When Akosua Afriyie-Kumi returned to Ghana in 2012 after studying fashion design in London, she had no business plan or grand vision for her own label. All she knew was that she wanted to make handbags using raffia – a palm found primarily in Madagascar and some of Africa. Since launching her brand AAKS two years later, she has become a young icon of African design, has helped to put Ghanaian artisanship on the global fashion map, and has collaborated with labels like Rag & Bone in NYC and Maison Sarah Lavoine in Paris.
But it was no easy journey – Akosua spent more than two years trying to secure the raw materials and find the right artisans to execute the designs. The first hurdle was locating the raffia. ‘Here in Ghana, they use straw to weave,’ she says. ‘Raffia is softer; there were shapes that I was thinking of for my dream product that wouldn’t be possible in straw.’ But there was no trace of this palm in Ghana. ‘After doing lots of research, my mum and grandma said, “We used to have lots of raffia in Ghana when we were growing up.” They used to use it to tie up animals and string up beads. They don’t know what’s happened to it [since]. It’s kind of a lost fibre in the country now.’
Not losing heart, Akosua, then just 26, asked her grandmother to take her to her village; there, they simply asked around if anyone knew of any raffia palms growing in the vicinity, until they chanced upon some farmers who did. The palms weren’t being put to use – there was no demand – so the locals were happy to harvest the fibre as they once did generations ago. ‘This isn’t their core business. They farm their farm and do this as a side gig for me.’
This village – whose location Akosua is wary of divulging – is still the source of production for the label. Today, she spends around £10,000 on raffia per year, equating to about 7,000 bags. Before she could put this raw wealth to use, however, she had to first find the right weavers. So she went cross country.
Working with weavers
Eventually she approached three women working under an enormous baobab tree. ‘I remember clearly that when I got out of the car and showed them my design, they were staring at me and thinking, “What does this girl want?” They’re used to their own ideas and working for themselves. Yet there I was, coming in, saying, “Do this particular design.” And I think they struggled with that.’
The weavers had never heard of raffia, let alone worked with it. Akosua left them with some and asked if, by the time she returned a few weeks later, they could design any sort of bag – as a test run. ‘When I came back, they had done nothing. I’m from Ghana but I had lived in the UK for eight years and came back with that mindset of everything being perfect and timelines working. It was a bit of a cultural shock.’
Akosua’s experience isn’t dissimilar to that of designers in countries like Mexico, Morocco or Indonesia where there’s a wealth of artisans and a movement of young designers looking to collaborate with them. The challenge is always building trust and understanding, as the two parties often come from drastically different worlds. So, Akosua started spending time with the women – she visited their families and introduced them to her own mother, showing that she was serious. With the growing friendship, the weavers took an interest.
Akosua is keen to emphasis that it’s not a one-way street: she designs together with the weavers. ‘It wasn’t about changing their minds. It was about working and building a brand together with these three women. Sometimes I’d draw something and they said, “It’s not possible.” I do my mood boards here in the studio and then show it to them before I put anything into action. It’s really a discussion between them and myself. Creatively, it really helped to know where I could go in terms of designs – what they loved, what they hated.’
Typically, the weavers weave their own designs and sell them at a local market. Although collaborating with Akosua meant curtailing their freedom slightly, it brought other advantages. ‘If a [regular] basket costs £3 to £5, I’m paying almost four times what they would get if they were selling at the local market. They have constant production and money every month, whereas before they’d stand in the market hoping somebody would buy their basket. When I first visited, none of my weavers had their own homes – they used to live with family. Now they’ve all built their own houses. It’s so cool.’
Nailing the production
After years of work, there’s now a smooth production line in place. The raw raffia travels by bus to the north where the weavers begin their work; they dye the bags, too, using roughly 80% natural dyes, depending on the colour Akosua wants. (‘If we want to achieve orange, yellow, green, it has to be natural. But for a blue or black, you need to add a chemical dye.’) Then the bags travel to Kumasi – again by bus – where a dedicated studio team adds the lining, the buckles and the leather straps – the latter sourced partly from a tradeswoman in Kumasi and partly from the UK and Italy, when quantity needs to be made up for.
It remains a hands-on process for Akosua, and she still drives across the country, but not as much as before. ‘Most of the weavers now know what they’re doing – they can work from home or from the weaving centre I’ve built, where there’s someone on hand to help if you don’t understand something. Weaving is done as part of their daily lives: it’s not a nine-to-five job. A woman is weaving a basket and she’s cooking and feeding her children at the same time. It goes hand in hand. I don’t want them to see this work as a production chain. I want my brand to be sustainable and ethical, so we balance it out with people’s lives.’
This article was first published in How to Start a Business 2021. To become a subscriber or purchase our newest guide, head to our webshop.