Image credit: WBUR

Grace Osagie doesn’t know when she will post new stock on her Instagram business pages.

“I’ve not been able to get goods out of China,” the Lagos-Nigeria based online fashion retailer tells me.

As you should know if you have not been under a rock, Covid-19 is on a rampage. Popularly known as coronavirus, the infectious viral disease originated in China in December 2019 and has so far caused over 2,800 deaths from about 82,000 infected humans.

Deaths have been recorded in China, Italy, South Korea and Iran, where the deputy health minister and a vice president have tested positive.

Nigeria has recorded its first case, according to an announcement by the Ministry of Health early Friday morning. But Africa has largely been spared the virus’s mortal consequences.

Empty Parisian Runways

The virus has disrupted fashion month for the world’s big luxury brands. At Paris fashion week, Giorgio Armani decided against having guests at the unveiling of their Fall 2020 collection, choosing instead to stream the runway from an empty theatre.

Beyond global fashion, small and especially online-based business owners in Africa like Grace Osagie are grappling with the implications of the Coronavirus outbreak. While holding down a part-time job in Lagos, Osagie operates two online stores on Instagram – one for men’s wear, and another for essential oil diffusers.

Thanks to China’s imposition of travel restrictions, both of her Instagram hustles are on an indefinite pause. Customers are requesting stock but “I can’t post what I don’t have. I have orders but can’t ask them to pay.”

Public health panics on a global scale are not new. Disease outbreak is an unpredictable factor that business owners have to make allowances for. But unlike any recent disease, Coronavirus highlights China’s growing influence on global fashion supply chains.  McKinsey’s state of fashion in 2019 report predicted China will overtake the US as the world’s largest market for the first time in centuries.

The implications for Africa are probably more noteworthy. Your favorite African wax print is probably Chinese in origin. In the age of exploding e-commerce, a sneeze in China will, more than ever, sparks bouts of entrepreneurial pneumonia in Africa.

Disturbing the peace

Before coronavirus rocked global commerce, there were basically two ways to import fashion accessories from China to Africa. A merchant could reach out to manufacturers directly, send the minimum order quantity, make payments and expect shipment. Alternatively, you go through an agent based in China who shops and sends.

Violet Johnson, another Lagos-based online fashion retailer specializing in female accessories, is familiar with both procedures. But since the outbreak, she has not been able to finalize orders:

“I have been advised not to pay for the things I want to get because the manufacturers are not taking any orders now until the situation eases. They can’t ship out. My new orders are on hold till further notice.”

When is “further notice” and how does an Instagram business owner hold fort till that time without losing usually fickle customers?

“I’ve been losing opportunities because of a lack of stock,” says Habib Olawale, a 27-year old who sells fancy embroidered socks through social media.

Between April 2019 when he started till this February, Olawale has sold 1,600 pairs. 75% of those sales have been on Twitter because “people more easily share your content if they like it.”

With coronavirus in play, he now directs most customer requests to re-sellers on social media who bought up the majority of the 800 pairs he imported from China in January. Importing from India or Turkey are alternatives but the work it will take to learn new processes and familiarise with new agents would, in his view, be prohibitive.

He’ll rather stick with his current plug – a Nigerian with contacts in China. They chat and agree terms over WhatsApp.

Pivot or Pause?

There is a temporary relief for Osagie, the men’s shoes retailer; the dire situation in China has raised demand – and a potential global shortage – for thermometer guns and face masks.

Her Chinese-based shipping agents may be off duty at the moment but it is a good time to send supplies to China: before January, thermometers sold for ₦2,500 ($6.76). But within the week, it has come from ₦9,000 ($24.32) to ₦15,000 ($40.54).

The coronavirus scare officially ends for Osagie whenever time calls on this placeholder gig.

Johnson hasn’t posted on Instagram in ten days but has managed to keep her store open. An initial strategy of diversifying her inventory sources means she imports from Turkey and the UK. Neither has been affected by coronavirus.

China is expected to dominate the expansion of luxury fashion till 2025. Since 2012, they have accounted for 38% of global fashion industry growth across segments. But if the early months teach us anything, it may be time for both designers and merchants to look more broadly.

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