The Fashionomics Series: Walls of Benin

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!

African Excellence

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.

 

 

 

Luxury

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.”

Kickstarting production

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!

Shop: www.wallsofbenin.com

Contact: Chi@wallsofbenin.com

IG: @wallsofbenin_official

Twitter: @wallsofbenin

 

Follow:
annettebena

The Fashionomics Series: African Luxury

Photo cred: Ed Singleton

It’s been a great season for African Luxury. Hot off the back of Arise Fashion Week (ft Naomi Campbell and Ozwald Boateng) – Lagos, Nigeria is buzzing with African luxury excellence. The Fashion showcase exhibited African designers ranging from evening wear to tailoring and more – showcasing the diversity and quality of the African luxury industry and African fashion in general.

 

Ozwald Boateng

Naomi Campbell in Kluk CGDT

Laurence Airline

Photo cred: The Guardian 

 

African creative figures are also making their mark in luxury spaces. Edward Enninful is already shaking the table at British Vogue and most recently Virgil Abloh’s appointment as Louis Vuitton’s first black artistic director for menswear has signalled a new time in luxury fashion. Not to mention the impact of Wakanda… although fictional the celebration of African stylistic heritage that has emerged out of Black Panther is not. Including the luxury African designers whose brands have graced the Black Panther red carpets and featured as on-screen costumes.

It seems the stage is being set for African luxury – but can Africa ’s designers compete in the luxury market? Whilst African creatives seem to be occupying luxury spaces, could African made brands do the same?

Changing fortunes

The continent remains locked in a basic pattern of trade: ship raw materials out and bring manufactured goods in. This severely limits the value retained. For example, the global fashion industry is worth an estimated $1.5tr and the continent clearly sees very little of this.

“While Africa remains the number one source of raw materials for the tech and luxury industries, its own brands have struggled for access to markets and media spotlight.” 

 

Andrea Iyamah

However, intensive manufacturing need not be only way Africa could begin to move up the value chain. Investing in African made Luxury brands and designers is an investment in craftsmanship and quality outputs as well as the preservation of traditional heritage.

Luxury brands are helping to revive traditional craftsmanship. For example in Nigeria where the influx of imports led to the decline of traditional practices and the country’s textile industry, designers like Amaka Osakwe of  Maki Oh (worn by Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga) are using traditional fabrics such as Adire, an indigo-dyed cotton fabric worn by the Yoruba people of south-west Nigeria for their pieces. This not only encourages highly skilled labour but also preserves the unique heritage of its origin. ‘Luxury’ is often identified from craftsmanship, quality and uniqueness – Africa has all the makings to create a strong and sustainable luxury market.

Africa is on the move. Africa is in acceleration. Africa is birthing a modern luxury economy through its rich creative heritage and dynamic peoples and markets.” Uche Pézard of Luxury Connect Africa.

Andrea Iyamah

Last year, I explored the imprint of the African diaspora on Africa’s fashion industry. In this ‘African Luxury’ Series I will be exploring the luxury market and its potential to support development by providing solutions to unemployment and economic diversification. I will be interviewing founders and designers of African luxury brands at different stages of their journey.

Stay tuned for these interviews which I will be posting weekly. Make sure you’re subscribed and following me on social media so you’ll be the first to know when these interviews are posted!   

 

What are your thoughts on the potential of Africa’s luxury industry? Comment below x

 

Follow:
annettebena

The Fashionomics Series | Bôhten Eyewear

Bôhten Eyewear is an eco-luxury eyewear line made from reclaimed materials sourced from West Africa. The brand is founded by 28-year-old entrepreneur, Nana Boateng who was born in the UK but has lived in Ghana, South Africa and New York (where he was raised) and finally moved to Toronto, Canada 3 years ago where Bôhten was established and is currently based.

Environmental Luxury 

Nana studied Environmental Studies as an undergrad but this soon grew into a passion for sustainable living and consumption, “I wanted to find ways to incorporate what I was learning in school into my everyday lifestyle and so I began doing a lot of research into the industry”. Nana soon discovered a growing industry of eco-friendly and sustainable consumption, “New York became one of my biggest inspirations. During university, an eco-friendly night club called ‘Greenhouse’ opened there and this was the first concept of eco friendly nightlife I’d seen – from the LED lighting to the brands of Vodka they carried. It was clear to me that environmental luxury was a growing industry I needed to explore.”

 Nana Boateng – Tema, Ghana

However, it was after Nana’s visit to Ghana in 2013; his first in 4 years that he began to think about tying his passion for African development with his interests and ideas in the eco friendly space, “when I visited I noticed how much Ghana had developed and also how truly blessed it was in terms of geography and natural resources and recognized it’s potential”.

This came to inspire the idea behind Bôhten, “I decided to create a product that was fashionable but also natural – a combination of fashion and nature.”

Nana wanted to make an impact in Africa and eventually go back, “with all these changes in Ghana I realised that it was in need of entrepreneurship to truly ignite its growth.”  

 Photo cred: Courtney Cunningham

Bôhten’s identity is, therefore, a personal one:

“Our identity lies within our passion for nature and our heritage in West Africa. As a result we have created an eco friendly eyewear line. We want to ignite Africa’s economy by creating an innovative platform for innovators and creators. We aspire to change the face of Africa with a vision that advocates education, sustainable employment, social responsibility and environmental awareness in fashion globally.”

Bôhten is poised to be one of the leaders of eyewear manufacturing in Africa. We plan to use this blueprint for not only sustainable growth, but for a lasting infrastructure of knowledge that can rip through the region and create small economies that build on themselves.”

 

Photo cred: Courtney Cunningham

Creating an ecosystem 

Bôhten’s vision is to establish an eyewear manufacturing supply chain on the African Continent. Currently, Africa makes up just 1.9% of global manufacturing. 

With this comes a twofold mission for Bôhten Eyewear: a Fair Paying Facility and a Waste Management System. Bôhten aims to create a Fair Paying Facility by sourcing local manufacturers and creating minimum wage roles for skilled workers. Nana’s brother and business partner currently lives in Ghana and so was able to provide the experience on the ground, “Things like employees being underpaid and lack of information sharing are prevalent. I knew the brand and platform we would create could make a big difference in a largely untapped market”.  

Bôhten are in the process of establishing a Waste Management System in Ghana for sourcing and processing reclaimed materials. “Ghana already has these sorts of systems in place but they are not very organised.” For instance, there are currently no stats which indicate the common impact Waste Management Systems are having on Ghana’s environment and the general economy.

Bohten manufacturing

Learning curves 

Bôhten launched its first factory in Canada to use as a point of reference and a production blueprint before establishing production in Ghana, “We decided on Toronto as a place where we could build our ideas and implement them in other places, particularly in Africa.” Currently, Bôhten’s frames are assembled in both Ghana and Canada. In Ghana, local manufacturers cut them out to specifications, provide the hinges, and ship them back to Canada where they are finally assembled.

At this point however, Bôhten is still very much dependent on suppliers in Japan and other manufacturers in Japan and China as it initially struggled to meet demand and finding the right expertise in the industry to partner with, “Whilst this was going on we were going back and forth to Ghana to figure out how to develop our facilities. We already had the space for production but because of the gap of information and huge learning curves it didn’t make sense to make the jump (full production in Ghana), just yet.” However Nana believes that this process will only assist in creating the blueprint for a solely Ghana/ Canada supply chain, “we’ve taken this approach as we understood that going through this process would allow us to open doors in terms of production and push the boundaries of design and innovation.”

Doing business in Africa  

With plans to establish its supply chain in Ghana, Nana and the Bôhten team have had extensive experience doing business in the country. Nana observes both positives and negatives about operating in Ghana, “There has been great progress made by African entrepreneurs since we’ve begun and it’s great to see. In a lot of ways we are re defining what it truly means to be African.”  

However, Nana notes “often there is not enough support for one another in terms of doing things that are progressive and a lot of the time it becomes ‘every man for themselves’ and that’s just not healthy for anyone’s growth.” Conversely Nana sees competition as essential to business development and takes this ethos further with ‘Bôhten Made’ the company’s manufacturing platform which provides integrated solutions for up and coming brands to help them get on their feet, “primarily this part of the business exists to help other brands who want to branch into eyewear, particularly in Africa because as an untapped market there are so many opportunities available for everyone.”  

Nana remains optimistic about the business environment in Ghana however, “under the new government under Nana Akufo -Addo, who has pushed a‘one district one factory’ policy, we’re optimistic about our business prospects in the country – hopefully, this will put Ghana on the map

Accra, Ghana

UK Launch  

Bôhten have recently launched their UK site and UK exclusive line ‘Aristotle’. “Our plan is to build the brand on a global scale. Right now, we are slowly eating into the European market through London.”

Arist
A
Ar

Aristotle Collection

Plans for the future

In the short term, Bôhten is looking to complete its new assembly facility in Canada and continue to develop important manufacturing relationships that will ultimately lead to production in Ghana. In the long term, Nana says “we want to solidify our supply chain in terms of factories in Ghana in 2-3 years. I see us establishing factories across Africa and working directly with our facility in Canada.” 

The aim is also to continue to innovate and branch out into the types of materials used and products created, “we aren’t in a position to take on major any R&D at the moment but innovation is a big part of our vision as we hope to push the boundaries of manufacturing and production.”

Bôhten’s ultimate aim is “to be able to say that Ghana is one of the highest export countries for fashion accessories and eyewear – we hope to get to the point we can bridge the gap between our resources and expertise to really take it to the next level”

What advice does Nana give to members of the diaspora about creating a successful brand and business?

“Its all about having the right people around you. You can have all the money but if you don’t have the right expertise and attitude around you, you are not going to get to where you want to. You need people who will stick it out in bad times and have the integrity to deal with things in the right way. I know a lot of entrepreneurs complain about capital, but the money will come if you have the right people. I’ve never been a fan of chasing the money, the money should chase you and you should your vision.

  Nana Boateng

Photo cred: Anders Marshall

With such an innovative brand and vision, Bôhten eyewear is definitely one to follow!

www.Bohten.com | www.Bohten.uk

Contact: info@bohten.com | help@bohten.uk

Instagram: @Bohten

Twitter: @Bohten

Facebook: Bohten

Linkedin: Bohten

Pinterest: Bohten

Nana and the Bôhten team would love to hear from you, comment below!

This post is part of a series of interviews with founders and designers within the diaspora using their brands to promote African culture and development.

Follow:
annettebena