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An African success story: Togo's princesses of wax print

A 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.

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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 specialised in the sale of tchigan, Dutch wax-printed fabric, renowned for its vibrant colours and exceptional quality. The Nana Benz were 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.

Our reporters in Togo went to meet several generations of these businesswomen, who are fighting to regain their place at the top of the lucrative wax-print fabric market.

This report won the Rotary Young Reporter Award in 2018.

>> On France24.com: Putting the ‘African’ back in West African wax print fabrics

>> Also watch our Fashion show: "Dior's Cruise 2020, a truly African collection"

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