Kenya’s Coco Chanel? African Luxury Is Getting Into Anthropologie, Harrods And Vogue

The McKinsey Global Institute once famously described the African economies as “lions on the move.” But today it’s the continent’s “Lionesses” who are moving luxury markets around the world.

Akosua Afriyie-Kumi, Swaady Martin and Adèle Dejak are all members of Lionesses of Africa—an entrepreneurship community with over 600,000 members that recently hosted Start-up Night! Africa in London in partnership with Standard Bank Wealth.

In Africa, not only do 26% of adult women run their own businesses, but they typically reinvest 90% of their profits back into their communities.

“Africa has the highest female entrepreneurship rates in the world,” Melanie Hawken the CEO of Lionesses of Africa, told Forbes.

We find out how these fabulous female founders have succeeded in selling African luxury to stores worldwide…

Swaady Martin,Adele Dejak and Akosua Afriyie-Kumi, founder of AAKS all Lions of African luxury

Founded in 2008, Adèle Dejak is the face of her own fashion accessory brand that’s stocked in boutiques in New York, Paris and Tokyo. She’s collaborated with electronics giant Samsung and Italian fashion house Salvatore Ferragamo as well as Vogue Talents Milan.

Kitty Knowles: What inspired you to start your business?

Adèle Dejak, founder of Adèle Dejak, Kenya

Adèle Dejak: My background is typographic design, which I studied at the London College of Design. But I’ve always been passionate about jewelry, and my grandmother’s style had a huge impact on me.

When my husband and I moved to Kenya in 2005 I started making traditionally-inspired jewelry for myself, but I stripped it down to create something completely new. And when I broke the rules, everyone was like “Oh my God, Adele, that’s amazing, can’t you do one for me?”

When demand got too much, I decided there was potential in a business. Now I have a shop at the Village Market mall in Nairobi, Kenya, as well as an online shop for B2B and direct sales.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

The biggest challenge is money, unfortunately.

I’m the sole financier of my business, and I’ve had this huge success alone without any financial capital. Interest rates, if I were to get a bank loan, are just astronomically high.

The machines I need cost $2,000 here, $1,000 dollars there—it all adds up.

We’ve also had a lot of political upheaval in Kenya. We had two elections in three months last year, causing huge problems left, right and center.

But the main challenge is that there’s no financial infrastructure to assist us. That’s my biggest headache.

What’s next?

My big dream would be to become the Coco Chanel of Africa. It doesn’t get bigger than that.

Recently I was approached by African Fashion International in South Africa, and I’ve just had an incredible show there. I was also just on CNN Africa who liked me so much they want to do a special Inside Africa segment on my vision of interpreting African tribes for the future.

I’ve also started doing my own photography, which is great because it keeps costs at a minimum and I can control how the brand aesthetic evolves. I’m also in partnership with the United Nations and work with Kakuma Refugee Camp training refugees how to make bags and jewelry.

Why invest in Africa’s female founders?

People can see there is talent, there is no money, and that we are driven by passion.

I don’t believe in handouts. I believe in assistance and getting returns. We mustn’t forget that the fashion business is a billion-dollar industry so there’s a huge amount of money to be made.

Swaady Martin, founder of Yswara, South Africa

Founded in 2012, the artisan tea company Yswara has become one of Africa’s leading gourmet brands. It exports to 17 countries and has been stocked in iconic stores like Selfridges and Harrods in London as well as BHV Paris. This year Martin has also founded mindful self-development platform, Shift Within, and diversity festival Tounche.

KK: What inspired you to start Yswara?

SM: Before I started Yswara I used to work for the big American corporate GE [General Electric] in infrastructure.

But I’ve always been passionate about making a difference in Africa, and for several centuries we’ve been exporting raw commodities that are not transformed on the continent.

My thinking was really to start with a product I knew well: I’ve always loved tea, I come from a family of tea connoisseurs, and tea is the second most drunk beverage in the world.

So Yswara is an attempt to contribute to the reversal of the commodity trap—to keep the value-add in Africa.

Swaady Martin, founder of Yswara artisan tea.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

One of the big challenges in Africa is it’s a very broken society. From slavery and colonialism to postindependence political instability, this is a continent where people are carrying hundreds of years of brokenness.

I work with farmers and a lot of low-skilled people and see a lot of poverty, single mums, diseases, alcoholism—the list goes on. But it’s informed our “Luxe Ubuntu” business model which means “I am because we are,” and that our operations are based on humanity.

We don’t operate double shifts, for example, because it takes two hours for people to get to work because the transport system is inherited from apartheid days. And we close at 4 p.m. to allow people to get home and spend time with their families.

We do microloans for our employees if they have funerals or hardships or school fees, and we’ve created an environment that is very zen so that when people come to work it’s a healing place.

We also now employ unemployed, handicapped and elderly people: I’ve seen the model in France, and I really want it to scale it.

All my employees call me mum because, even though I am younger than them, they really see me as a parent.

What’s next?

Most brands, like Woolworths, contact us. We recently launched a collaboration with the fashion brand Trenery to create a limited edition tea canister .

And I’m also very excited about a collaboration we’ve done with another African company called Ardmore: that’s a nonprofit collaboration where we’re raising for Orange Babies to prevent the transmission of the AIDS virus from mother to child.

Why invest in Africa female founders?

There is a shortage of African contribution to the global narrative, and we can’t be truly global going into the future if some voices are not expressed.

Akosua Afriyie-Kumi, founder of AAKS, Ghana

Founded in 2014, AAKS is a luxury handbag brand from Ghana that’s sold in 60 stores in 18 countries—including in leading American stores like Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters.

KK: What inspired you to start AAKS?

AAK: Growing up in Ghana as a child, I used to see traditional woven baskets by the roadside, and I wondered why no one had done anything new with them—there was also a gap in the market where modern products were being mass produced rather than handmade.

I came to the U.K. to study fashion at Kingston University and decided to start a brand that utilized traditional weaving techniques but catered to modern users.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

Our biggest challenge is quality control: trying to create products which are exactly the same.

Even though our weavers can weave, they’ve been weaving for generations, it’s something they’ve known as a child, so we have to refine their skills so their bags can sit next to a Gucci bag and be seen as a luxury product.

To address this, I now employ two quality-control employees who oversee production, and we train our weavers 2-3 months before creating the bags.

What lies ahead?

We’re hoping to get into Liberty’s or maybe Selfridges soon.

We work in one of our weaver’s homes, so we’d like to build a weaving center where we can train more weavers—we currently employ 30 weavers, and hope to employ at least 70 by the end of the year.

I also want to open my own store in Ghana and showrooms around the world. The dream is to be stocked in one major store in every major city, that’s my goal.

I would love to invest more in different product categories, like interior design: I’ve spent the last year working with the United Nations to support a new weaving community in Burkina Faso for the Malian refugees. We just launched products which are going to be featured in Elle Decoration magazine.

Why invest in Africa female founders?

In Europe, everything has been done. We have something unique: a very different mindset to work, and raw ideas that haven’t been explored.

Find out more about the Lionesses of Africa.

By Kitty Knowles

Follow me @kittygknowles. More info over at kittyknowles.com.

|Forbes