“Craft is something that we do and have been doing for centuries.”
Chi Atanga – Founder Walls of Benin.
For the first instalment of this African Luxury series, I spoke with Chi Atanga: Fashion and Textiles entrepreneur and Founder of African luxury loungewear brand Walls of Benin.
Setting the stage
Whilst currently based in the UK with a Portuguese subsidiary, Walls of Benin is set to launch its African production in Kenya. Getting to this point has been no easy feat for Manchester born and Cameroonian Chi. “I started with a vision, knowing nothing about fashion, manufacturing, dealing with suppliers or anything like that especially in the context of foreign languages across Europe and Africa.” The process has been a challenging one as Chi recalls, “In the beginning, I was doing more paperwork and raising finance than the creative, especially getting around the challenges of dealing with both British and Portuguese entities. And I kind of feel I’m still there. So day to day I do everything – I’m the CEO and the janitor literally!”
If you are not familiar with the story of the Great Walls of Benin, its introduction by way of this African luxury brand is apt, “the story of the Walls of Benin is one of great geological feat. It was the greatest manmade construction ever – bigger than the Great Wall of China and built by citizens of the Benin Empire (So we are talking pre-colonial Africa.) When Europeans arrived they were surprised that something so great could be produced by Africans.” And this is where the brand name and ethos emerges – it is a reference to African sovereignty and greatness. “The brand is a representation of this in two ways: Firstly we want to put out great African images and aesthetics like through the models we use, and secondly we want African made products to stand on their own and be in the likes of Selfridges and Harrods.”
The brand itself, however, is just the beginning for Chi’s vision of African excellence as with a strong passion for manufacturing, Chi sees the company going further than the loungewear collection, “The vision is bigger than the brand. Walls of Benin is like the cornerstone or starting point for a big vision. I feel really lucky that I’ve found an industry that I have a passion for and see myself going very far in but I do see things evolving. I am fascinated by the input-output process as capitalism in its purest form and I think the factory is a great representation of that. I’m from Manchester the home of the industrial revolution and there’s still that legacy. So that’s what I think has partly influenced my interest in manufacturing. Factories took China from poverty in the 70s to where it is now and it could do the same for Africa.” Starting with Walls of Benin, Chi sees the company growing to distribute other African luxury brands, “almost like the African Farfetch.”
Moving up the value chain
Walls of Benin will create an EU Africa fashion value chain with a difference – where Portuguese silk and Tencel will be imported into Africa – Kenya – specifically, where it will be manufactured to produce the value-added product: Luxury Loungewear. Although this in itself is revolutionary, Chi warns against being overly idealistic and acknowledges that transforming the value chain is a strategic aim that will take time, “people ask me, why don’t you produce everything in Africa if you truly want to create a ‘Made in Africa brand’? Well, firstly we plan to manufacture in Kenya not Africa as a whole. Kenya and parts of Eastern Africa like Mauritius and Madagascar are good locations for manufacturing and have been manufacturing since the 70s to a high standard. On the textile side of things, the standard isn’t as high. For instance, Kenya currently only has around 45 functioning factories and 12 working textile mills. There remain lots of issues such as old and inefficient machinery. What I’ve observed in Portugal, however, is that even in the oldest factories are using the latest machinery. Its a very complicated challenge and I’ve seen a lot of brands struggle because of the idealistic part of this which is very easy to fall by.”
He continues, “Saying that, there is obviously some idealism that you need – you need to have a vision. For me producing on the continent was absolutely necessary and integral to the brand but I also realised that we want to get all the materials that we need even if that meant getting it from elsewhere. Ultimately, the brand needs to stand on its own – it needs to be good. So the value chain I’ve built is a reflection of these ideals coming together.”
What is luxury? To Chi, Luxury fashion naturally has a place on the continent “Craft is something that we (Africans) do and have been doing for centuries. There are lots of individual tailors working in silos, everyone has their own tailor. Imagine having that natural generational talent for garment making in a factory and making one product really well?– that’s naturally luxury.”
“I think that luxury is a perspective. For example, China is not synonymous with luxury but there are luxury brands that produce there and work with manufacturers who have the perspective that they need to take their time with the craft. And I don’t think that’s a very hard sell in Africa.”
Walls of Benin will launch a Kickstarter campaign to gear up manufacturing in Kenya. Chi, however, has already started work on the continent in terms of finding partners and navigating through the business and legal aspects of setting up, “It’s a challenge. At least once a day I’m shouting on the phone in the office to our partners solving the whatever issue of the day. For instance, at the moment, we are figuring out where we stand with tax and import duties…” Encouragingly though, Chi has the support of experts, “ the way I’ve overcome these challenges has been by working with Partners like DHL – getting advice from industry experts has been crucial”.
Chi remains excited about his prospects on the continent “The first time I went to Africa as an adult – I went to Ghana and I was just blown away. It was just so much fun and there was so much going on. I saw so much opportunity. I remember going to Ghana Fashion Week and networking with a range of people including students, other returnees – and not just Ghanaians but other fellow Africans too. I saw similar things in Kenya. It is such an exciting space to be in.”
“Growing up my father would always tell me about the problems on the continent but would always phrase them as opportunities. And going out there for myself I have seen that. So what I am doing now feels like fate. I always wanted to do two things: make a lot of money and do good – particularly vis a vis Africa and Walls of Benin has given me the opportunity to do that and that is very exciting.”
Success leaves clues
I asked Chi what advice he would give to other budding African entrepreneurs trying to make their mark on the luxury market, “Success leaves clues and success in one area leaves clues in another. What I mean by that is observe and learn from other successful people in your field whatever it is. You have to educate yourself – the trick is to get the information as you go along and to seek and speak to people to connect the dots.” This is advice Chi has learned to live by and something that has positively impacted his business journey, “For example, for the Kickstarter I am launching when I was researching and I came across a fashion Kickstarter that raised 9million. So I’m thinking where’s the trick? I did some more research and found out who the man behind PR was. I decided to get in touch and it just so happens that he was flying out to Atlanta (where I was located at the time for a programme and where my parents currently live), the next day. We had dinner and maintained a relationship, now he’ll be working on the campaign.”
The Walls of Benin Kickstarter to launch African production will begin next week – stay posted for details!
I’m looking forward to the next phase in the Walls of Benin journey – it’s amazing to see a luxury brand waving the flag for African production and excellence.
What are your thoughts? Chi would love to hear from you, comment below!