Almost exactly one year ago, the #ChooseArtisan campaign was launched by the prestigious Aspen Institute and the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise in the US. The aim was to get the world to recognise the real importance and value of artisan enterprise in contributing to global economic development, poverty alleviation and women's economic empowerment. The campaign certainly got people talking, and rightly so, about the incredible work being done by forward-thinking women artisan entrepreneurs, particularly in places such as Africa, where traditional crafts are being elevated today to a whole new status.
Today, world exports of artisan goods are currently worth $32 billion per year, and of critical importance to Africa is that millions of women in countries across the continent participate in the artisan sector. In fact, the global artisan industry doubled to $32 billion from 2002-2012. The fact is that the artisan sector fosters economically-viable communities, especially for women, and importantly here in Africa, creates significant numbers of jobs. Behind agriculture, artisan activity is the second largest employer in the developing world. What often start out as simple hand-made craft companies which harness the traditional craft skills handed down through the generations in specific communities, are now turning into global brands, supplying some of the major retailers of the world such as Macy's, Saks, and Anthropologie. Leading women artisan entrepreneurship brands such as soleRebels, Rain Africa, ZAAF, and AAKS are all wonderful examples of this new wave of companies and brands elevating artisan entrepreneurship in Africa to a whole new global level.
There is also a tangible linkage between artisan enterprise and social enterprise, with many of these highly successful African companies and brands becoming major community projects that drive both employment and economic prosperity. You only have to look at success stories such as Gahaya Links in Rwanda, Sseko in Uganda, and Sasa Designs by the Deaf in Kenya, to name but three, all producing world-class products for global markets, but with a huge and positive social impact on the communities that are part of these brand stories.
The growing global interest in artisan food and drink enterprises is also seeing a new generation of exciting women-owned artisan enterprises emerging from across the African continent, winning legions of new fans for their produce in the process. Companies such as Hope on Hopkins (a company putting South Africa on the global boutique gin and vodka map), Babette's Bread (a fabulous example of artisan bread baking in the finest French tradition but in South Africa), Chocolate Mamas (taking Tanzanian cocoa beans to a whole new level in the form of fabulous artisan chocolate making), Biscuit Artistry (celebrating the traditional biscuit and cookie making techniques of South Africa but with a contemporary flair), Braeside Meat Market (a South African butchery and retailer with a passion for provenance and world-class meat products), and Evelea (taking Africa's unique food ingredients and packaging them for global tastebuds).
The world of fashion, design, accessories and jewellery is also waking up to Africa's talented women artisan entrepreneurs who are leveraging the current global love affair with all things African in the design space. Artisan jewellers and accessory designers such as Adele Dejak, and Smith Jewellery are capturing the imagination and hearts of global buyers. Young and exciting women-owned African fashion design companies such as Monaa, Inzuki, and Haute Baso are also spearheading a new wave of designers looking to go global.
The world of green, ethical and sustainable business is also seeing Africa in a new light thanks to the innovative and high impact work of such women-owned artisan businesses such as Mitimeth, ANGAZA, Goshem City of Refuge, and Little Green Number. These and so many other companies are making their mark in the world thanks to the high impact women entrepreneurs behind the brands.
And, the world of artisan enterprise and Afro-luxe is also expanding and grabbing world attention and magazine headlines thanks to the work of amazingly talented designers and innovators in the luxury product field, such as the women entrepreneurs behind the Afro-luxe brands Olivia Knox, Aissa Dione, Okapi, Oba Couture, House of Gozdawa, Trebene and others.
There is no doubt that the world is seeing the emergence of a new generation of women-led artisan enterprises in Africa, building globally important brands, creating exciting new luxury products, and importantly, supporting traditional crafts and ways of doing things in communities across the continent.
WOMEN AT THE FOREFRONT OF AFRICA'S EXCITING NEW ARTISAN ENTERPRISE MOVEMENT
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is founder and Managing Director of soleRebels, the world's fastest-growing African footwear brand and the only Fair Trade-certified footwear company in the world. Growing up in a poor suburb of Addis Ababa, Bethlehem decided that there was only one way to defeat poverty – use local craftsmanship to make products that can compete in the global marketplace. She decided on footwear and today 70,000 pairs of shoes leave her factory every year. soleRebels has been expanding rapidly and has 18 stores around the world, including in Silicon Valley (USA), Japan, Singapore, Austria, Greece, Spain and Switzerland, along with an aggressive e-commerce marketing strategy. It expects to open another 50 to 60 stores in next 18 to 36 months. In 2015, Bethlehem launched an new venture, Republic of Leather, offering bespoke, hand crafted Leather wear and accessories.
Joy Ndungutse and Janet Nkubana, co-founded Gahaya Links Cooperatives shortly after the Rwandan genocide ended in 1994. These inspiring sisters had a vision to turn ancient basket weaving skills into a source of livelihood for thousands of rural women. Many of the women, like Janet and Joy themselves, were returning refugees or survivors of the genocide. The women started weaving baskets in exchange for food. Initially bringing together about twenty women, the sisters taught them how to weave and how to enhance their weaving skills with new design techniques. Today, Gahaya Links manages a network of over 4,000 weavers across the country, organised into around 72 cooperatives that help provide much needed income and stability. The sisters have successfully opened the business to international markets, partnering with the likes of Macy’s, Walmart, Oprah Magazine, Anthropologie, Crate & Barrel, and Kate Spade. Today, Gahaya Links "Peace Baskets” are sold and admired the world over.
Aïssa Dione, a renowned Senegalese painter and textile designer, founded the company that bears her name, Aissa Dione Tissus back in 1992. Her mission: to revive Senegal's traditional and unique fabric weaving craftsmanship and build a production chain that is truly '100% Made in Senegal'. Her approach is to combine unique design, know-how and artisan craftsmanship to transform African grown cotton into a valuable product. She has succeeded in this, building a high-end fabric brand underpinned by centuries old cotton processing and weaving skills. Today, Aissa has more than 100 employees whose traditional handwoven fabrics are delivered to the absolute top-end interior design brands across Africa, Europe and the United States. Aissa's designs and fabrics grace major design salons and brands such as Hermés, Fendi, Christian Liaigre and Peter Marino.
Teta Isibo is the founder and creative force behind Inzuki Designs a young Rwandan brand specializing in jewelry, accessories and interior decor. Teta's creations are hand-made using local craft skills and materials - she works with numerous local women's cooperatives to create vibrant, quality pieces. With no background in fashion or business, Teta quit her job as an urban planner in Kigali to launch Inzuki, which means 'bees' in the local language. This has grown into a popular Rwandan brand with a boutique located in the Heart of Kigali City. Teta is now targeting international markets including the rest of Africa, Europe, Asia and North America through distributors and an online store.
Bev Missing is the founder of South African body and bath product brand RAIN. Back in 1999 Bev saw a gap in the market to start making soap as it was labour intensive and all the lovely soaps at that stage were imported. Bev started the project in her garage hoping to help solve unemployment in her hometown of Ladybrand, and to make a difference in the lives of the poor and jobless. Today, RAIN has eight stores across South Africa, two unique wellness spa's, and two stores in New York. Bev has recently signed contracts to open a further 70 Rain stores in the USA and Canada and then 40 in the UK and Ireland.
Hanneli Rupert the founder of Okapi is one of a new breed of African designers that believes in the power of merging social entrepreneurship with luxury. Her range of Okapi handbags is both artisanal and luxurious, inspired by this unique and mysterious African animal that to many, resembles a unicorn. The brand encompasses elements of Art Nouveau, African mysticism and organic elements taking inspiration from nature and ritual, resulting in unique handbags that are both tribal and exotic. A signature Springbok horn talisman is found on all the bags. The emphasis is on world-class leather craftsmanship combined with a distinctive African luxury feel. Hanneli’s manufacturing philosophy focuses on producing the highest quality of end-product, leveraging on the millennia’s worth of natural history and craftsmanship that exists on the continent. She is also highly committed to nurturing local skills development and creating employment opportunities for African craftspeople.
The Adèle Dejak brand creates handmade fashion accessories for the modern, sophisticated and multi-dimensional woman. Inspired by African shapes, textures and traditional techniques, the cutting-edge pieces sit perfectly between artefact and high fashion statement designs. The Adèle Dejak collections express an acute appreciation for African-made fabrics, including Kuba cloth and kitenge (wax print); a dedication to using recycled materials including rice and cement sacks, brass, aluminium and glass; and a commitment to exceptional quality – using only the best materials and employing some of the most talented artisans in the East African region. Adèle Dejak unites style and substance and invites you to unapologetically own your style! Adèle Dejak cut her teeth in the world of typographic design in England and Italy before moving to Nairobi, Kenya in 2005 and turning her attention to accessories design. Adèle found herself intrigued by the natural beauty of horn and begun to experiment with techniques of creating unique shapes and fashioned pieces. Her flair was noticed and spurred on by an admirer of one of her creations who encouraged Adèle to set up shop creating unique shapes to wear. Dejak’s Nigerian roots began to merge perfectly with European influences and she set out on her never-ending quest for that essential artefact that allows you to express your own style. There is still a lot to come from Adèle Dejak who has started a revolutionary art form deeply rooted in African tradition.
The Ndau Collection is a collective of designers in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, brought together by a love of African culture, history and design, and specialising in the creation of unique jewellery, accessories and one of a kind collectibles, all made by highly skilled artisans. The Ndau Collection was formed in 1998 by current owner Gail van Jaarsveldt and Gill Athestone, as a result of their passion for African beadwork. Gill subsequently moved back to Harare and Gail was joined by her daughter Christie Halsted as co-owner of the company. Together they have grown the Ndau Collection and pieces from the collection have found their way to all corners of the globe and gained international recognition. Each of The Ndau Collection’s sterling silver beads and fittings are made using the centuries old African lost-wax casting technique and handmade from beginning to end. This results in a beautifully soft, curvaceous finish to the metal work that gives it the feel of the history it represents. These cast pieces are combined with an extensive collection of antique African trade beads, precious and semi-precious stones, natural materials, exotic leathers and treasures found on the team’s travels, to create one-of-a-kind jewellery, accessories and collectibles. Every piece takes several weeks to create and is hand worked throughout. All are unique, bespoke creations or part of a limited edition run of specially selected castings. The Ndau Collection believes strongly in promoting local talent and work with local carvers, wire workers, mosaic and fine pencil artists. These artists are supported, mentored and promoted through The Ndau Collection under The Ruoko Project.
Frazer Parfum is the inspiration of South African perfumier and entrepreneur, Tammy Frazer. Her company creates organic and natural perfume products, handcrafted while collaborating with local artists. Founded in 2008, each perfume is composed at a particular time in Tammy’s life inspired by expeditions traveling to the source of the raw materials. Tammy works only with the finest quality raw materials, whilst at the same time, celebrating art and design while spearheading African luxury. Tammy is the granddaughter of Graham Wulff, inventor of Oil of Olay. Following in his footsteps, she has single-handedly launched her personally handmade perfumes in eclectic retail environments in Europe, North America, UK, Ukraine, Oceania, Nigeria and South Africa. Discovering the arts, Tammy’s exploration of scent portraiture, “Skin Portraits”, was catalogued as the first-ever scent “novella” at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art.
For anyone owning a luxury, handcrafted leather ZAAF handbag, it is not only a thing of beauty to be treasured, but it is also a piece of Ethiopian heritage and craftsmanship to be appreciated. The inspiration behind the ZAAF Ethiopian luxury handbag brand is its founder, Abai Schulze, a woman with a vision, considerable creative drive, and a genuine love of her country’s craftsmanship. Despite leaving her homeland of Ethiopia as a child for the United States where she was brought up in an orphanage until she was adopted by an American family at the age of 11, she never lost sight of her heritage. Today, that love of her native culture has brought her back to her home country, where she is passionately building a luxury Ethiopian fashion brand of leather accessories produced by highly skilled artisans in the country. The name ZAAF was inspired by the word that means “tree” in the ancient and noble Amharic language. Every handbag and accessory designed by Abai draws its inspiration from a particular region in Ethiopia, and is crafted with the finest materials that come from natural resources unique to that region, making it truly authentic. The textiles used by Abai and her team for the ZAAF collections are inspired by colours, textures and timeless patterns from that ancient culture, all made on a traditional Ethopian loom, yet adapted for use in elegant, contemporary designs. Her work is attracting recognition from around the world, and in December 2014, she was awarded the UNESCO Tremplin 2014 Prize for Entrepreneurship for her efforts.
Achenyo Idachaba is the founder of MitiMeth in Nigeria, a project that merges green business with traditional weaving artisan skills. If you ever needed a practical example of how Africa's women entrepreneurs are finding highly innovative solutions to some of the world's most challenging environmental problems, whilst at the same time building successful sustainable businesses, then Achenyo Idachaba is it. She identified an ecological problem adversely affecting local communities and then set about building a business to fix it! Finding an innovative eco-solution to Nigeria's problem of its waterways being invaded by highly destructive water hyacinth plants, also created a unique business opportunity for Nigerian entrepreneur, Achenyo Idachaba. Today, her startup company, MitiMeth, takes these nuisance weeds and transforms them into beautiful hand-crafted and highly desirable products. She has taken an environmental problem and turned it into a win-win solution for her business, local communities and the country. Each hand-crafted piece is created from the weeds which are harvested from the local waterways and dried out in the sun before they can be used for weaving into highly intricate and beautiful finished products such as baskets, tableware and even jewellery.
Lucy Beard is the co-founder of Hope on Hopkins Distillery, a small artisanal distillery in the heart of Cape Town that prides itself on truly crafting its own spirits. These passionate artisans bring you “grain to glass” spirits packed full of new flavours and an interesting range of botanicals, made by using the age old process of batch distillation with their two faithful stills – Mildred and Maude. Hope on Hopkins Distillery is a small artisanal distillery in the heart of Cape Town that prides itself on truly crafting its own spirits. Unlike many gin distillers we don’t buy in the base spirit to flavour, but prefer to make it ourselves, so that you know where it (and our carefully sourced quality ingredients) comes from. Using South African grown malted barley, we cook, ferment over several days and then triple distil to make our base neutral spirit, a Single Malt Vodka – some of which is bottled for sale. We then go on to distil a fourth time, allowing the alcohol vapours to infuse through select botanicals. We are the proud owners of the first stills to be licensed by the City of Cape Town: Mildred and Maude, as well as our little experimental still. We make our base spirit using 100% South African grown malted barley. Our gins are then infused using a range of botanicals
Ghanaian Fashion designer, Akosua Afriyie-Kumi, returned to her home country after studying design at London’s Kingston University where she gained a wealth of practical experience and design expertise working with some of the UK’s leading fashion designers. Her singular focus was to produce luxurious handmade accessories using ethical processes and age-old African craft traditions, and to build a true African luxury brand that would appeal to global buyers. Today, her company AAKS, produces highly desirable raffia bags of the finest quality, all handmade by a women’s cooperative in the northern part of Ghana. She is at the forefront of what is rapidly becoming a resurgent and highly desirable fashion and textile industries in Ghana. She identified a gap in the market for beautifully handcrafted luxury bags that utilise locally sourced materials such as raffia, coupled with innovative contemporary designs that celebrate the traditional art of weaving. She was able to take advantage of the wealth of resources in the country to fulfill her design dreams, such as textile factories and the creative and highly skilled talent of small weaving communities. Her design aesthetic embraced the traditional techniques such as tie-dye, weaving and batik, all of which are currently being revived on an international level by the world’s leading designers. As a result, her uniquely beautiful handbags are not only highly desirable in the global luxury accessory marketplace, but they are also showcasing local skills, whilst at the same time, pushing the boundaries to support the industry and create more employment opportunities in Ghana.
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Why LoA loves Africa's Women artisan entrepreneurs and brand builders
Africa has always had a tradition of producing finely crafted products, all celebrating the uniqueness of a particular community or country, but today a new generation of women artisan entrepreneurs is taking this tradition and elevating it to a whole new level. These are women with a new design aesthetic, they are innovators, they are social entrepreneurs making an impact on local communities and the lives of craftspeople, and they are game-changers on the continent. The companies, brands and products they are creating are exciting the global marketplace, particularly at a time when global consumers want more than just a product, they want a powerful backstory and to know that their purchasing decisions can impact on the lives of others. These amazing women artisan entrepreneurs are getting the world to sit up and take notice of Africa's unique cultural identity and tradition of quality craftsmanship, but from a new and contemporary perspective. Let's celebrate these real game-changers. --- Melanie Hawken, founder and CEO of Lionesses of Africa