SWAADY . YSWARA . AFRICA
by Ladun Ogidan
After spending a period of eleven years of her career at General Electric (GE), Cote d’Ivoire-born,
Swaady Martin-Leke decided to follow her passion for teas, African culture and heritage. She is the founder and CEO of the African luxury brand YSWARA and has received numerous distinctions and awards. Among them is “New Leader of the Future” by the Forum of Crans Montana in 2011. In 2012, she was handpicked to be part of the prestigious Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship Programme and named one of the “Youngest Power Women in Africa” by Forbes.
Tell us about yourself?
I am 36 years old and I was born in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. I was raised by a single-mother—a very strong, independent, optimistic, selfless and loving African woman. She is French-Guinean-Ivorian and my father is American-German. From my youngest age, my mother had a subscription to international magazines such as Vogue, Architectural Digest, and Vanity Fair. She reads a lot, we had a big library of books and she encouraged my brother and I to do the same. We also travelled a lot, visited many museums, galleries, concept stores and cities, so I grew up in a very exposed environment. I got to visit and see many things from a young age. I was exposed to beauty whether it is art, objects, landscape and people. My mother made so many sacrifices to ensure that we received the best education, the most exposure to the world and to opportunities to grow as great African leaders. She never compromised on pushing me to be the best I could be, helped me build strong confidence and a deep sense of purpose grounded in spirituality, which allowed me not to fear failure. This was very liberating and empowering as I grew up in post-independence Africa, shattered by coups and dictators. This historical period and my upbringing nurtured in me a strong consciousness of the role I must play in the bigger scheme of things and especially in Africa. My life motto is ‘Dream big and execute bigger!’ I have lived in 11 different countries on 3 continents. My strong cultural background acquired through family and education provided me with international exposure to cultural and business diversities. All these life experiences are what nurtured the desire to build YSWARA, a luxury business creating beautiful objects with a strong cultural focus.
You were previously the manager of General Electric (GE) in the South of Sahara. Why did you feel the need for a career shift? And how did you come up with the idea of starting a luxury brand?
In 2011, I decided to shift to something very different that promotes our African resources, culture and identity. It was my dream to capture true African luxury, change the world’s perception of Africa and to produce a luxury brand that is truly African in origin, nature and tradition. I had reached a point in my career where I wanted to ‘call all the shots’ and had the necessary skills and networks to launch my own venture and realize my dream. Thus, I created YSWARA. I chose the luxury industry because it is an industry that conveys culture and identity. It is a country’s or continent’s image presented to the world. Africa is too often viewed as a place of low quality goods and lack of refinement. In most emerging markets (Africa included), the level of luxury craftsmanship is on the rise. Our thousands of years of culture, history, know-how and heritage demonstrate that we can do more than producing ‘crafts’ and ‘ethnic’ goods.
Do you think Africa is doing enough when it comes to creating and sustaining luxury brands especially with low-income growth and lack of employment in the region? What developments would you like to see more in the African luxury market?
Development and prosperity are not only about macro-economic indicators. Preserving culture, history and crafts is also vital for any community’s sustainable development. On one hand, culture and history provide for the future and are powerful accelerators for urban, economic and social development. On the other hand, if globalization represents a diversity of cultures, individuals without culture are not playing an active role in the contemporary era. With the recent traumatic history of Africa, the deficiencies of the educational system and rapid economic growth, culture and the knowledge of history have been left out. The wealth of African culture, its centuries of craftsmanship and the knowledge of the continent’s history are endangered. In addition, in Africa, hurdles have long stifled the growth and prosperity of its artisans: Societal disruptions, decades of slavery and mercantile exploitation during colonialism; increasing dependency on European goods since the 17th century; African education systems excluding African history; and post-colonial rule unable or not willing to fund cultural ventures. It is thus essential to not leave out the essential component of development that is culture. There are many ways to sustain and promote culture. In this context, YSWARA wishes to arise as one of the guardians of the renewed fervor and opportunities for crafts with its mission to promote and preserve Africa’s rich culture and history through exceptional products made with our natural resources by African artisans.
Lastly, it is important not to forget that in countries where the luxury industry is vibrant, it is a driver of economic growth. The luxury industry generates activities in a large variety of areas, including publishing, tourism, real estate, culture and education. The luxury market allows SMEs to find a place and express their creativity. The luxury industry also participates in tourism development and can be a fantastic export champion.
Full interview published in Omenka magazine issue 5
March 25, 2021