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Wanja Laiboni '07

AUP Magazine: A Meaningful Career

African Heritage Meets African Raw Materials

Wanja Laiboni ’07 left a successful career in international development to found a sustainable luxury fashion brand that is 100% African. She explains how, by harnessing Africa’s rich cultural heritage and raw materials, she has built a global brand.

Questions without satisfactory answers will sometimes precede our most daring endeavors as we search for convincing answers. My long term interest in the Global South and the humanities led me into a career in international development. Close to ten years in, I increasingly grappled with questions about whether my work was contributing to sustainable solutions. Did existing systems grant true sovereignty to the Global South and foster an environment of equal exchange? Was aid the best way to achieve sustainable development?

While contemplating these questions, I traveled extensively around Africa, during which time I witnessed the abundance of the continent’s cultural assets and valuable raw materials. Additional questions took root: why had Africa not fully tapped the enormous economic potential of its cultural riches and raw materials to create global brands purveying high-value cultural goods made with Africa sourced materials? This was especially curious considering Africa’s critical role in the raw material supply chains of global manufacturing.

Ultimately, I came to the personal conclusion that, while humanitarian assistance is essential in times of war and natural disasters, creating equitable businesses that also generate social, environmental and cultural gains was the Global South’s fastest route to sustainable economic development. In my search for answers, I went from being an international development and humanitarian assistance professional to founding SIWWAA, a luxury fashion company whose mission is to harness the true value of Africa’s cultural heritage and raw materials.

A 2015 Ernst & Young–UNESCO joint report on the world’s creative and cultural industries, which generated $2.25 trillion that year, ranked Africa as the continent with the least economic contribution to these industries – despite possessing rich cultural assets that consistently inspire creative projects around the world. The factors curtailing the continent’s ability to create economically viable creative and cultural industries are multifaceted and complex. They include a lack of the necessary business and government structures to add value to, distribute and protect the sector’s intellectual property. A widespread perception of cultural heritage as economically inconsequential – despite creative and cultural industries making up 3% of global GDP – reduced the likelihood of investment from African governments and financial institutions. Furthermore, African cultural products lacked proper branding and narratives that relayed their true value.

These challenges, though colossal, represented a great opportunity. SIWWAA’s solution was to combine heritage with boundary-pushing design and first-rate craftsmanship to create high value products with quantifiable impact created throughout the value chain. We incorporated a triple-bottom-line approach – maximizing socioeconomic, cultural and environmental gains – while working towards a long-term production model that used 100% Africa-based production and Africa-sourced raw materials. We wanted the raw material supply chain to be completely transparent and traceable, in terms of both provenance and impact.

Working toward this goal has required rigorous preparation, a commitment to research, the drive to push creative boundaries and an emphasis on production excellence – achieved by working with the best partners. In the absence of an African blueprint for our venture, we learned from countries with mature design industries. I trained alongside leading designers and industrialists in Milan, Italy, gaining mastery of product design and development and expertise in the business models and value chains of heritage-based design enterprises. Additionally, we embarked on a Kenya-wide research project, Crafting Kenya, to master the materials and techniques used in Kenyan craftsmanship. The project became a knowledge resource and visual archive of these practices and is expanding in scope to connect Kenyan artisans to the global market.

Our inaugural collection, the Chanzo Collection, seeks to tell a story of beginnings through the lens of African heritage. Chanzo is a classic Swahili word meaning “beginnings” or, in some contexts, “the source.” In our research we noted the powerful recurrence of soil as a symbol of origins – a “mother element” or “feminine source” respected and revered across many cultures. Soil represented those who came before us, who paved the way and who, in so doing, secured our beginnings. Linked to the soil were ceramics, which in the past were gifted at the onset of important relationships. Ceramics also represented abundance and a safe place to keep one’s precious belongings during life’s journey. These concepts became the inspiration for our first product, the Chanzo bag, which drew its design inspiration from traditional African ceremonial pots: their curvilinear forms and their embellishments, from floral etchings to symmetrical lines. We envisioned the entire collection in black and white, to represent SIWWAA’s position at the intersection of the old and the new.

n July 2018, we unveiled SIWWAA and the Chanzo bag, garnering media acclaim from the likes of Forbes US, who called us “Africa’s best kept secret.” As we prepare to roll out the full Chanzo Collection in 2020, we look back on our many lessons and achievements. Firstly, we can celebrate being 100% Kenyan-funded, despite the gargantuan financing hurdles faced by creative and cultural enterprises in Africa. Over the past three years, we have secured collaborations with best-in-class partners and established SIWWAA Footprint, our impact arm that tracks the impact of our work. Our goal of 100% supply-chain transparency is already well underway; we’ve partnered with the Keough School of Global Affairs at Notre Dame University to build the tools for implementing this mission.

Alongside answering important questions about African sustainable development, SIWWAA has prioritized creativity as a powerful storytelling tool in order to build bridges between cultures and enrich people’s lives with beauty. We are investing in the leading lights of Africa’s artistic and cultural communities, consciously and jointly capitalizing on their talent in acknowledgment of the custodial role they play and the fact that they inspire and nourish us as a brand. In 2017, we launched the SIWWAA Private Art Collection, made up of artwork commissioned from African artists, whom we connect to global art markets. When constructing our product narratives, we collaborate with African storytellers using various media to tell African stories from fresh perspectives.

By creating high-value cultural goods that meet global benchmarks, we have challenged the prevailing perception of African creative industries and of the value of African cultural goods. Our investment in the skills transfer necessary to achieve the high degree of technical specialization involved in crafting our products will, over time, increase the economic benefit accrued by our partners and develop a new ecosystem of knowledge exchange. Our innovative design languages contribute to the diversity of voices in the global design conversation, showing the countless creative possibilities that Africa can inspire; this allows SIWWAA to act as a cultural diplomat, telling a progressive story of African innovation. As the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe said, “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” It is time for the lions to speak.

Article by Wanja Laiboni '07

This article appeared in the Fall 2019 Issue of the AUP Magazine

Read the full issue here