Swaady Martin-Leke, an Ivorian entrepreneur, prides herself as a custodian of Africa’s rich culture and history. And she preserves it with style. After an eventful, highflying 11-year career at GE, where she held leadership positions in several divisions across the world (including acting as the Director for Sub-Saharan Africa of GE Transportation and acting-CEO for GE South Africa Technologies), she decided to follow her passion for African culture & heritage and founded YSWARA, a growing home-grown African global luxury brand.
YSWARA creates luxury products using the continent’s natural resources, produced by African artisans. Products include gourmet tea, chocolates and home and accessories collections such as homeware, spoons, home fragrances and artisan jewelry, aim to capture true African luxury as well as preserve and promote Africa’s endangered cultural heritage by revisiting the continent’s ancestral craftsmanship. YSWARA is only a year old, but it is already present in 4 countries -South Africa, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and France — with 15 different direct and indirect retail points.
Martin-Leke recently granted me an interview, during which she talked about her motivations for setting up an African luxury brand, the future of luxury in Africa, the international demand for the continent’s luxury goods and her long-term ambitions for YSWARA.
I always thought of YSWARA as a gourmet tea company offering a collection of rare African tea blends, but I see you now sell teas, perfumes and ornaments. What does YSWARA do?
YSWARA creates exceptional products made in Africa and gourmet teas are part of the products we offer within our Art of African Living collections. Today, our products range from Gourmet, Home and Accessories collections which include chocolate, homeware, spoons, home fragrances and artisan jewelry. When we launched the brand in December 2012, we focused on our teatime collection to raise the awareness of high-quality African teas but our mission and vision were never to be just an African tea company. Our mission is bigger than that. It is to promote and preserve Africa’s rich culture and history through exceptional products made with our natural resources by African artisans. In doing that, we support the export of value-added African products, foster a dialogue between tradition and modernity, combining traditional techniques with contemporary designs, participate in the cultural survival & rebranding of Africa and act as an ambassador to the preservation of Africa’s artistry and expression.
What was the initial idea behind YSWARA?
I wanted to produce a luxury brand that was truly African in origin, nature and tradition. All our products are sourced from Africa and crafted by local craftsmen and artisans, combining traditional techniques with modern designs. YSWARA supports some of Africa’s top creative talents and believe in an authentic African luxury marrying both economics and social values. We call it the LUXE UBUNTU. The Luxe Ubuntu creates economic value in a way that also creates value for the African society at large by addressing its prosperity needs and challenges. It aims to expand the meaningful income of all stakeholders contributing to the creation of our products at the various levels of supply chain – whether it be farmers and artisans, artists, manufacturers and so on – by essentially providing routes to market for their products and keeping the added-value in Africa. YSWARA’s focus is thus on broad-based wealth creation by enabling access to markets of high-end quality products conceptualized and produced in Africa and sought after by connoisseurs worldwide, as well as “limited editions” to showcase exceptional local artists.
How difficult was it starting out?
Building a fully African-made luxury brand presents tremendous challenges which my team and I are still overcoming every day. The main challenge for us is the cost and logistics of exporting out of Africa. These costs are still too high, and that makes it incredibly difficult for us as it hampers our internet sales as well as the opportunities to export out of Africa globally.
In addition, Africa’s industrial fabric is not made for high-quality goods that are produced at a competitive cost relative to China or India. We struggled to find suppliers who source and manufacture 100% of their products in Africa. Then, when world-class quality is met, the consistency is not guaranteed. Our artisans are not set-up to scale their activities and are often paralyzed by the prospect of growing their business beyond the “enough-to-live” stage. As a luxury brand, we cannot afford any inconsistency in quality nor sub-standard quality levels. We are competing with international brands, as we are benchmarking ourselves to the best we can possibly be. For example, for us to use our suppliers based in Africa to manufacture ceramic teapots costs 10 – 15 times more than doing the same in Asia, where our competitors suppliers are based. The cost from buying from our suppliers is therefore higher when compared to our competitor’s supplier’s costs, and as a result our end product then becomes more expensive than our competitors end product.We also struggle with infrastructure challenges being based in Africa, simple things like telephone connections, internet connectivity and electricity availability poses a daily challenge for us, where if we were based elsewhere, these challenges would not exist. Another challenge is the retail network, the continent doesn’t have the many high-end outlets necessary to reach consumers and share our brand experience largely. Unfortunately, until then, we will have to look for international markets with all the challenges it represents in terms of logistics, cost of import and export, etc.
Where is YSWARA located? How many outlets do you have now, and what are your expansion plans for the next 5 to 10 years.
YSWARA is global in essence and while, still a very young company – only 1 year old – we are already present in 4 countries (South Africa, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, France) with 15 different retail points both direct and indirect. We are present in Sub-Saharan Africa’s top 3 luxury centers : Johannesburg, Cape Town, Lagos as well as cities like Abidjan and Paris. You can experience our gourmet collection in 6 Hotels and Restaurants including the famous Saxon Boutique Hotel in Johannesburg, where Nelson Mandela completed the writing of his book “a Long walk to freedom”. In Johannesburg, we also have a concept store in Johannesburg called L’Atelier YSWARA, as well as an online store through which we deliver worldwide. In 2014 and beyond, we will continue to expand aggressively our footprint and continue to fly high the African flag.
I’m guessing there’s strong demand for your products outside Africa. Do you export?
We do export our products, as we have a large number of clients and retailers that are based in Africa, Europe and the US. We have had incredible demand from all over Africa for our products, and for that we are incredibly grateful. We are lucky enough that Africans love African products, and that they love our products. Our brand is very beautiful in a compelling way as it has a strong visual appeal, and as a result we have had an incredible, overwhelming response from all over the world for our products. We have been shipping products through our website across the world, and due to the overwhelming response we also want to ensure that our products stay 100% authentically African, and we also want to ensure that the quality and craftsmanship remains of the highest standard. So while we do have a huge demand for our products, we are continuously striving to guarantee that we grow within our own line and vision, and we also strive to ensure that we maintain a consistent level of service of goods.