, these business owners were also providing other Africans - white and black, but particularly the poorest - with the resources and knowledge necessary to develop their own luxury empires. Market barriers are a lot higher when you start off poor and distant from traditional centers of luxury spending, and it would be great if these business owners could not only continue what they're doing, but also contribute to a more sustainable model of economic growth that doesn't just rely on others coming in and dropping jobs from a plane. Again, I don't necessarily have anything against these companies themselves. I just hope that this is only the beginning of the story.