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Monday, July 15, 2002

Media: Wall Street Journal: Industry Combats Cheap Knockoffs


ACCRA, Ghana -- On the Printex Ltd. textile-factory floor is a closed door bearing a sign that reads: "Out of bounds. Anyone seen entering without permission will be severely dealt with."

Printex managers have good reason to be careful. Behind the door, a team of designers comes up with more than 500 copyrighted patterns a year for the colorful African fabrics that are the staple of Ghanaian fashion, and textile pirates are itching to see the new designs.

The sooner the new models go public, the sooner textile makers in China, Pakistan, Nigeria, India and Ivory Coast will make cheap copies of the most popular ones, smuggle them back into Ghana and snatch Printex's customers.

"We maintain strict secrecy until the point of production," says Printex executive Sujit Menon. "We keep everything under lock and key."

It is a bitter twist on the usual international dispute over intellectual-property rights, in which someone in a poor nation copies the products of a corporation in a wealthy country. Instead, Ghana's is a story of the poor stealing from the poor, with local manufacturers finding their copyrights pirated by companies in other developing countries.

Once the new Ghanaian designs are released, it is only a matter of a few months _ if not weeks _ before knockoffs appear. The four local textile producers figure piracy and smuggling cost them about two-thirds of the $150 million annual local market, a sharp blow in a country with relatively little indigenous industry and an average annual income of just $400.

Printex, which employs 400 Ghanaians, operates out of a Dickensian expanse of screening cylinders, steaming irons, huge rolls of raw cotton cloth and snaking tubes of dye. Sweat-drenched workers in flip-flops splash through puddles as they weave fabric, screen on designs, and cut it into 12-yard pieces.

Printex, which has about $20 million in annual sales, supplies printed cloth to wholesalers, who then distribute it to market women, who by tradition are the majority of textile dealers, all over this West African nation.

Ghana's textile market is fickle, with women buying the latest designs for dresses or head wraps. About a quarter of the new patterns from Printex's secret design room will sell well. Once the fabrics hit the market, the company hires student models to show them off, such as in ads on billboards and television. A winner could be produced in runs of as many as 300,000 yards. The rest will die after runs of just 3,000 yards.

Printex produces only screened textiles generically called "fancy prints." Some other companies, such as the Dutch textile maker Vlisco BV, also sell more expensive batik-like fabrics printed using a wax process. Each design is copyrighted, and, in theory, protected for 15 years. In fact, some don't last that many days before they are copied by pirate factories, industry executives say.

The fakes aren't hard to spot. They tend to be made of flimsier, less regular fabric, often synthetic such as rayon, instead of cotton. The colors don't always line up with the shapes. Some manufacturers print their name on the edge, but many sport a slightly altered logo from one of the famous brands, such as Printex, Vlisco or its local subsidiary, Ghana Textile Printing Ltd.

Ghana Textile Printing's distributor keeps a warehouse of new fabric on the edge of Makola market, Accra's commercial heart. Next door is a storefront of wholesaler S.K. Owusu, who sells the cloth to the women who run retail stalls in the market itself.

Ms. Owusu displays a certificate of merit presented by Ghana Textile Printing and the Vlisco Group for her work selling their wares. But on a rack on her wall at the moment is a bolt of gold cloth with a green star burst, with a close imitation of the Vlisco logo on the edge.

"It's not Vlisco," she concedes to Cecil Evans-Chinery, the district sales manager for Ghana Textile Printing's distributor. "It's supplied to me through Togo."

But, she explains, the vendors and their customers are demanding lower-price goods. She sells six yards of the fake for 75,000 cedis, or about $10. A GTP version would cost twice as much, and a Vlisco wax original 280,000 cedis, or nearly $40.

Mr. Evans-Chinery says he can't get too angry. He knows times are tough, and that Ms. Owusu has debts.

The pirates keep costs low in part by copying only designs that are already selling well; apparently the pirates are tipped off by the market women. So there is tension in the air as Mr. Evans-Chinery strolls through Makola's textile section; stall after stall is lined with smuggled cloth from China, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and elsewhere. The market women know him well, and suspect he either wants to raise prices or turn the women in. For their part, they say if Ghana Textile Printing turned out less expensive products, they wouldn't sell counterfeits.

"Everybody wants something cheap," Mr. Evans-Chinery sighs.

Ghanaian officials, under pressure from industry, are increasingly worried by the flood of foreign fabric. But it is the smuggling, not the copyright infringement, they find really troubling. Imported textiles are subject to a 20 percent tariff, and _ if industry estimates are correct _ that means the smuggling costs the government about $20 million in lost revenue.

The government's first instinct was to fight back at the retail level. Some months ago, officials summoned 1,500 Accra market women to the National Theater and warned them a crackdown was coming. "They know who the smugglers are," says Julia Anokye, senior industrial-promotion officer at the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

About a month later, customs police conducting a series of market raids seized smuggled goods and arrested a handful of textile dealers. A group of angry market women stomped to the Ministry of Trade and Industry and demanded an audience with the minister, which they eventually got.

"There was an uproar," a Ms. Anokye concedes.

Much of the pirated material comes through the port in Togo, next door on the Gulf of Guinea. Then, industry executives say, it is trucked north, where there is less border supervision, and smuggled into Ghana, past poorly paid, easily bribed customs officers.

Milad Millet, director of family-owned Printex, tries to stay ahead of the pirates by changing designs constantly, and by keeping his new patterns under tight wraps. Cordelia Salter, who runs an African-goods retail Web site called eShopAfrica.com here, recently approached Mr. Millet about displaying his products online. Thinking of the pirates, he turned her down flat. "All they've got to do," says Mr. Millet, "is log on, see the new designs and say, Start printing, boys!"

Copyright WSJ updated Jul 15, 2002 Write to Michael M. Phillips at michael.phillips@wsj.com

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