The Queen Of African Luxury: Swaady Martin-Leke, Founder Of YSWARA
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.
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.
However, despite all these setbacks, we are persevering and most of them turned out to be unexpected sources of strength. Because of all the challenges that we have had to endure, we have to be very smart about where we have a competitive advantage. We want to find our niche in the market and build on our vision to be Africa’s number 1 home grown luxury brand.
You have a line of 27 teas. Tell me about your favorite blends. What is the blending process like – who sources these teas and all?
My favorite blend has to be the Shire Valley white tea from the Seven Wonders collection; it is a white tea with silver tips from Malawi, and is my favorite due to its delicate taste and velvety, refined texture. Malawi is one of the top African tea producers, with beautiful tea estates situated across Malawi, from the exquisite Satemwa estate to the Thyolo district. Malawi’s cool winters and hot, wet summers, are the perfect growing conditions for tea, and as a result produce rich, bright teas. Tea growing season starts in December, at the onset of the rains, and starts winding down in May as the temperature drops. White tea is one of the most refined and delicate teas. It is widely known for its extraordinary health benefits due to the fact that it is a non-fermented tea and contains the highest number of antioxidants than any other tea. This in turn has led to white tea being used as one of the leading healthcare measures for preventing cancer, and other life-threatening illnesses.
You’ve got an amazing collection of accessories – tea sets, massage candles, decorative bronze bowls and the rest of them. Who designs and crafts these?
Our brand identity is created in-house as well as our tea and herbal teas recipes. As for all our other products, they are co-creations with talented local artists and craftsmen. We will be designing more and more in-house our products to ensure we share a unique YSWARA aesthetic with the world. With all our products, we try to balance historic legacy and our view of the Africa of today and tomorrow. The brand is passionately African which means that keeping the value-add in Africa is a priority focus. Today, more than 80% of raw material are sourced in Africa, 95% of finished value of the product is Made in Africa, 86% of our suppliers are Africans and 43% of them are woman-managed or owned and 100% of our employees are women.
YSWARA is renowned as a luxury brand. Does this mean your products only cater to the rich and upscale? Why did you choose to produce luxury, and what is the future of luxury in Africa?
The luxury industry is a great economic growth driver and can be a fantastic export champion. Despite the economic crisis, the luxury sector continued to exhibit strong fundamentals and supported a large network of SMEs. Beyond the aspirational image, there is a very strong economic rationale and impact. The luxury industry creates jobs and generates activities in a large variety of areas, including publishing, advertising, public relationship, tourism, real estate, culture and education. For instance, according to Bain & Co., the Luxury industry generates about 800,000 Jobs in Europe and supports a large number of very small companies which have between 2 to 4 employees. In the tourism sector, the same study from Bain & Co. found that Chinese tourists prefer European destinations because of the shopping opportunities. About 60% of these tourists buy luxury products when they come to Europe and spending an average of €1,000 on luxury products during their stay. Lastly, It is an industry that has always been among the most resilient during recessions. These are a just a few examples to show that the luxury industry can be an active economic driver. With a thriving African luxury sector, Africa will finally produce high-value finished products, keep the value-add in Africa, preserve and promote our rich cultural heritage and generate significant growth driven by SMEs.
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.
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