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‘I Speak As A Businesswoman In Music’

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It’s the inevitable cost of fame. Recounting one’s success story for the nth time and sounding like a scratched record.

Lira, born Lerato Molapo in Ekurhuleni in the East of Johannesburg in South Africa, has done it too, countless times, and relates it again – how she came to be a singer – in one breathless sentence. At 16, she was in the final year of high school in South Africa when she teamed with her best mate and two other friends from church for a singing competition. That night, they walked away with awards for best composition, best performance and best vocalist.

That night, a star was born.

In the present, Lira has performed all over the world, and has almost a million social media followers – that new measure of creative capital.

The accolades have come thick and fast: a Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards nomination as ‘Best International Artist’ in 2012; performances with the likes of A-listers Alicia Keys, Shakira, K’naan and John Legend at the FIFA World Cup opening in South Africa in 2010, a big role in an Italian feature file, The Italian Consul, and a performance, in a David Tlale-designed gown, at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in 2013 in the United States (US). It was not just Lira’s, but South Africa’s wow moment on a global stage.

“I was performing for all kinds of races and that bridged the race lines for me. It was the first time that I saw something that transcended all boundaries,” says Lira.

She launched her American album Rise Again in the US in 2014.

As an undergraduate student, Lira studied finance and used her skills to exchange for recording time at a local studio. It resulted in her first demo at the age of 18. Then she put her music career on hold, finished her degree, started working and saved all her money, almost every penny she made.

“No one gave me the idea that I could go into music. I was into finance – general finance and auditing. I turned 22 and decided I would take five years to get it out of my system. I cashed in on my pension and made sure I could survive for a year. Two weeks after I served my notice, I landed a deal. I was exceptionally lucky,” she says.

When she submitted her resignation, she created a five-year plan for her music career. In 2000, she was discovered by music producer Arthur Mafokate, who signed her to his record label, 999 Music. She released her debut album, All My Love, in 2003. Despite earning accolades at the Metro FM Awards, South African Music Awards (SAMA), Channel O Reel Music Awards and topping charts, it was “a disaster”. Her idea of how it would all play out was quickly shattered – and it broke her.

“My first deal was a disaster, they exploited me. It crushed my spirit so much that I slipped into depression. It took two years to get back on my feet. They just want to make money out of you, they want control over you.”

She left 999 Music; teamed up with keyboardist Victor Mngomezulu, bassist Tshepo Sekele, and producer Robin Kohl; and signed to Sony Music Africa and released Feel Good in 2006. A huge success, it led to multiple nominations and wins at SAMAs. The following year, the album was released in Italy, where its title track gained massive airplay.

In 2006, she started her own label Otarel Music in South Africa to house all her business interests. In 2011, she launched the label in the US. Otarel Music was responsible for the publishing of her musical works and her management company. The singer and songwriter outsourced her publicity and co-produced her own music.

“Mediocrity had become the norm but excellence is part of my brand value. I remember when I quit my job in the financial space, when friends would ask what I did, I would say I am a musician. No one would take us seriously. We have to be able to take ourselves seriously. I now do keynote speeches at high-level events, I speak as a businesswoman in the music industry. It is the one thing I am proud of, it is a model that I have built,” she says.

One of only two wholly black-owned labels in South Africa, she learned from other labels and modeled her business on them. With Lira as the sole attraction, she has built a brand around herself with a multi-million rand company which has consistently seen a 20% profit growth in the last six years.

“Every time we have a tour in the States, it is self-funded, it is completely my brand. It is incredibly difficult to build a brand for an artiste. Artistes have to see themselves as a business. I couldn’t baby another artiste, I mentor a lot of people and consult on that level. I recommend that artistes manage their own business,” she says.

She splurges on her business and her image. She’s adamant she has found the secret to the glamorous life without racking up debt. Her brand is centered around being innovative and creating an image she can export.

“The best thing is being able to control my career, as an artiste, you want to express your creativity. I’ve been able to imagine and fund the kind of live performances that I want. We were the first people to spend money on a big production. I was the first African artiste to produce a full HD production. We used a RED camera and we held the record for having the most RED cameras in any production in the world. The only other production that beat that was The Hobbit. That’s the kind of excellence you push for,” she says.

For many African artistes, gaining traction in the US is daunting. For Lira, who has a large following in Africa, growing her brand internationally is a slow process but since going solo, she aims high.

“My brand works beautifully because of the visual products I put out. My intention was always to produce products of a global standard. People take me seriously because they can see that. When people google Lira the quality of my work speaks for itself,” she says.

“For three years, I built my business up. Within a year, I doubled my income. This whole diva tactic doesn’t work for me. Stars that succeed know that without your customers you will not have business,” she says.

Her next project is a seven-part TV show, Dream Chaser, which traces her story and what goes into building a brand out of a musician. Based on years of footage of Lira’s performances, the series shows everything – Lira with warts and all. She has been dubbed one of South Africa’s biggest acts – and wealthiest. Her following ranges from grannies to young executives to CEOs.

“The truth is I could retire. I don’t know what my net worth is but I have been debt-free for nine years. Well I guess my company turns over R7 million ($522,411) and I’m the only artiste. If I was in the US, I would probably be in the league of Beyoncé,” she says.

Lira may be one of South Africa’s highest-earning female artistes but she struggles to balance fame, wealth and her image in South Africa. For Lira, South Africa’s legacy doesn’t allow her to be ostentatious.

“We all love the underdog. As soon as you are successful, nobody likes it, they want to pull you down. It’s just the nature of us as South Africans. We cannot be happy for you if you rise too quickly – we’re not happy, we reject it. We just don’t like to celebrate each other’s success. It’s okay for you to know that I’m successful but not how.

“You will never know what car I drive, you will never know where I stay, you will never know what shoe I buy. I’ll never show off these little things because I still need to be close to the people. Your maid will come to my show, your mom who is struggling – those are the people who draw inspiration from what I do,” she says.

“In this country that’s what we’re like as a people. If people found out, that’s it, I must just go find another place to go make a living somewhere else,” she says.

She’s managed to secure her wealth and has built up a large following for her business model and investment knowledge. She sees money, wealth and self-respect as inextricably linked. Her views on money read like a self-help book. She’s clued up on making her wealth grow.

“I am successful because I work hard and I am very good with money, I’m very good with it. People don’t know how to deal with money. We don’t think we deserve, so when you have it, you will squander it. You will buy things that you think will fill what’s missing in your core person. You start using it to patch those spaces, that won’t last of course. You fill in what’s missing instead of dealing with who you are, when you deal with yourself, you will recognize how you use money to correct what is wrong with your person. As soon as you change that, you are awake.

“Everybody takes their cut and the last person you will honor is yourself – if at all. That’s how much we dislike ourselves. People think they are not linked. I will probably do a lot more with my little seven million than people who earn 20, 30 or 40 million because of my relationship with myself and how I use my money.”

Each concert is carefully orchestrated to deliver a deliberate punch of music. From conceptualizing to the actual stage performance, attention is paid to every detail and making sure her audiences experiences the wow factor. She has spent R700,000 ($52,240) producing a show at South Africa’s Carnival City as a local artiste with a two-hour performance. She’s got a 12-man team from stylists, makeup artists to light and sound technicians. Her show had a built stage and screens set up but Lira says her efforts go largely unnoticed and that there isn’t money available for African artistes. It’s a sentiment shared by many. Her commitment to delivering value for money is to make sure that the show will be top-notch.

“Chris Brown comes in, it’s just him and a DJ. I, with all that money cannot charge R500 ($37) which would make sense for me. For Chris Brown, the minimum ticket is R650 ($48) – he’s drunk, he’s swearing, he’s high, he performs for 45 minutes and South Africans will pay for it. That is the truth of my reality. I am done with entitlement. I realized I’m working so hard to reshape a certain consciousness. It took me time to get South Africans to trust me with their R200 ($14) to see just me. My returns are ridiculous so I do it for the love, for the brand-building,” she says.

“People are struggling to put food on their tables. But you’ll find more cellphones in Africa than people so we foolishly spend on showy kinds of things. We’re very twisted in that way,” she says.

Lira admits to being a dollar millionaire, but doesn’t foresee the billionaire pop star emerging out of Africa any time soon. Equivalent in status but the differing contexts of the US and South Africa translate into different ticket prices. She envies the returns of international artistes.

Her best experience was in Brooklyn, New York, at Beyoncé’s concert where patrons paid R11,000 ($820) for VIP tickets. Lira’s reality sits in direct contrast. R975 ($72) was Lira’s most expensive concert which included a VIP package. Lira has earned the trust of her South African audience – and it’s paid off. A concert ticket would cost R200 ($14), and R300 ($22) for the golden circle. But in order to do well, she estimates she would have to charge R500 ($37) for every ticket in order to keep her own label.

“It is very limited here. You get tired of scraping by because you always work so hard. You invest in your career but the returns are tricky. When I see my balance sheet at the end of the year, it almost feels like a miracle that you did so well but it is a worthwhile pursuit.”

A collaboration with Pharrell Williams would cost $250,000; John Legend is $100,000. There aren’t any collaborations on the cards – she doesn’t think it’s worth it yet. For now, she wants to be a household name all on her own.

Aside from her property which boasts a fully organic food garden, a filtered water system and a view to die for, Lira’s biggest splurge has been shoes.

“I have dropped some ridiculous amounts on shoes. I will never do that again. I do spoil myself on holidays, amazing holidays. I was in Paris with my husband and I did splurge on shoes. I spoil myself plenty on stuff that I really want,” she says.

“My fans are predominantly female and I have built myself as a wholesome brand. It would be out of character for me to be showing off my wealth. It’s not taken positively,” she says.

With Lira, it’s about brand management and investing for the present and the future. It is rare for an artiste to display financial wizardry and musical flair. And master both.

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The Baskets Holding Them Together

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The female basket-weavers of Rwanda. When destiny failed them, they saw hope, in gentle strands of sisal and grass. The art helped them heal, reconcile and live again.

‘Art As A Reconciliatory Tool’

As dusk descends on the verdant valleys of Kigali, the green of the city’s rolling hills and its red terraced homes relinquish their arresting appeal to the most sparkling jewel of the night – the landmark Kigali Convention Centre (KCC), easily one of Africa’s brightest spots, with its multi-tiered colors and unique architectural aesthetic.

The Kigali Convention Centre’s design inspired by the traditional Rwandan baskets

It is striking in contrast to the landscape around and occupies center-stage, both in the city as well as the psyche of the proud Rwandan. Resembling the traditional, intricate, hand-woven Agaseke basket, the KCC stands atop the hills as a symbol of hope in Rwanda, and as a beacon of a new Africa.

It’s a sight most reassuring for the plethora of female artisans and entrepreneurs in the country. In villages and districts far from this dome in the city center, women sit huddled together in tiny cooperatives weaving with nimble fingers beautiful Agaseke baskets, in all forms, shapes and sizes, oblivious to the impact their creations have on the tourism economy – and more so, in their own lives.

Bella Rukwavu of the Agaseke Project

Bella Rukwavu, Project Coordinator of the Agaseke Project, which was initiated by the City of Kigali in 2007, recounts the beginnings of some of these cooperatives, after the new government took over, post the horrific genocide against the Tutsi that left a million dead across the country.

“When the city was trying to reorganize itself, part of the problem was the streets were filled with women hawkers, prostitutes, the disabled and the sexually-abused,” says Rukwavu.

There had to be a sustainable, lasting solution that gave the destitute women, most of them widows and survivors of the genocide, a viable alternative, and the idea for cooperatives training them with the art of basket-weaving was born.

The women had a natural flair for it, as basket-weaving was an inherent part of their upbringing and culture, so they could be easily skilled. The women were a mix of both ethnic groups, Tutsis and Hutus, and slowly, surely, through their collective efforts sewing sisal fiber and grass to make and sell objects of beauty, put their ugly past behind them.

The City of Kigali now oversees the Agaseke Project with 2,000 women, distributed among 50 cooperatives in three districts across Kigali.

 “The project acted as a reconciliatory tool and promoted peace,” says Rukwavu, in the car as we drive from the City Council to Gatsata sector in Gasabo district to meet with some of the artisans at the cooperative located there. “In some cases, both the victims of the genocide and the wives of the perpetrators worked together, and the art unified them. They have forgotten their differences. Today, they all live as Rwandans.”

Past the thatched homes on the hillside, and up a muddy road, the red earth leads to a one-storied edifice with yellowing walls and blue windows. Here, a group of 25 women sit on the hard cement floor, indulging in light banter and expertly weaving dyed sisal, grass and papyrus reeds to create a raft of colorful basket containers. These are arranged on a wooden shelf and on frayed floor mats.

On the shelf are two wooden boxes with locks. This is where the women store their money as part of their self-styled loan-and-savings scheme; the boxes a repository of their collective earnings – and trust.

The cooperative receives orders from clients in the United States (US), Europe and Japan. The baskets have given the women economic security and a social network. Says Rukwavu: “Some of these women are doing so well and have become so successful they have come out of these cooperatives to start businesses of their own, making diversified products and selling them elsewhere.”

The Agaseke Project is but one snapshot of the larger community of female basket-weavers in Rwanda. In the pages that follow, FORBES AFRICA visits more social enterprises, profiling the artists, artisans and entrepreneurs this industry has spawned. In a country where drones are delivering medical supplies and innovation is a daily buzzword, these women are keeping alive a traditional art form that has found its way into the snazzy department stores and boutiques of the world. To them, fortune is not dollar figures, but mere survival. Their future is in their own hands.

The Single Survivor

Catherine Uwimana, 48

In Gikondo, about a 30-minute drive from the city, a dirt road with a morass of overhead power and telephone cables leads to an unassuming grey gate with colors bursting within. These are the premises of Talking Through Art, a not-for-profit focused on art-related employment opportunities for people with physical disabilities. It was started by Petr Kočnar, from the Czech Republic, who initially came to Rwanda from Kenya to learn French. He encountered destitute people with disabilities on the street and decided to start the center in 2015 with his own savings, to rehabilitate them with art therapy and traditional basket-weaving.

Each of the 25 women, young and old, at this center make about $5 for each of the medium baskets they craft. Placide Ndacyayisenga, the manager, offers a cup of steaming Rwandan coffee, and pointing to the dainty handcrafted bowls on the walls, says: “The baskets we make are inspired by nature, such as the sun, the birds and the baobab trees. Foreign tourists buy from here and our products are also available in premium boutiques and gift shops in Kigali. The artisans here were wandering the streets before, now they can sustain their families, and even have bank accounts.”

One such is Catherine Uwimana. She lost her right leg during the genocide, hit by a grenade when in hiding at her home in Kacyiru.

Save for her older sister, all her family died around her. Having never married, Uwimana lives alone and is grateful she makes enough money weaving baskets to feed herself and pay her rent. “I have been here four years now and this is my family,” she says in Kinyarwanda, her eyes not concealing the pain of her past. “These baskets give me hope for the future.”

Baskets To Theater

Emilienne Muhawenimana, 35

Muhawenimana arrives at the Talking Through Art center in Gikondo riding a scooter. It’s hard to tell she is polio-afflicted and needs crutches to walk. Muhawenimana’s nature-inspired paintings light up the walls here just as she does. She leans against one of them, posing genially for pictures. One of the most prolific basket-weavers at the center, she is today into stage plays, and even traveling outside of Rwanda as part of theater groups. “She was one of our best basket-weavers and is a good actress today,” beams Placide Ndacyayisenga, the center’s manager. The multi-talented Muhawenimana also recites poems and mentions her work with the British Council; one of the many empowered at the center to make a living through art.    

The 8-To-5 Weaver

Vestine Nyiravesabimana, 49

A mother of nine children, Nyiravesabimana has been weaving baskets at the Agaseke Project cooperative in Gazabo district for the last 12 years. Making an average of $5 per fruit bowl that she handcrafts, over time, she has been able to send her children to school. She makes a minimum of $100 a month, working 8AM to 5PM through the week.

She is vaguely aware her creations sell well locally, to NGOs and at retail shops, but also “far, far away”, in America and Japan, lands she will perhaps never see.

Some of the women working with her face immense hurdles to come to work. But the project has helped Nyiravesabimana attain economic independence. Her husband, who works as a plumber, respects her more now, she says; they have fewer quarrels.      

“She also knows how to bank,” says Agaseke’s project coordinator Rukwavu. “She has an independent bank account.” Nyiravesabimana is also a part of the loan-and-savings scheme at the cooperative with her fellow female weavers. Working collaboratively in a group with the other women has helped her speed on the time-intensive art, as the more baskets she crafts, the more money she makes.

Dressed in a cheerful red chitenge outfit, her megawatt smile fills the small room she is in, as she gives the finishing touches to yet another signature fiber container that will make its way out of Africa to the world beyond.

The peace-maker

Farida Umuhoza, 43

A bored housewife for a long time until she discovered her skill crafting baskets, Umuhoza was with the Agaseke Project cooperative in Nyarugenge district for seven fruitful years from 2010.

A self-made entrepreneur today retailing her own range of handmade products, she is thankful for that epiphany, as today, she is the sole bread-winner for her family, supporting a sick husband and two children – a son aged 23 and a daughter aged 21.

We meet Umuhoza at her make-shift shop at the far-end of the car-free exhibition zone, by the towering citadels of capitalism in the heart of Kigali.         

At the Agaseke cooperative, she shone with her expertise weaving baskets, quickly moving on to open her own permanent shop, named Chic, in a shopping mall in downtown Kigali. Umuhoza has been expanding her business since.     

She also designs chitenge clothing, but her specialty is “the peace-maker, a sort of an oven made of fabric, sponge and cotton wool that saves energy and time and keeps food warm”. She sells it from $20 to $40 a piece, depending on the size.

As we speak, she pauses to “hello and welcome” curious shoppers, mainly international tourists, who walk in to look at her collection of baskets, clothes, and African bric-à-brac. Her attentive son hovers around her, as she settles the deal with a woman bargaining for a wooden stool.

Her finances have been stable, she says, as she has been able to meet her husband’s medical expenses, educate her children and re-stock her shop. She has traveled across East Africa, invited to showcase her baskets, and even once to the Netherlands for further training.

She has come a long way from her 18-year-old self when she lost her entire family in 1994, during the genocide against the Tutsi. 

As the sun dips on this August evening, her shop gets busier with office commuters and government workers, her largest clientele.

She is grateful for every sunrise and sunset. “Back then, sitting under the hot sun, weaving them, the baskets taught me about life. I knew they would take me out of poverty. Dare to start, don’t ever quit!” she says, before attending to yet another paying client.

The community builder

Mukeshimana Grace, 52 

Mukeshimana Grace

The Nyamirambo Women’s Center, an NGO on a bustling street in Nyamirambo, is a hive of activity the afternoon we visit. The cooperative doubles as a charming shop retailing all kinds of delectable African print clothing, accessories, home decor and trinkets, and buzzes with dollar-waving foreign tourists. Grace is about to give a presentation on the art of basket-weaving to them when we meet her. She has been mastering the craft for over six years now and says she has had a life-long connection with weaving, having learned it at her mother’s knee.

In an ante-room at the center, women are hard at work at their sewing machines. There are 55 seamstresses here turning cloth into craft.

“I enjoy being a part of a community, and building it.

– Mukeshimana Grace

The shop offers a sense of community and camaraderie as visitors stop by to chat to the staff. Launched in 2007 by 18 Rwandese women to address gender-based violence and inequality, today, the center provides skills and training to women so they can better their chances for employment. It’s a self-sustaining model, also offering tours into the neighborhood. The profits from the tours go back into paying the seamstresses and funding more community engagement initiatives.

Mary Nyangoma

Mary Nyangoma, Project Manager at the center, who has been a part of it from inception, finds time to break away from the unending stream of clients. She says: “Sewing is very popular in this neighborhood. Some of the women with us never got a chance to go to school, so we also taught them to read and write. And we came up with the idea of the neighborhood tours. Six years ago, we also started selling the in-house products we make.”

Nyangoma is effusive in her praise for Grace, who is too shy to speak. She was the first basket-weaver that joined the center and is now working full-time with them, making the baskets at home, and earning about RWF300,000 ($330) a month. A widow, she has four children to feed. Yet, there is no where she would rather be.

“I prefer working here, in a group,” Grace opens up, “as when I am alone, I tend to think of my worries. I enjoy being a part of a community, and building it.”

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Forbes Africa’s Best Photographs In 2019

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[Compiled by Motlabana Monnakgotla, Gypseenia Lion and Karen Mwendera]

Image 1:

Kabelo Mpofu, an entrepreneur, took over his mother’s shop in Meadowlands, in the South African township of Soweto. He is hopeful of making the family business a success despite big retail stores opening up in the townships and swallowing up the corner groceries.

Image 2:

Africa is the youngest continent in the world. Every year, South Africa observes June as Youth Month, honoring the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising on June 16. In this image, the country’s sprawling township of Soweto comes alive with youth dancing in the winter weather to local and international music at the Soweto International Jazz Festival, an annual confluence of history, art and culture.

Image 3:

Women hold up placards against gender-based violence during a ‘Shutdown Sandton’ campaign; this after a spate of brutal rape and killings in South Africa.

Image 4:

Car dealerships were among the businesses set alight in Johannesburg’s Jules Street, during the spate of xenophobia attacks in South Africa in August this year. The spark that fueled the raging fire began in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district.

Image 5:

Sibusiso Dlamini, the co-founder of Soweto Ink, works on one of his regular clients at his tattoo parlor founded in 2014 with his long-time friend, Ndumiso Ramate. In 2019, Soweto Ink held the fourth annual tattoo convention, and for the first time in partnership with BET Africa, to break tattoo taboos in Africa.

Image 6:

Mmusi Maimane, the former leader of South Africa’s opposition party, Democratic Alliance, is about to cast his vote in front of local and international media houses who had wrestled to get the perfect shot in his hometown in Dobsonville, Soweto, during the elections in South Africa in 2019.

Image 7:

The brother of South African journalist, Shiraaz Mohamed, begs for government intervention after Mohamed was kidnapped in Syria on January 2017 by a group of armed men. The group demanded more than $500,000 for his freedom.

Image 8:

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa with his body guards at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the three-day South Africa Investment Conference was held in November.

Image 9:

In a world that’s embracing new technology, inspiration is being found in bug behavior. The hard-bodied dung beetle is now key to robotics research, in Africa too. Astounded by this discovery early this year is Marcus Byrne, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg who has been studying dung beetles for over 20 years. He holds up a metallic replica of a dung beetle in his hand in his office at the university.

Image 10: 

Mzimhlophe Hostel, a hostel among many others in Soweto, erupted with service delivery protests prior to the elections in South Africa. In the same vicinity, an informal settlement was also allegedly set on fire. Brothers Mduduzi (32) and Kwenzi Gwala (22), pictured, had arrived in Johannesburg looking for employment. They sold African beer, but their shack was set alight while they were still at church. They lost all their stock and possessions.

Image 11: 

A thrift market in the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district, not too far from a busy taxi rank, known for its pavement robberies. Despite the crimes, thousands of small entrepreneurs trade in this raucous market every day.

Image 12:

ANC, DA and EFF supporters dancing and chanting outside the Hitekani Primary School in Chiawelo, Soweto, South Africa, as they await South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to cast his vote in his former primary school. 

Image 13:

Tenants in the discarded Vannin Court in Johannesburg look on from their balconies as jubilation erupts on the ground floor.

Image 14:

Vestine Nyiravesabimana makes money weaving intricate baskets made of grass to feed her nine children in Kigali, Rwanda.

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Can Diddy’s Ciroc Recipe Work On Alkaline Water?

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The first time Sean “Diddy” Combs took a sip of Aquahydrate alkaline water—given to him by pal Mark Wahlberg at a Las Vegas boxing match in the early 2010s—he found it to be an ideal antidote for evenings spent consuming adult beverages.

“I went out that night and had a Vegas night, and I woke up and had a Vegas morning,” Diddy told me in 2015. “I drank two of the [Aquahydrate] bottles and it was, like, the best tasting water that I’ve tasted. And it really, honestly helped me recover.”

Diddy became the face of the company alongside Wahlberg shortly thereafter, and the pair invested $20 million in Aquahydrate over the years while billionaire Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa added another $27 million.

READ MORE | Hip-Hop’s Next Billionaires: Richest Rappers 2019

They aren’t the only ones with lofty ambitions for the brand: last week the Alkaline Water Co., the publicly-traded purveyor of competitor Alkaline88, bought Aquahydrate in an all-stock deal that valued the latter at about $50 million.

For Diddy, who ranks No. 4 on our recently-released list of hip-hop’s top earners and boasts a net worth of $740 million, alkaline water holdings are just a drop in his financial bucket. His Diageo-backed Ciroc vodka—and its myriad flavors, from Red Berry to Summer Watermelon—is responsible for the lion’s share of his wealth. But it’s clear he thinks alkaline water, flavored variants included, could swell his portfolio. So do his new partners.

Diddy
CRAIG BARRITT AND ALEXANDER TAMARGO/GETTY IMAGES. DESIGN: NICK DESANTIS/FORBES

“You put both these brands under one public company, it makes a ton of sense,” says Aaron Keay, Alkaline’s chairman, of the Aquahydrate deal. “We see synergies on distribution, we see cost-savings on cost of goods. On production, on logistics, on staffing. … And we don’t see both brands actually then competing for the same target market.”

In the past, flavored water has enriched investors including some of Diddy’s hip-hop world comrades. A little over a decade ago, 50 Cent famously took Vitaminwater equity in lieu of stock as payment for his endorsement—and walked away with some $100 million when Coca-Cola bought its parent company for $4.1 billion in 2007.

A ten-figure valuation for an alkaline water company seems an outlandish target even for the notoriously bombastic Diddy. But Keay notes Alkaline clocked $33 million in revenues over the past fiscal year and had been expecting $48 million in 2020; now, with Aquahydrate on board, he projects closer to $60-$65 million. That compares favorably to Core Water, which was doing some $80 million as of last year before getting acquired.

“For two or three years, Core Water was just another clear water,” says Keay. “Then they added about a half dozen flavors. Sales doubled. They got bought for $500 million. I mean, for us, $500 million would be a big number off of where our market cap is right now.”

Diddy appears to be an ideal ally in achieving that goal. With Ciroc, once a middling vodka in Diageo’s roster, he was able to articulate importance of the brand’s defining trait: it was made from grapes, not grains (never mind that this might technically disqualify it from being considered a vodka). His contention, according to Stephen Rust, Diageo’s president of new business and reserve brands, is that grapes are simply sexier than potatoes.

“One of his favorite things [to say] is, ‘If you can have a vodka that comes from a history of winemaking, why would you do that versus the history of coming from potatoes?’” Rust explained in an interview for my book, 3 Kings: Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, And Hip-Hop’s Multibillion-Dollar Rise. “That’s Sean.”

With alkaline water, Diddy has demonstrated a similar knack for sizing up a product and extracting an elemental notion that passes muster with consumers (if not necessarily scientists). If “you’re full of acid,” Diddy once explained to me, you need to “get your body leveled out.”

Vodka and water, of course, are two very different products, and the same tactics won’t necessarily translate from one business to another. Flavored water itself seems to have been over-carbonated of late, as the recent struggles of brands like La Croix show; Alkaline’s shares have slumped this year as well.

Perhaps that’s why Alkaline is looking beyond its flagship bottled water business. Future plans call for a move towards cans in a nod to environmentally-conscious customers, as well as expansion into the nascent CBD-infused beverage space. Keay figures Diddy and Wahlberg, along with fellow celebrity investor Jillian Michaels, should provide a boost across the board.

“Once the FDA makes a ruling about how CBD is going to be distributed through those chains and channels, those guys are going to want trusted brands, brands that they know already have a consumer following,” says Keay. “And that was another big reason why it made sense to bring [Diddy, Wahlberg and Michaels] in, because it’s only going to help.”

Zack O’Malley Greenburg; Forbes

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