Sometimes you need to go back to move forward.
When Viola Labi decided to launch her own business—Woven Worldwide—she didn’t do it in her native Toronto, where she had established a successful career in retail management, working with such brands as Burberry and Zara.
Instead, she returned to Ghana—not just the birthplace of her parents, but a country that offered the kind of opportunity she couldn’t find in Canada.
Not that Labi (pictured above) has gone this journey alone. Look at ascending African brands and you’ll find other young women founders, who have capitalized on their learnings abroad—whether in school or professionally—and returned to Africa to put them to work.
There is Lulu Kitolo, an art director who graduated Pratt Institute in New York and earned a masters at the University of London before launching her own graphics studio in Kenya, leaning into vibrant, colorful handmade journals, cards and framed prints.
Akosua Afriyie-Kumi launched AAKS in Ghana in 2014 after returning from London, where she attended university and worked in the fashion industry. She used that experience to create a line of handwoven bags that are finely attuned to the ebbs and flows of high fashion, earning a steady stream of press and acclaim.
Talk to any of these founders, and it’s the intangibles of doing business in Africa that fuels their enthusiasm as entrepreneurs. For them, it’s about more than business.
"When I was at Burberry, I was at the end of the supply chain," explains Labi. "In Ghana, I'm at the beginning. It's a 180 shift. It started about seven years ago. I was on vacation in Ghana, and I was driving deep into country, and I saw these women weaving baskets on the side of the road. I remember saying to my taxi driver, 'Stop the car! Oh my god, what is this?' I was witnessing culture.
"The next day, I went back. I studied the weave they were using, similar to how I would study a stitch in fashion school, the quality, the warp and the weft. We didn’t understand each other’s language, but we just felt comfortable with each other. It was a cellular experience to be with these women."
Today, Woven Worldwide employs 270 artisans, 186 of whom are women. "Aunties, sisters, grannies, matriarchs," as Labi says. "From 19 to 65 years old."
Woven Worldwide creates high-quality, hand-woven baskets, with Labi working directly with the artisans on a daily basis—no middle men. So, when on a whim, she wondered if her artisans could weave carrie shells from the market into their signature baskets, she was able to brainstorm the off-the-cuff idea with the artisans. Today, her carrie-shell baskets are her best seller.
What entrepreneurs like Labi, Afriyie-Kumi and Kitolo bring to the equation is an acquired business savy that provides these gifted artisans—who have been plying their crafts for generations—immediate entry into the global marketplace.
Kitololo would like to point out, however, that this movement isn’t exactly a new one. "A lot of us have been diligently working away for years, or even decades, and it's only now that the world is starting to take notice," says Kitololo, who frequently offers inspiring business advice on her Instagram feed and recently launched a think tank called Shine, which helps advise aspiring entrepreneurs. "Now that consumers are more interested in a brand's story and values. Now that there are fewer barriers between us—thanks to a big part of the world getting accustomed to living and working and playing online.
"The more examples we see of African excellence, the more African women are inspired to step out and up into the light. The excellence has always been there - it's just that the world is better able to recognize it now."
By returning to Africa to pursue their creative passions, each of these founders is enjoying market penetration in the west they might not have achieved otherwise.
"For me, there was a lack of fulfillment, a lack of community and connectivity back in Toronto, working within the fashion industry," says Labi. "But now, I’m working with people and families and seeing their children grow up. These are artisans with a beautiful skillset who are teaching me about my own heritage. Starting Woven Worldwide has been a genuinely emotional experience."