Uganda’s textile industry: going round seeing tri-stars until the phoenix rose via fine spinners


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WHILE doing some laundry the other day I noticed that I own a pair of shorts that had been made in Sri Lanka. Then I remembered that the person behind Uganda’s ‘big-ticket’ AGOA venture, Tri-Star Apparels, is also from Sri Lanka.

That sent me right back on my current AGOA agony, and I started wondering about all those girls who were so publicly employed by Tri-Star Apparels almost twenty years ago.

The story made big news back then, and we saw photographs of hundreds (were they thousands?) of girls going through a recruitment and then training process, after which they were given those coveted jobs.

At some point I even joined delegations paying official visits to the factory in Bugolobi, at a location made famous in the 1980s for hosting our biggest export then – coffee – processed and warehoused there by the mighty Coffee Marketing Board. Twenty years after that, the location was hosting another big export – clothing made by the girls of Tri-Star Apparels.

The newspapers back then wrote stuff like: “Tri-Star Apparels was founded by Deshabandu Kumar Dewapura in 1979 with just 10 machines and 15 employees. Tri-Star is now a global employer boasting dozens of factories in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Uganda, and Botswana that employ 15,000 workers producing 15 million pieces of garment. Its corporate clients include Ralph Lauren (2002 net revenue $2.3 billion), Gap (2002 net revenue, $7.0 billion), Guess (2002 net revenue $0.8 billion) and Limited Brands which owns Victoria’s Secret line of clothing (2002 revenue, $8.4 billion). It recently signed a contract to supply two million pieces of baby and children wear every month to UK-based Grasshopper Holder, one of the largest EU garment suppliers.”

For real, those words appear here.

The news stories also reported that Vellulapai Kananathan was the man behind this venture in Uganda, having partnered with the Sri Lanka-based Tri-Star Apparels.

Kananathan is today, I believe, Sri Lanka’s Honorary Consul to Uganda. The rest of the internet reports that the Tri-Star Apparels founder, Kumar Dewapura, passed away in September 2014.

Curiosity further piqued and my mind still on the statistic I saw a couple of weeks ago that said during the whole of 2016 Uganda only exported textiles worth US$9million to the United States under AGOA arrangements, I dug a bit more.

The internet doesn’t easily reveal information about Tri-Star Apparels. bloomberg.com, normally a trustworthy reporter of financial and business news, has a record of ‘Apparels Tri-Star (Uganda) Ltd.’ whose Key Executive is Mr. Vellupi Kanathan and that “operates as a subsidiary of LAP Green Network.”

The website has no record of the Sri Lankan Tri-Star Apparels, but that didn’t worry me – I simply looked elsewhere and found it…no. Not the Sri Lankan one – apparently there is a Tri-Star Apparels in India that has a Facebook page or wall to which the persons involved post photographs of clothing they sell.

This Tri-Star Apparels claimed to be based in Bangalore, India, and listed a website that is non-functional. Since I couldn’t be bothered to dial the number provided, I went to the rest of the internet only to find them listed elsewhere (same India phone number) with a Director called Mr. Naidu, and a rickety statement in English accompanying a small photo of t-shirts that all put together seemed to spell the word “con”.

I closed those sites and found the “Sri Lanka Directory of Exporters” under the header of the Sri Lanka Export Board, which listed Tri-Star Apparels Pvt. Ltd. with nothing under “Product /Services Range” but contact details that included the website’ www.tristar.org’.

The same website is listed in a few other places, with the company contact being Ms. Samantha Gunawardena, accompanied by a legend about the work they do.

The listed website is non-functional.

Then lankainformation.lk, the “Gateway to Sri Lanka”, presented a list of players in the Textile and Garments industry that didn’t mention Tri-Star.

It was frustrating.

Until I hit pay dirt. An organisation called Industrial Restructuring Consultancy Pvt. Ltd. had an online entry from February 2016 detailing how they helped ‘Tri Star Garment Industry’ conduct a restructuring in which they gave up a 20% shareholding and downsides from 8,000 to 4,000 staff.

At this point I felt I should focus more on my Ugandan Tri-Star instead and was happy to discover that there was a recent update made along the way.

About three years ago, NTV (in Uganda, I have reason to believe), published a story titled, “Kenyan textile entrepreneur takes over Tristar Apparel”, that read quite determinedly: “Fine Spinners, a Kenyan textile company, will be injecting over Ushs108billion over the next three years in a value development of Uganda’s cotton sector.”

That was three years ago so by counting very slowly one would be correct in expecting that we have received Ushs108billion in this country from Fine Spinners, a Kenyan textile company.

Continued the story, “Fine Spinners has taken over the operations of Tristar Apparel in Uganda. Tristar Apparel was closed down after years of losses despite heavy government subsidies and assured market through the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act initiative.”

Pause for thought there and think to yourself why the Kenyan company was so ready to inject Ushs108billion into a business venture that had failed in spite of subsidies and AGOA.

I couldn’t work it out immediately myself. Especially taking the usual rudimentary action of discovery in 2018 – Googling ‘Fine Spinners Kenya’.

The internet seemed to know more about Fine Spinners Uganda than Kenya, and I learnt about Jaswinder Bedi, described as a “textile technologist” and the man behind Fine Spinners. His personal story aside, I was astounded to read, in The Independent magazine:

“The government of Uganda has leased Phenix Logistics Uganda Ltd, a garment manufacturer based in Kampala, to a Kenyan-based garment manufacturer – Fine Spinners. The deal…at un-disclosed amount of money and a 15-year period is interesting ….Phenix Logistics has been recording losses, with the government injecting in billions of shillings to keep it afloat.”

So… what does Fine Spinners know that nobody else in Uganda appears to know and why don’t we know it after all these years?

I intend to find out for myself one day, rather than read stuff about them off the internet; their website says they are located on Spring Road in Bugolobi, and their phone number is listed there as +256 414 342 716, so I will be dialing it soon.

Their story, on that website, goes: “Our cotton is predominantly grown in the West, where, assisted by leading development partners, we mentor our smallholder farmers in sustainable cotton agriculture.

At harvest, the CMiA (Cotton Made in Africa – see http://www.cottonmadeinafrica.org/)-branded lint bales are transported to the Fine Spinners facilities in Kampala to be blended and spun into yarn. Our knitting and dying processes meet exacting international standards, as do our fabrics, which are subjected to rigorous retailer-specified testing regimes.”

Fine Spinners sources their cotton, says the website, from Kasese’s Western Uganda Cotton Company (WUCC) and NOT from the usual parts we have been hearing about since the days adults like myself were in primary school. This story here is further evidence of those expectations.

Fine Spinners even brought a group of European textile manufacturers to visit the place last year in April and they exclaimed that they were thoroughly impressed by Uganda’s cotton.

Said one of the textile importers: “I import 500,000 T-shirts per year, but now I want to grow it to one million pieces annually next year 2018. When you ask me why, I will tell you it is because Uganda has good cotton with production facilities.”

That was Joern Otto, the vice president for sourcing at Germany’s Bonprix Company – which actually exists, going by the internet. Either way, we should ensure that he actually doubles his purchases as planned.

It appears to be a true story, this one of Fine Spinners and Bonprix and Uganda’s cotton being so great. The Economist wrote a feature about this here: https://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21721636-will-manufacturing-africa-ever-take-journey-african-cotton-boll.

Ugandan clothes ARE being sold in Germany and the United States IN SPITE of the lobby group SMART (Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association) and their rather silly assertions about how hapless Uganda’s manufacturing future is, and how inert we sometimes are.

In an April 2016 interview, Jas Bedi stated that Fine Spinners was exporting about 50,000 t-shirts a month and was targeting 500,000 going up to 1million t-shirts a month by the end of that year.

He has done so well, going by the media reports, that just one client – Bonprix – is targeting 1million t-shirts from Uganda every month this year.

One of my favourite statements attributed to him goes: “Ugandan cotton itself is so much more superior, so it just gives you a competitive advantage right before you start. It’s handpicked, not machine picked, and because of that it’s a superior cotton. When you start with better cotton, you get a better product.”

What time and resources we wasted on those other guys long gone!
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