From Cote d’Ivoire
Lives between Lagos and Johannesburg
“If you were to scan my heart, you’d see the shape of Africa.”
CEO of YSWARA, a luxury tea company, Swaady often has a cosmopolitan approach to the continent’s problems.
A child refugee, Swaady’s family fled two violent coups. By now, she has lived in 11 countries and is convinced that Africa’s outlook has to change and that she has to be involved.
As one of multinational General Electric’s first female African leaders, she headed up transport development for sub-saharan Africa.
Divisive and nurturing in equal measure, she’s pushing for African women to take what she believes are their rightful positions in a man’s world. So much so, that she controversially only employs females, and buys from females.
Bringing a touch of glamour to development, she’s passionate about African fashion.
AB: WHAT IS THE NATURE OF YOUR BUSINESS? WHERE DID IT ALL START?
SM: I spent eleven years of my career with General Electric (GE), during which time I was involved in many different divisions of the company across the world. My most recent posting was as the Regional Director of the $300 million GE Transportation Sub-Saharan Africa’s subsidiary. In 2011, I decided to shift to something different – something very different, something that promotes our African resources, culture and identity. It was my dream to capture true African luxury, change the world’s perception of Africa and to produce a luxury brand that is truly African in origin, nature and tradition.
In essence, YSWARA is an African-rooted luxury company transforming an ordinary ritual (tea-time) into a treasured moment through gourmet African teas, authentic refined tea-time accessories and fine living goods. The company was founded by Cote d’Ivoire-born, Swaady MARTIN-LEKE, who was inspired by her passions for fine teas, African culture (arts, history & traditions) and for the upliftment of its communities through economic empowerment.
YSWARA’s mission is to unlock Africa’s potential to produce superior quality products that appeal to a local & international audience while achieving societal impact and promoting African art & culture. Using local resources and material to empower people, combined with superior craftsmanship and mixed with distinctive design and unique concepts,
YSWARA offers exclusive products “Made in Africa for the World”. 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.
AB: WHAT ARE THE MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS IN YOUR CAREER?
SM: I have been very blessed to have been able to follow my passions ever since I started my career. Whether at GE or at YSWARA, I am living my passions every day. I am always looking for the next challenge or milestone so I tend not to focus much on the past but always look forward….So what remains as memorable moments are mostly the friendships made along the way, the learnings, the mentors, the mentees and the little differences I made here and there (-; Probably the most memorable moment of my career is the advise a former GE CEO (Art Harper) gave me. He stopped me one morning in the corridor of our offices and gave me a 10-minute mentoring session which has impacted my career and life tremendously. He said:”Do what you are passionate about… this is the only way you will be successful.” And this is what I have been doing for the past 13 years; I have been following my passions…
AB: ANY BAD MOMENTS YOU CAN RECALL? IF YES, HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?
SM: Building a luxury brand fully African-made presents tremendous challenges which my team and I are still overcoming everyday. Today, our product is about 90% made in Africa and we have a target to reach 100% by end of next year. The main challenge is that our Africa industrial fabric is not made for high-quality goods produced at a competitive cost relative to China or India. We struggled to find suppliers who source or manufacture their products in Africa. Then, when world-class quality is met, the consistency is not guaranteed.
For example, our tea tin manufacturer just closed this month and there is no alternative in sub-saharan Africa. Our artisans are mostly not set-up to scale their activities and are often paralyzed by the prospect of growing their business beyond the “enough-to-live” stage.
As a luxury brand, we cannot afford any inconsistency in quality nor sub-standard quality levels. We are competing with international brands, benchmarking ourselves to the best as we want to grow big. On the export side, the cost of export outside of Africa is still too high. This is hampering growth of internet sales as well as opportunities to export out of Africa globally.
Despite all these setbacks, we are persevering and most of them turned out to be unexpected sources of strength. As I was sharing those challenges with a wise mentor, he advised that “everything that is too easy is also easily replicable.”
AB: DO YOU THINK YOU ARE IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION REGARDING REACHING YOUR FUTURE GOALS?
SM: ABSOLUTELY! (-; YSWARA was received very positively. We exceeded our sales target last year and got a lot of media coverage. The feedback of customers is also very positive. They love our products! Africans love it because it represents the essence of the new Africa. Foreigners love it too because it presents another (positive and refined) story of Africa
AB: WHERE TO FROM HERE?
SM: Continue to work hard, develop beautiful products made in Africa, localize further and advocate on the issues hampering the export of finished African goods such as transport and import/export costs, skills development, etc.
We are still at the beginning of the journey…My ultimate goal regarding YSWARA is for it to be a globally recognized luxury brand & to further strengthen artists’ and farmers’ capacity to benefit from global markets by assisting them to develop quality products and providing them with market access support.
Cote d’Ivoire born, Swaady Martin-Leke is the Founder and CEO of the African luxury brand YSWARA, the curator of Precious African teas. After a successful 10-years career at General Electric Co., Swaady decided to follow her passion for teas, African culture & heritage. At GE, she held leadership positions in several divisions across the world with her most recent posting as GE Transportation’s Director for Sub-Saharan Africa and acting-CEO for GE South Africa Technologies.
Swaady is part of a generation of Africans who has succeeded in Fortune 500 companies and who has decided to use all their valuable knowledge and expertise to help develop African companies. She chose to focus on the luxury industry because it essentially conveys a continent’s culture and identity. She believes that with Africa’s thousands of years of history and know-how, we can do more than producing “crafts” & “ethnic” goods. YSWARA’s mission is to unlock Africa’s potential to produce superior quality products that appeal to a local & international audience while achieving societal impact.
Swaady has received numerous distinctions and awards. Among them, she was selected as “New Leader of the Future” by the Forum of Crans Montana in 2011. In 2012, she was hand-picked to be part of the prestigious Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship Programme and named one of the “Youngest Power Women in Africa” by Forbes.
As a Tutu Fellow, Swaady has been filmed over 6 months by Aljazeera for a documentary series on the channel on the subject and been featured in numerous magazines.
Swaady holds a Masters in Economic Sciences from the University of Lausanne and an MBA from the London School of Economics (LSE), NYU Stern Business School and HEC Paris Business School.