Swaady Martin views luxury like she views art – as another form of creative expression.
Swaady Martin will be in conversation with Brendon Bell-Roberts, Editor & co-Founder of ART AFRICA, at the inaugural edition of UNFOLD – Art Beyond the BRICS. ART AFRICA partners with UNFOLD Art Xchange which will be taking place at Five Palm Jumeirah Dubai, from 19-22 March. For more information, click here.
Portrait of Swaady Martin. Photographer: Gary Stephens
Swaady Martin saw a gap in the market when she discovered that Africa is one of the largest global tea exporters, yet none of the leading tea companies base themselves on the continent. It is through the SWAADY Group that Martin is preserving African traditions and craftsmanships. Martin situates culture and agriculture as a top commodity. The business has transformed some of Africa’s oldest practices into distinguished and beautiful products that exude their African heritage. The teatime brand YSWARA has redefined the stereotype of ‘African’ luxury – a term commonly associated to ethnic creativity and ‘tribal’ collectables.
COLLECTOR.: You will be participating in UNFOLD Art XChange in Dubai where you will be speaking about, ‘Art & Philanthropy: Investing in Culture, Uniting Communities and Transforming Businesses in South Africa’. Is this something that the SWAADY Group is actively engaged in?
Swaady Martin: At the SWAADY Group, we are guided by the Ubuntu philosophy – “I am because we are.” It is the driving force behind our brand. The core of our business model is the community, and wealth creation. It is our responsibility to run businesses that benefit all involved. “Luxe Ubuntu” is our own special term – it describes our inclusive luxury business model, in which there is economic benefit for everyone who contributes to the production of a luxury product. This philosophy is manifested in the spirit of kinship and is upheld by the ideals of compassion, dignity, harmony and humanity. Our YSWARA brand strives to benefit local suppliers by encouraging the world to appreciate high quality African-made products.
Luxe Ubuntu is reversing the commodity trap and uplifting African farmers and artisans – especially women. With Luxe Ubuntu, we’re changing the perceptions of Africa and its products, supporting conservation of our cultural heritage, and giving Africa a positive, contemporary image.
Your speciality teatime brands YSWARA and AKRAFO both express themselves artistically through their luxury brand identities, collaborating with artists from time to time. Was this always your strategy?
YSWARA is not about strategy, but a brand operating from the heart. On our journey, we are blessed to meet kindred spirits, brands, charities, projects and out of these meaningful encounters, collaborations are birthed. We just launched a collaboration with the very beautiful and soulful brand ARDMORE to support a charity dear to our heart, ORANGE BABIES. The charity’s ultimate aim is to achieve an HIV-free generation in Africa. We joined our creativities and hearts to create the umSisi Collectors’ Tea canister by YSWARA x ARDMORE. UmSisi is the sacred African Lucky Bean Tree believed to have both medicinal and magical properties. All profits of the purchase of this collectors’ tea are donated to ORANGE BABIES to raise funds and awareness for their ongoing projects.
YSWARA tearoom, 2017. Courtesy of SWAADY Group.
The names of your teas make reference to iconic African figures and landmarks such as Shaka Zulu and Lake Burera. African representation is a sensitive issue – how do you negotiate the reference to these African icons in relation to your brands?
From conception of the brand, my vision was to introduce consumers to African gourmet teas, highlighting the aromas, textures, tastes and healthful qualities of loose-leaf teas, while enlightening them on the rich heritage, culture and history of Africa. I did a lot of research on African history and culture, and I found so many fascinating things – gems that I wanted to share with the world. For example, our name is inspired from the myth of the Ty Wara, the West African mythological hero who came to earth to teach mankind social values as well as agricultural techniques. I believe that everyone in the world, Africans included, need to gain knowledge of Africa’s history as it is part of humanity’s collective consciousness. We need to preserve, safeguard, enhance and promote Africa’s rich culture and history and make it accessible to all. We must emphasize the greatness and glory of its civilisations, and its on-going legacy to rebalance the perceptions and acknowledge the contribution that Africa has brought.
You have created a strong African identity which is helping redefine the perception of what a luxury African brand encompasses. What has been your main inspiration?
YSWARA is a producer and retailer of high quality African tea and teatime accessories created with ingredients and guided by an authentic narrative from the African continent. We are committed to transform African teas locally and make African teas a prestige product, by educating customers on the quality & benefits of African teas, creating a total ‘experience’ beyond just the drink. Our teas are grown solely on African soil, blended and packaged to the highest International standards. We proudly promote African manufacturing: 88% of our suppliers are spread across Africa. Key products are ‘Made in Africa’ & other products are manufactured where it is most cost-effective. Today, 60%-100% of the value-add of our products is from Africa, with a goal to achieve 90-100% within the next 5 years. We aspire to be the first global African House of Luxury: a luxury brand truly African in origin, nature and tradition and a standard-bearer for excellence in Africa.
YSWARA tea, 2017. Courtesy of SWAADY Group.
Now is Africa’s time. This diverse, magnetic continent is rising in countless arenas, inspiring us with its vibrancy and authenticity. It is our desire to bring the refinement and richness of African culture to Africa and the world – to celebrate this vast and diverse continent.
The unique alchemy of YSWARA is the blend of an authentic African essence, a wholesome caring spirit, a soulful contemporary aesthetic and an international selective distribution. The brand embodies a caring sophisticated contemporary and urban authentic African ‘cool’ (relevant). Our high-end products are very desirable, forward-looking and rooted in our rich African heritage. They celebrate the African renaissance and togetherness.
YSWARA sources tea from all over the African continent and focuses on the healing and medicinal powers of African plants. How have these ‘medicinal’ products been received abroad?
Tea remains the world’s second most consumed beverage after water. Thanks to increased global interest in health and diet in general, tea has become the fastest growing beverage. While global demand continues to outpace supply, consumers are looking for increased flavour options which is making Specialty & Artisan Teas the driving interests within the tea category. Africa is currently on the spotlight globally, both on the creative and economic scenes. It is a unique time in history where Africa is seen as an active contributor and not just an extracting ground. There is a double untapped opportunity to bring African culture and flavours to a new experience-hungry, global audience and to also leverage the African-pride wave that is sweeping across the continent and its diaspora. YSWARA reveals Africa’s flavours to the world by developing authentic products from the large wealth of local agricultural commodities. All our recipes of premium loose-leaf teas are created in-house, by me.
I believe that everyone in the world, Africans included, need to gain knowledge of Africa’s history as it is part of humanity’s collective consciousness.
YSWARA tearoom, 2017. Courtesy of SWAADY Group.
What are some of the challenges you faced establishing the brand in leading international luxury markets like France and America?
In September 2016, we opened a tea house & boutique in Johannesburg, South Africa. We are present in 17 countries, with a portfolio of reputable iconic international clients such as Harrods, Selfridges, The Four Seasons Hotels & Spas, St Regis Hotels & Spas, Woolworth, etc. We are the first African brand to have such international premium retail exposure and thus, considered one of Africa’s flagship top-end consumer brands. We have been featured in 300+ media including CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, Monocle, Wallpaper, Forbes, Oprah Winfrey magazine, etc. and received numerous awards including Best Emerging African Brand in 2015, and a nomination in the Innovation category of New Luxury Brands by the French Centre for Luxury & Creation. YSWARA truly resonates globally with consumers who value beauty, authenticity, provenance and humanity. Our global presence demonstrates that the brand has global appeal, relevance and meets stringent international food products quality requirements. Although the footprint in each country is very small, each is a great anchor from which to expand.
Swaady Martin is a serial entrepreneur and the female powerhouse behind the SWAADY Group – a social enterprise that produces high-value products from African commodities. Founded in 2012, the SWAADY Group is redefining African luxury, and creating a distinctive identity.