A A K S was founded by talented designer, Akosua Afriyie-Kumi, with the goal of introducing the world to the weaving techniques done by the women of Ghana, while also creating and igniting sustainable jobs within Africa. Handcrafted in Bolgatanga, A A K S creates bags in styles that maintain the spirit and durability of their ancestral counterparts characterised by bright exuberant colours.
Akosua recently shared her inspiring startup story with Lionesses of Africa....
How did your own entrepreneurial journey start? Do you come from an entrepreneurial background?
I grew up in beautiful sunny Ghana and art was a love from an early age, even though I also harboured a dream of being a pilot. Being top of the art class almost every year was a sign to me to pursue art in some form. So I left Ghana for London to study and expand my knowledge in art and design, be around other creative individuals, and to learn and develop as much as I could.
Like so many 20-somethings, it was a very intense period of my life. I was in a transition phase, and coming from a family of entrepreneurs I felt this deep need to figure out who I was and where I was going - also, in whose footstep to follow. The defining moment came when I thought, “Now is the time to make or break, to put myself out there and see what I am made of.” I knew I wanted to go out on my own and pull together all my passion and talents to create something unique that would be fulfilling both personally and professionally.
The main aim of my studies in the UK was to broaden my mind in my field of expertise, gain a wealth of experience, and finally come back to Ghana to support the creative art and design industry and build a luxury African brand. This happened quickly after seeing a gap in the market for beautifully handcrafted luxury bags that utilise locally sourced materials such as raffia, coupled with the traditional art of weaving, I knew I had something great to work towards and made the big move to fulfil my ultimate dream of owning my own fashion brand and igniting sustainable jobs in Ghana and Africa as a whole.
"There is a kaleidoscope of influences and inspiration that I feel is unique to Africa and which I can tap into on my doorstep"
Tell us a little bit about your current business and and how you you got started.
I established my brand, A A K S, after seeing a gap in the market for beautifully handcrafted bags. In Ghana, I grew up around basket bags - I used to give them as gifts and also use them for storage. I remember having a lot of ‘I wish it was more like this, I wish it was more like that’ moments… I wanted it softer, almost foldable and also more colourful with blends of colours which were tasteful and modern but also with a beautiful finish and detail.
Building on this idea I started researching into fibres - I knew raffia was soft and could be used to weave and create a different experience for me in the bag I wished to have. More importantly, its benefits such as it being an organic, natural, renewable and biodegradable fibre held an inherent ethical value which was attractive to me and very much in line with the vision and ethos I had for my brand.
"I absolutely love the freedom of creativity which comes with being a designer and working in a constantly evolving field which helps shape our visual world."
What inspired your business and where does your current inspiration for the design of your products come from?
I love traveling and I am also a keen photographer. I take inspiration from almost everything I photograph or come across on my travels around the world. Be it sunsets, nature, architecture or people. The main inspiration for my brand was to create my own basket bag with a twist after numerous occasions of buying basket bags for friends and family. The time was ripe for me to create my own unique bag with foldable, leather-like qualities so I could travel with it. I also wanted something colourful to reflect my energy and colourful upbringing.
After much deliberation I settled on Raffia, although it initially proved to be most difficult to find in Ghana. Serendipitously, after travelling throughout the country in search of the elusive fibre, I found it on our family farm in Southern Ghana. It was being grown minimally and only sold to string bead vendors and others to basically tether animals on small farms. I immediately knew this was the perfect material once I felt it ! The softness and strength was key and then when I started looking into its benefits I was completely sold on it! It fits perfectly into my brand ethos as mentioned earlier!
What is your company’s design philosophy?
The essence of A A K S design philosophy is a complex combination of thoughts, design elements which come from a critical attention to craftsmanship, authenticity and ethical values in our production, whilst having a strong sense of identity and quality. I am very connected in every stage of the design and production process to oversee and ensure that the end result is imbued with the spirit and soul-worthy stamp of our brand name.
What have been the main challenges and hurdles you have faced as an entrepreneur?
Building a fully African-made and sustainable luxury brand presents tremendous challenges which my team and I are overcoming everyday. The main challenge for us is logistics and the costs of importing and exporting in and out of Africa. We also struggle with infrastructure, simple things like telephone connectivity and electricity disconnection pose a large and constant threat to our daily work. Despite all this, the simple fact is that the best Raffia and Raffia Weavers are here, and despite the challenges of operating in remote regions in Africa, this advantage gives a superior quality.
What gives you most satisfaction being an entrepreneur?
There is a kaleidoscope of influences and inspiration that I feel is unique to Africa and which I can tap into on my doorstep, so that is a massive positive! Coupled with that, I absolutely love the freedom of creativity which comes with being a designer and working in a constantly evolving field which helps shape our visual world. The start of every project is open and full of potential and building a brand for myself is very exciting - doing that in Africa is really a dream come true.
What has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
I have a lot of little highlights everyday that I consider to be very special, from potential clients turning into friends after exchange of emails, or a client coming back to buy more bags for their friends and family, to being featured on numerous fashion blogs and magazines. All these moments are extremely important to me - not to mention being listed as 1 of the 11 emerging designers in Africa by Vogue Italia this year - that was a dream come true.
What are your future plans and aspirations for the business?
I would love to move into clothes and print design as it’s been a great passion of mine. Nonetheless, I am very keen to explore the accessories and home interior area in fashion too. Bag design is still a new venture for me as I only started my brand this year and already I have been featured on Vogue Italia as an emerging designer from Africa, which has boosted my confidence in what I do. I am enjoying it so far and will be doing bags for some time now before anything else.
What advice would you give to other women entrepreneurs looking to start a business?
I would advise any aspiring designers out there to observe their location, find a niche or something unique that hasn't been done before, or, even if its been done before find a new twist on it. Take the opportunity in their stride and follow their passion. It is really easy to get wrapped up in the planning of your business but sometimes you have to know what you want and just go for it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin now!
Why LoA loves it….
At Lionesses of Africa, we not only adore the incredibly beautiful, handcrafted woven handbags created by designer Akosua Afriyie-Kumi, but we also admire her business philosophy. She is building a sustainable, luxury African brand whilst at the same time creating much needed jobs in her community for local craftswomen, and helping to preserve ancient Ghanaian weaving techniques. Watch out for AAKS this year as a luxury African accessory brand-name on the way to global market success. --- Melanie Hawken, Lionesses of Africa founder and editor-in-chief