How Nora Bannerman built clothing business that exports to US and European retailers

Here’s how you diversify a nation’s economic base: take longstanding strengths in particular sectors, and build on them, creating wholly new industry clusters that are a logical extension of the original sector. That’s what Ghana’s Nora Bannerman did on a small scale in the 1980s, when she started Sleek Garments, a clothing manufacturing business based in Accra.

“It made complete sense to capitalize on Ghana’s traditional skillsets in weaving and textile production – as well as access to raw materials supplied by Ghana’s cotton farms – to start a homegrown garment business,” she says.

After all, she notes, Ghana is the birthplace of kente cloth, the vibrantly patterned, intricately woven cotton fabric that is an internationally recognized emblem of African craftsmanship and creativity.

For Nora, though, this wasn’t just an exercise in dry textbook guidance on how to scope out a viable business opportunity. Rather, it was a way to turn a lifelong passion – fashion design – into a thriving commercial enterprise. Despite her parents’ desire to see her become a doctor, Nora says she knew there was only one career path for her – and it didn’t involve going to medical school.

“I knew from the time I was a little girl what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and I set out to achieve it.” Nora parlayed her unique combination of talent, creativity, entrepreneurial drive, and business savvy into the thriving clothing company that Sleek Garments is today. A 22,000 square foot factory, located in the heart of Accra’s bustling industrial zone, runs multiple shifts and employs 120 workers who produce contract manufactured garments for US and European retailers, along with high-end women’s fashions. Nearly 90% of the workforce is female and all are paid a living wage.

High-end fashion and sound business strategy

At home, Nora is an instantly recognizable fashion icon, always elegantly dressed in the perfectly tailored outfits that are the signature style of her design house – a unique blend of traditional African dress and drape, classic lines, and fashion-forward ethos. “When you are wearing one of my looks, you know who designed it,” she says.

Nora has shown her couture line on the runways of the world’s fashion capitals. Among her most important brand ambassadors: several African first ladies whom she has dressed for the kinds of state occasions that typically garner lots of press. Importantly, this press coverage often includes photos of these celebrities wearing Nora-designed gowns.

“When people compliment these women in the public eye, they say: ‘This is from Nora Bannerman in Ghana, go and have your outfits designed by her.’ You can’t get much better advertising than that,” she says.

The embrace of Nora’s designs by high-profile individuals and groups as part of a carefully crafted marketing strategy, designed to showcase her work without spending cash she didn’t have.

Lending business expertise to trade negotiations

In the early 2000s, Nora represented the private sector in high-level, pan-African negotiations with the United States for a new trade agreement. As part of the discussions, Nora shared her experience in building a business – and the cornerstone of a new industry cluster – from scratch.

“All these men were trying to advise on how to build more businesses in Ghana. But I had already figured that out!”

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