Luxury Living: Telling The African Story Leaf By Leaf [Ventures Africa]
(Ventures Africa Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Chic businesswoman, Swaady Martin-Leke, quit a highpowered corporate job to pursue her lifelong dream of creating a luxury brand that delivers the scent of Africa.
VENTURES AFRICA - As the lid comes off a large canister of tea leaves I inhale deeply and smile with delight. There's a strong and utterly unexpected scent of alcohol with something dark and luscious beneath it. Swaady Martin-Leke laughs. "It's whisky, chocolate, coconut and rooibos," she says. "I tell her I'm a devoted coffee drinker but a blend like this could turn me into a tea tippler." Martin-Leke, 36, is gaining attention among the upper echelons of tea drinkers with Yswara, the luxury African tea company she launched less than two years ago. The teas were first sold online but as her marketing campaign spread, so they came to be stocked by a few upmarket retailers, like Luminance in Johannesburg's Hyde Park shopping centre, and Regalo in the Centro Lekki Mall in Lagos. The newest outlet is Martin-Leke's own Yswara Atelier in Johannesburg's trendy Parkhurst suburb. The decor is chic and minimal, with large tea canisters, a few glasses and a display of candles on the shelves. Martin-Leke is as elegant as her surroundings yet surprises me by saying: "I don't care for material things." That seems incongruous for a woman championing expensive items, so I ask how that fits in with her dream of creating a global luxury brand. "I don't want to be insulting but if you don't understand luxury you think it's about bling," she says. "What interests me isn't the material side of luxury, it's the preservation of craftsmanship and culture and art through beautiful products. It's about inspiring people with beauty. It's high priced because handmade craftsmanship is costly in a world where everything is mechanised." Indeed the products are dear, with 100g of Or des Anges tea costing $200. Yswara also sells handmade tea boxes that take days to create, while its hand-poured candles are fragranced with scents that are hand mixed, rather than mixed by machine.
The Path to a Passion
Martin-Leke's background is a blend of French, Guinean, Côte d'Ivoirian and American ancestries, and she draws a family tree to illustrate her heritage. It is highly detailed with clear, curvy handwriting. She was born in Côte d'Ivoire but lived in 11 countries as a youth, moving ahead of coups and political instability."I call myself Afropolitan. I don't feel an extreme attachment to any place in Africa but a very strong attachment to Africa as a whole," she says.
Martin-Leke's middle-class parents sent her to school in England and to university in Switzerland. She started an engineering degree but did not enjoy it, switched to a business degree but then flunked her first year of business studies. Dropping out of engineering and failing her first year of business school were enormous shocks for Martin-Leke. At school she had been good at everything, she says, and assumed she could succeed at anything. "I very seldom cry for myself and I think this was the first time in my life I cried for myself," she says. "That was the first big slap in my face, that you actually can't do anything, you really have to follow your passion." That was a hugely important realisation, she adds. "It was a tough passage to adulthood but it helped me with everything else in my career and life. I learnt three things: you need to be passionate about what you are doing to succeed; you need to stand strongly for what you believe in even if the people closest to you don't believe in it; and you need to learn how to deal with failure and grow from it."
Her first job after finishing business school was as a consultant for Accenture in Paris, though she quickly hit her second crisis when she realised she disliked her job because of the company's atmosphere of conformity. She managed to secure a job at General Electric (GE) instead, and as the youngest person in her department she learnt quickly from her older colleagues. She climbed the ladder and fulfilled her goal of gaining experience overseas. In 2005, Martin-Leke moved to Johannesburg as the company's first employee in Africa, tasked with devising an African strategy for every division. When GE Transportation made her its manager in Africa, she had the valuable opportunity to learn whether the strategies she proposed would actually work in practice. It was good grounding for developing her business in the years ahead. Several years later, Martin-Leke's husband began working in Nigeria and they both yearned to live there to experience that dynamic country. She resigned from GE and planned to take a sabbatical but soon found herself helping to get a mobile banking operation off the ground. She also enrolled in a joint MBA programme, travelling every other month to one of three schools in London, New York and Paris. "For my MBA I had to build a business plan for a company," she says.
"I thought, there's no way I'm going to spend eight months of my life working on somebody else's business plan. It has to be mine." But she had no idea what product to focus on. She knew it had to be an easy product – her work with the banking start-up had shown her how tough entering a market could be. To get her through the difficult times, it would have to be a product she adored. It also had to be in a high-growth market and a good business opportunity. She walked through her house to get a sense of what products she purchased most. "I opened my cupboard and it was full of teas that I buy overseas. I thought, how can I buy rooibos tea from Paris now that I live in Africa? There's the opportunity."
Launching a Dream Business
Months of preparation followed as Martin-Leke compiled a 200-page business plan that laid out Yswara's mission, vision, competitors, market, growth plan and financial projections. Surprisingly, the global centre of the tea trade is in Hamburg, a holdover from the trade routes of olden days. "I called 50 blenders in Germany and 48 laughed at me when I told them I was building an African luxury tea blend. They told me nothing good has come out of Africa when it comes to tea." The other two blenders invited her over. One ran a family-owned business, but two accidents had robbed him of his heirs. He treated Martin-Leke like a daughter and methodically taught her the trade. He now supplies her with teas blended to the recipes she creates, using only African leaves. Since only a tiny percentage of Africans can afford Yswara products, I ask Martin-Leke about her target market. I'm surprised when she tells me there is no target market, despite her comprehensive business plan. "You create something in the hope that people will like it," she says. Of course, it is really more scientific than that. Her business plan dissected the market opportunity not by demographics but by a needs-based system. Instead of focusing on a target of women aged 25 to 45 with a certain income living in a certain area, for example, she looked at the needs of potential customers. "Two very different people on the outside can have the exact same needs, like the need to buy a gift, or the need to buy an object that reflects their personal taste because they are connoisseurs," she explains. Working backward from those needs, her "targets" are people buying a special gift, wealthy tea lovers and the corporate gift market.
Yswara launched in December 2012 and doubled its first year targets. This year has been slower because of delays in finding suitable retail outlets and because Martin-Leke has focused on recruiting employees and implementing the processes needed to better run the business. "We haven't been as aggressive commercially as we are going to be because of our internal fine-tuning," she says. "In 2014 we are going to be more aggressive internationally." Yswara will target different countries by following the same strategy: first, cultivate online sales; next, sell through selected retail outlets; and finally, open a shop-within-a-shop and establish a direct retail presence. By 2017 Martin-Leke expects to achieve revenue of $11 million. South African sales will account for half of that total, with Nigeria the second biggestmarket. Sales from the Internet and global outlets will comprise the rest. Paris and New York are next on Martin-Leke's radar, after Yswara exhibited at several international trade shows and piqued international interest. The brand won a 2013 Marketing Excellence Award from the French National Association of Marketing Professionals for its innovative marketing strategies.
A Brand for All Africans?
The fact that these glamorous products come from Africa has no doubt helped Yswara to generate interest. All of the products are named after African characters or places, giving them an inherent mystery and allure for foreign buyers. Martin-Leke wants all Africans to be proud of the brand, even if they cannot afford to buy it. While this may sound like an unusual idea, she explains that she can appreciate and be inspired by a Christian Dior dress without needing to own it. The people who work for her are proud to see their products on the shelves elevating the global image of Africa, she says. Her office administrator, Xolani Mpofu-Kadzatsa, joined Yswara because, with candles called Maputo and a tea named after Nehanda, the revered queen of Zim- babwe, she feels Yswara is telling her story. The swanky Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg now offers Yswara blends for its high tea. Public relations manager, Candice Turner, says Yswara's slogan, "Passionately African," struck a chord with the hotel. "Elegance and luxury are part of our DNA and Yswara epitomises both these concepts," she says. Turner says it is evident that Martin-Leke has a penchant for promoting African resources, culture and identity, which the Saxon also emphasises.
"Swaady's dream to capture true African luxury, change the world's perception of Africa and produce a luxury brand that is truly African in origin, nature and tradition inspired us, and we knew working with the Yswara brand would be a symbiotic relationship. The luxury market is a country's or continent's image presented to the world, and according to Swaady, Africa is too often viewed as a place of low-quality goods and a lack of refinement," says Turner, who describes Swaady Martin- Leke as a driven woman with a great passion for what she does, and a great love of Africa and its people. "She is a visionary who was able to spot a gap in the market for luxury and refined teas, and her idea to create a rich and refined culture within our great continent is inspirational."
Swaady Martin-Leke And The African Leadership Network
Swaady Martin-Leke is a key member of the African Leadership Network (ALN), an organisation of influential young leaders working to promote entrepreneurship, cross-border trade, investment and collaboration. Martin-Leke's husband, Acha Leke, founded ALN together with Fred Swaniker of the African Leadership Academy.
Says the ALN's Ceo, Isaac Fokuo, Swaady Martin-Leke is a powerful leader in her own right, and he admires how she left her high- powered post with general electric after spearheading its entry into Africa. "As African businesspeople you can go on a business programme and get a nice cushy job and make good money but it takes a special person to step out and take a sabbatical and then open a high-end luxury tea brand, and I applaud her for that," he says. "For me, the definition of success is that she took the leap and actually did it. Her teas are fantastic and she's redefining what an African brand should look like."
Yswara is writing an African story, Fokuo says. "We are sick and tired of the African stories being written for us. For years African products haven't been associated with luxury and she's a pioneer in that field." He agrees that there is a substantial market for Yswara in Africa as well as globally. "Africa has a population of almost 1 billion and the growth of the middle class is quite large. There is a growing class of high net worth individuals who have an aspirational need for luxury goods."
This affluent class is proud to be African and wants to support local luxury goods, he believes. They also want to buy from somebody who embodies the lifestyle to which they aspire. "Swaady is a person you want to be like. She's successful, independent, beautiful and african. She looks like luxury so it's ok to want to be like her."
Fokuo believes that so long as Martin-Leke manages the supply chain and marketing aspects of her business well, Yswara could grow tremendously. The contacts she makes through ALN and the support and exposure it can give will help her achieve that. "She has started something wonderful and i think she can be a very powerful African brand over the next few years," says Fokuo. "I think Yswara could become as big as the visionary behind it."
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