An interview with Swaady Martin-Leke

Ivorian entrepreneur Swaady Martin is often described as the “Queen of African Luxury.” With a line of exotic teas with names like Shaka Zulu, Pharaoh Tut, and King Lalibela, the title seems to fit. After a long, high-flying career at GE, where she served as the Director for Sub-Saharan Africa of GE Transportation, Swaady founded YSWARA as a luxury brand catering to a global audience with African aesthetic sensibilities. Initially beginning with tea and candles, YSWARA has since expanded to other gourmet home goods and accessories, with plans to expand the line in the near future. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Swaady about career transitions, re-branding Africa, and living the “African dream.”

How did you make the leap from GE, an energy company, to YSWARA, which focuses on gourmet and artisanal products? 

I wanted to move on to something very different, something that would allow me to participate in the promotion of Africa’s resources, culture, and identity, as well as unlock the continent’s potential to produce superior quality products. I have always been interested in capturing African luxury and using such authentic luxury to change the perception of Africa in a positive way.

After working for a start-up in Nigeria and completing my Trium MBA I developed the entrepreneurial skills that were missing. I also spent eighteen months doing market research and creating my business plan, to be sure of the viability of starting a luxury tea brand in Africa. It was a slow but painstaking transition, but one I felt confident enough to take on after all I had done to prepare for this career change. I did not find it difficult to make this shift, as I felt that it was a natural evolution of my career and personal aspiration.

I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I believe that entrepreneurship is really important, especially for the growth of Africa. It is through entrepreneurship that jobs and companies are created, all of which contribute positively to any economy. I think that if you are willing and ready to take a risk to be an entrepreneur, then it’s almost your responsibility to do so.

Why did you make the decision to market YSWARA as a luxury, rather than premium, brand?

My intension was always to transform African agricultural wealth into very high value goods and products that have the most value added, which are usually in Luxury products. Also everything around luxury you can tell a story, there is a universe. There is so much more you can tell through luxury. Africa is a continent of storytelling and there is a lot of storytelling in YSWARA. So, there was never a question of whether YSWARA should be premium or luxury, it was just about my passions coming together which made YSWARA what it is today.

Additionally, I think the development of a brand and a product is organic, you don’t set out in saying, ‘I am going to develop a luxury product.’ It does not start from there, it starts from a passion, from what you are trying to do, and as the elements grow, then it eventually develops into a high-end, high quality brand. And the idea was not to start with ‘luxury’ and then think about what to create within that realm.

I’ve never wanted to necessarily to create a luxury brand. What was most important to me was to create a product of very high quality, which has a story, a universe, and conveys more than just the intrinsic qualities of the product – so you are not just drinking a tea with YSWARA, you are also sharing a story and a shared experience with the drinker.

More than a brand, I also wanted to share passions, a universe, and stories, and I think YSWARA as a luxury brand, is probably in the best position to share all of that. Somehow as a premium brand, it would not really have had the opportunity to do that, I think there was never really a question about it being a luxury brand.

Why start with tea? How have you made the decision to add other product lines? 

I have always been passionate about tea, so it was an easy choice to start with it. I knew a lot about it, and noticed a big gap for premium tea produced and sold in Africa. Having lived in Europe, the luxury tea market is pretty much saturated but quite incipient in Africa.

In 2006, Entrepreneur Magazine ranked specialty teas as one of the hottest trends and best business ideas for the year. Another growing trend amongst consumers is their demand for products that focus on, or at least incorporate, health and wellness. The specialty tea market is not saturated in Africa, so it offers a great opportunity for new businesses in this burgeoning industry. Globally, Africa is a key player in the tea market. The continent competes in the loose leaf specialty and herbal tea segment. According to Datamonitor, the size of the tea market in South Africa is estimated at $400 million. This market will continue to grow at a rate of 5.3%.

I also started with tea because I was frustrated with the commodity trap that the continent has been facing for decades. The continent is one of the largest producers and exporters of tea, yet no value is added in the continent. Only 5-10% of the final packaged tea value is retained in Africa. I wanted to build a brand that would serve to reverse this trap. 

Other reasons for starting with tea: tea is a great way to preserve African cultures and its heritage. By defining it as a luxury brand, the richness and the refinement of the continent’s cultures can be shared and appreciated by the local and international consumer. 

The brand was founded to give African consumers an escape from ordinary tea, and offer them something special with our gourmet selection. Through tea, we are also able to participate in the development empowerment of African farmers and artisans, and support them through wealth creation.

Ultimately, building this brand was more about a passion for teas and Africa’s rich culture, and there was an opportunity to be the first brand to do this.

Swaady Martin-Leke

Swaady Martin-Leke

What is your favorite YSWARA product at the moment? 

I don’t necessarily have a favourite product. It’s like asking one to choose between their children. So, I love them all equally. I consume YSWARA teas at different moments of the day. I think of it more like a universe, a lifestyle, and products actually live with each other, because there is an infusion for the morning, an infusion for the afternoon, etc. So it’s more about the moments than it is about a given product.

So I really I love all of them as they each offer something different. Each tea evokes the legends or places they are names after. For example, Shaka Zulu is a rooibos tea with cherries, carrot flakes, and chilli peppers. This for me suggests the fiery nature of the warrior it was named after, but also the the sweeter side of his relationship with his mother Queen Nandi. As for Queen Nandi, our honeybush tea conjures a strong perfumed scent and is visually beautiful with its floral ingredient. This tea for me induces a sense of her beauty and strength.

All in all, there is a lot of work and detail that goes into each tea. Nothing is done randomly or half-heartedly. There is a lot of care and love that I put into each tea. They all offer something different and unique to the overall collection.

YSWARA is currently based in South Africa, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire. Where do you plan to expand next on the continent? 

At the moment, Africa is our number one priority. We are already present in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Mauritius, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, and Zambia. Outside of Africa, we are present in France and soon in England. We pretty much expand to where we find a suitable business partner for our products.

With the positive economic changes happening on the continent, a demand for luxury goods is rising, so YSWARA is positioned well for this growing demand. Africans are becoming quite discerning when it comes to their teas, so African consumers can recognize a quality tea product well. YSWARA faces less competition in Africa as well. Despite this, we hope to expand to countries that are showing a growing interest in tea, such as the US, as well as countries that already have a culture of tea drinking, such as the Middle East, China, Germany, France, and the UK.

In the long term, we hope to penetrate as much of the African market as possible. There are still many opportunities for significant growth in Africa.

Can you explain the Luxe Ubuntu concept that undergirds YSWARA’s business model? 

The term Ubuntu originates from a Zulu proverb, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” which translates to “A person is a person through other persons” or “I am because we are.”

Establishing my business Yswara has taught me that whatever industry you are in, it is possible to create economic value in a way that also creates value for the African society at large by addressing its prosperity needs and challenges.

At YSWARA, we have developed the concept of LUXE UBUNTU, a business model which aims to expand the meaningful income of all stakeholders contributing to the luxury industry at the various levels of supply chain – whether it be farmers and artisans, artists, manufacturers, and so on.

Our focus is thus on broad-based wealth creation by enabling access to markets of high-end quality products conceptualized and produced in Africa and the development of skills including organizational and business capacity of co-operatives. This is the overall objective of the brand.

Some people might be surprised by the idea of Africa as a luxury market. Why are they wrong? 

Luxury has its first roots in Africa. If you study the early civilizations of the continent, you will find that many of these civilizations and early kingdoms had a rich culture of luxury, especially with regards to the artisans of the time.

Today, Africa is too often viewed as a place of low quality goods that lack refinement, yet Africa is home to several of the largest deposits of precious minerals, metals, and textiles. All these elements contribute to the refined and finished goods that make up the international luxury industry that has always had its roots on the continent.

Luxury as an industry in Africa is still a very new but emergent industry. Therefore, there is an opportunity to define an authentic African luxury as cultural experts. Part of our mission as a brand is to promote the development of luxury houses in Africa.

Who designs and crafts YSWARA’s wide array of products? 

I participate in every aspect of the design process in YSWARA. All the key elements of the brand I designed: the colour, the tin, the texture, the patterns, and the logo. And, of course, I create the tea.

I had an idea of what I wanted the brand to look like before it was founded. It took the company three years before it arrived at the branding and design aesthetic that it has now. In line with our Ubuntu philosophy, we also work with local artisans to design some of our products, such as with our Sankofa tea pot. In this way, we work together to showcase the best of African design and craftsmanship.

Packaging is a crucial part of a brands image, especially in the luxury market. I try to make sure that every aspect of the brand embodies the spirit of Africa, therefore, the brand’s packaging is inspired by artwork in Africa. Our colours and packaging materials reflect the natural beauty and richness of Africa’s art and culture.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken? 

Leaving a lucrative career to start my own company is a big risk. You really have to be committed to the overall vision of your idea, and ensure that that vision carries you through all the highs and lows of starting a business. I have sought out investors to help me build this brand, so I am faced with the responsibility in making sure YSWARA succeeds. I feel that I have a responsibility to my investors and to the company’s community of artisans, farmers, and suppliers.

I enjoy the risk though, it has allowed me to use my passion to promote a culture of the Ubuntu in the business arena. It’s all been a risk worth taking.

What’s the key to elegance? 

Authenticity, refinement, timeless elegance. This is what YSWARA stands for – along with representing an “afropolitan” lifestyle, ethical and community care.

What words do you live by? 

Trust in God, have faith, appreciate your blessings, strive to be happy, always work hard, have integrity, be present, have the capacity to give and receive love, always follow you passion, and be open to forgiveness. 

Follow on Facebook