AFRIKA

The Queen Of African Luxury: Swaady Martin-Leke, Founder Of YSWARA

“If you were to scan my heart, you will see it has the shape of Africa.”

Swaady Martin

 
 
 

A Cosmopolitan Childhood

Born in Côte d’Ivoire (West Africa) in the late 1970s to an Afro-European mother and American father, Swaady Martin spent her childhood in West Africa. Having done much travelling with her family since infancy, she sees herself as a child of the world – or what she calls a ‘Panafropolitan.’

“I grew up travelling, and visiting museums and galleries,” she says, “and so I was exposed to much art, design, fashion and culture at an early age.”

Swaady, who attended school in Côte d’Ivoire, France and the UK, remembers:
“From early childhood, I wanted to make a difference in the world, especially in Africa.
“I also grew up with parents who nurtured my consciousness of the role we must play in the bigger scheme of things and especially in Africa. “When you are born African you are born with a responsibility”, my dad would say. “

From a young age, says Swaady, she was determined to be an agent of positive change in Africa, to be part of the solution.

 
 
 

An Academic Foundation

After completing her schooling, Swaady studied further in Switzerland, the UK, the US and France. Her academic qualifications include an MSc (Economic Sciences) and an MBA.

Discovering African History – In The West

While living and travelling, Swaady spent time in museums and art galleries, exposed to the art and history of everything she encountered.

“I was privileged to encounter and discover more about African history, art and culture through travelling.”

“In Europe I discovered more about the great African artists, artisans and artifacts, and about our past leaders and our history,” says Swaady. “I realized that most Africans do not have access to their own art, history, and culture, because so much of it is outside of Africa. I felt so strongly that more people should have access to this.”

 
 
 

A Business Leader Emerges

After her studies, Swaady spent 11 years with General Electric Co. where she held leadership positions in several divisions across the world, with her final posting as GE Transportation’s Director for Sub-Saharan Africa and acting-CEO for GE South Africa Technologies.

During her tenure, she developed GE’s first business strategy for Africa. Swaady made rapid progress at this stage of her career. “I was passionate about this, too,” she says, “And I wanted to make a difference in Africa.

Then, says Swaady, after helping to grow and run a part of GE, she felt the urge to build and run her own.

 

Seeing African Opportunity

“The more I worked across Africa for a global company,” says Swaady, “the more I experienced and saw the opportunities that exist in Africa, while all the time honing my leadership and business skills.”

Like a true entrepreneur, Swaady saw opportunity where others saw problems.

 
 
 

The Ah-Ha Moment That Started The Business

There was an ah-ha moment for her, says Swaady. “I realized that I could create the Swaady Group,” she says, “by merging several interests into one: my love for tea, my love for plants and flowers in general, my love for history and culture, my interest for nature’s healing treasures, and my passion for making a difference in Africa.”

Aware of Africa’s crippling commodity trap, Swaady was dissatisfied with the status quo, and wanted to help change that.

“African commodities are exported and then processed abroad. They are then sold at very high price back to us, and to the world. So little is realized in Africa. I saw farmers remaining destitute, unable to create a better life for their families, with the cycle of poverty being perpetuated. Launching Yswara and Akrafo , I wanted to start with tea and then branch into other agricultural commodities.” she says.

 
 
 

Brands Infused With African Culture And History

While developing Yswara, Swaady decided to share Africa’s history with the world.

“I did a lot of research on African history and culture, and I found so many fascinating things gems that I wanted to share with the world. I also believe that everyone in the world, Africans included, need to gain knowledge of Africa history.

We need to preserve, safeguard, enhance and promote Africa’s rich culture and history,” she says. “And make it accessible. We must emphasize the greatness and glory of its civilizations and its on-going legacy.“

 
 
 

A Return To Business That Benefits All

For too long in Africa, Swaady says, the extraction method has been the business norm. It was adopted during the era of slavery and colonization, but still persists as a business model today, enslaving the African continent.

“We must return to our origins of Ubuntu, our African DNA,” says Swaady, ”to ensure we participate as a community where doing good is at the core of our business.  It is our responsibility to run businesses that benefit all involved.”

 

 

A Business That Makes A Contribution

My business is my contribution to making a difference,” says Swaady.

Swaady describes herself as an authentic Afro-Entrepreneur, or an ‘Ubuntrepreneur.

We’re often labeled as social entrepreneurs,” she says, but explains that this way of doing business is at the core of African culture, and is in fact centuries old.

 
 
 

Award-Winning African Brands

Among Swaady’s many awards and honors is her 2012 nomination as one of Forbes “20 Youngest Power Women in Africa.” She was also included as one of the 40 women on Oprah Winfrey’s “O Power List 2014.” In the same year, Forbes named her as one of “The 20 Young Africans Building Africa’s Future.”

Having recently being recognized at the Brand Africa Awards with the Emerging African Brand award, Swaady says she is grateful for the accolade.

“Launching the Swaady Group was a huge leap of faith for me,” she says. “I traded in my hard corporate skills in order to hone my knowledge in the fine art of hand-blending teas with a myriad of different flavors and health benefits.”

But Swaady Martin is happy that she made the change. “This award has reassured me that I’m making a significant contribution.

I really hope we can inspire more and more African brands to take on the world in a proudly African way”.

 
 
 

A New Africa Rising

Now is Africa’s time, says Swaady. “This diverse, magnetic continent is rising in countless arenas, inspiring us with its vibrancy and authenticity.”

Her YSWARA brand honors the past to embrace the future, she says.

“It is our desire to bring the refinement and richness of African culture to Africa and the world – to celebrate this vast and diverse continent.”

 

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.

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Take me back to the beginning. Of all the numerous business ideas in the world, why tea?

YSWARA is not a tea company. We actually launched our brand with both gourmet and home collections, both of them being equally successful in the past year. I tend to create products that I love and tea is my favorite beverage. But I also love chocolate and we have created a beautiful range of organic artisan chocolates made with the finest African cocoa beans. As the company grows, you will discover more and more YSWARA products made in Africa from our rich natural resources. We have just introduced our accessories line with our FANI Jewellery Collection. FANI means fabric in Bambara and all the pieces are inspired by traditional African fabrics such as Kita, Toghu, Khanga, Adire, etc. We co-designed the line with the talented South African jewelry designer Katherine-Mary Pichulik. You will also see more collaborations with talented African artisans and designers.

In terms of market potential, Africa is one of the most promising luxury markets and estimated at over $1.5 billion. The global luxury industry is estimated at $295 billion, growing at 6% per year (Source: Bain & Co., 2013). Emerging markets are driving luxury goods consumption. In Africa, with the rising affluence levels, increased disposable incomes and reverse brain drain, the African luxury market is set-up to grow at a fast pace in the coming years. For the global luxury industry, Africa has always been a source of raw material and inspiration and wealthy consumers around the world are looking for ever more meaningful brand interactions. International luxury brands have taken note of this trend and have a growing interest to capture this opportunity. There are still too few African luxury brands or not set-up to take advantage of this opportunity. Hence there’s a need for more global African authentic luxury brands.

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.

The luxury industry in Africa is also not fully developed, and due to the fact that the luxury industry requires specific human resources, this is another one of our challenges. For a luxury brand to thrive, we need to find, attract and retain the best talents especially designers, managers (marketing, finance, sales), retail and brand experts. These critical skills are not widely available in Africa and within the luxury industry, they are almost non-existent. This pool of talent will be build over time as the luxury industry grows in Africa but it will take some time. In the meantime, we have to train, learn from competitors and others, and in certain cases, hire international talents.

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