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What Do You Do If You Can’t Be Oprah?

Young Archel Bernard turned to her family’s homeland with ambitions of becoming a Liberian Oprah Winfrey. Now she is a government worker, third-world socialite and designer changing the image of the small war-torn nation.

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Archel Bernard sits on a bar stool in the middle of her little boutique in downtown Monrovia as a handful of customers drift in and out. Pieces of West African lapa hang over wooden ladders and colorful African-Western fusion designs sit on either side. A sign beside the counter that is made up of bamboo stakes reads ‘Life is Too Short to Wear Boring Clothes’.

The 25-year-old designer and businesswoman moved from Atlanta in the United States (US) in 2011 to her family’s hometown for a job at the government’s oil corporation, and now moonlights as a fashion designer in her spare time. Bernard established a fashion label called ‘It’s Archel’ and set up a shop called Mango Rags in downtown Monrovia, with her business partner Tania Abraham, who also grew up abroad, mainly in the United Kingdom. The shop celebrated its first anniversary in February and is among a small number of boutiques specializing in contemporary African designs, in a country where small fashion businesses are just beginning to emerge over a decade after the civil war, when shopping for clothes was a luxury many could not afford.

Mango Rags, now a polished little shop located in Bernard’s grandfather’s compound that was formerly a car garage, had less glamorous beginnings. Bernard would chug around the city in a white pickup truck driven by her mother Brenda Bush, a producer and writer for CNN, with a tape measure and notebook into which she would jot down her customers’ measurements. Building up a collection of tailors from the workshops spread throughout the city, she dropped off fabric and sketches of designs in between working her nine to five job producing multimedia for the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL). Bernard began to save money to open and fit the shop; now with a steady stream of mainly expatriate customers, she is looking to expand.

Born and raised in the US, but always identifying as Liberian and African, Bernard grew up in Atlanta, one of the few black kids in her community of Marietta.

When her mother did carpooling, she dressed in funky African clothes and head wraps.

“Can you dress like the normal mums do?” she had asked her, but later grew to appreciate her style. Named Archel, after her father Archie (a cultural quirk in Liberia), few of her schoolmates could pronounce her name, and so her label is ‘It’s Archel.’

When she was 16, Bernard returned to Liberia after the war to visit her grandfather, a businessman who had stayed throughout the 14-year civil war, despite the family’s insistence that he leave.

“When we landed you could have fried an egg on the runway because there was nothing. It was just a stretch of huts and then you approach the city and there are more concrete structures, but it’s still not America,” says Bernard.

She says the government offers few incentives for young educated Liberians to return, but chooses to stay because she wants to help change Liberia, and transform from a chronic charity case to a ‘place to be’ in Africa.

Now a Liberian returnee, self-described “third world socialite”, designer and government worker, Bernard has capitalized on her social networks, family connections and sense of style to build up her business in a climate that is challenging for entrepreneurs and where a fashion scene is fledgling. Three fashion weeks have been held within the past five years, with the most recent being Monrovia Fashion Week that was held in December, and only five designers have boutiques throughout the city.

“I still kind of feel like a fraud in this; I never went to fashion school,” says Bernard.

Most of the local designers haven’t studied fashion and draw on West African lapas and traditional fabrics and the flamboyant Liberian style as inspiration.

“Liberians really like to dress, they always want to have the nicest thing on,” she says.

Bernard’s main buyers are expatriates; she wishes she had more Liberian customers, but a strong bargaining culture coupled with a lack of respect for intellectual property make things difficult.

Like many Liberians who lived in exile with their families in the US during the war, Bernard returned to her family’s homeland in search of opportunity. With only one subject left to complete of her Science Technology and Culture degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Bernard decided to head home to Liberia to work in the local media. She harbored dreams of being Liberia’s Oprah and wanted to create a lifestyle series that focused on the more positive side of the nation that would air on local television stations.

Liberia wasn’t quite ready for a ‘queen of talk’, so instead Bernard worked for Monrovia’s controversial former mayor Mary Broh, and presented updates about the Monrovia City Corporation’s work through short broadcasts, and dressed up in African-inspired fashion. One day, Bernard went to her tailor to pick up a dress she had designed for a show and found the designer both wearing it and stitching it together for another customer. She decided to go out on her own and founded her label ‘It’s Archel’.

While Bernard says Liberia has offered her great opportunities that wouldn’t be available in America, she must juggle the business and a full-time job and has found it impossible to export her clothes due to the high shipping costs. Expanding her business beyond Liberia’s shores still poses a major challenge as it does for most Liberian businesses.

“We can’t be global if it costs so much. People are not going to see the point in paying so much for a little piece from Liberia. We used to make cigarettes, we used to make cans for the goods we made here. We are so small scale here,” she says.

Chid Liberty, the founder of Liberty and Justice, Africa’s first fair-trade-certified apparel manufacturer says that although the business climate is improving, lack of access to finance and the presence of “small manufacturers that can produce international quality” remain ongoing challenges for Liberian designers and the expansion of clothing manufacturing.

“I’m actually quite proud of the job Liberia is doing to make things better but we have a long way to go,” says Liberty.

Liberia’s economy is a concession-based economy with natural resources such as rubber and iron ore making up the majority of its GDP. Critics argue the government has done little to move the nation’s economy from the old plantation style model that has dominated throughout its history.

While signs of change are visible in Monrovia, new shops and office complexes have been constructed, roads repaired, the city is a shadow of the one Bernard’s parents grew up in. Access to steady electricity and running water comes at a high price and many buildings stand in a state of disrepair.

The Wealth of Liberia, a short film shot in the 1970s during the rule of President William R. Tolbert, depicted an image of modern Monrovia and industrial development – factories manufacturing paint, cigarettes, soap, windows and cement – a place where tourists flocked and the Liberia in which her parents grew up. While Bernard acknowledges the major developmental challenges ahead for one of the world’s poorest nations and is concerned about the capacity of her business to expand beyond Liberia’s borders, she is confident she can play a role in changing the image of the small nation and first independent republic in Africa.

Inspired by Louis Vuitton’s partnership with iconic alcohol brands Moët Hennessy, Bernard hopes to create a small sewing shop and African cane juice bar in the room next door.

She also has aspirations of going global and sending Mango Rags stores to Brooklyn, Cape Town and even Maui and develop a range for Swedish multinational retail giant H&M and take Liberia to the world.

“We’re still dreamin’ and working,” she says.

Billionaires

How To Become A Billionaire: Nigeria’s Oil Baroness Folorunso Alakija On What Makes Tomorrow’s Billionaires

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One of only two female billionaires in Africa, with a net worth of $1 billion, Nigeria’s oil baroness Folorunso Alakija elaborates on the state of African entrepreneurship today.

The 69-year-old Folorunso Alakija is vice chair of Famfa Oil, a Nigerian oil exploration company with a stake in Agbami Oilfield, a prolific offshore asset. Famfa Oil’s partners include Chevron and Petrobras. Alakija’s first company was a fashion label. The Nigerian government awarded Alakija’s company an oil prospecting license in 1993, which was later converted to an oil mining lease. The Agbami field has been operating since 2008; Famfa Oil says it will likely operate through 2024. Alakija shares her thoughts to FORBES AFRICA on what makes tomorrow’s billionaires:

What is your take on the state of African entrepreneurship today? Is enough being done for young startups?

There are a lot of business opportunities in Africa that do not exist in other parts of the world, yet Africa is seen as a poor continent. The employment constraints in the formal sector in Africa have made it impossible for it to meet the demands of the continent’s working population of which over 60% are the youth. Therefore, it is imperative we harness the potential of Africa’s youth to engage in entrepreneurship and provide adequate assistance to enable them to succeed.

Several governments have been working to provide a conducive atmosphere which will promote entrepreneurship on the continent. However, there is still a lot more to be done in ensuring that the potential of these young entrepreneurs are maximized to the fullest. Some of the challenges young startups in Africa face are as follows: lack of access to finance/insufficient capital; lack of infrastructure; bureaucratic bottlenecks and tough business regulations; inconsistent government policies; dearth of entrepreneurial knowledge and skills; lack of access to information and competition from cheaper foreign alternatives.

It is therefore imperative that governments, non-governmental agencies, and the financial sectors work together to ameliorate these challenges itemized above.

The governments of African nations should provide and strengthen its infrastructure (power, roads and telecom); they should encourage budding entrepreneurs by ensuring that finance is available to businesses with the potential for growth and also commit to further improving their business environments through sustained investment; there must also be a constant push for existing policies and legislation to be reviewed to promote business activities.

These policies must also be enforced, and punitive measures put in place to deter offenders; government regulations should also be flexible to constantly fit the dynamics of the business environment; corruption and unethical behavior must be decisively dealt with and not treated with kid gloves. We must empower our judicial system to enable them to prosecute erring offenders with appropriate sanctions meted out. There should be no “sacred cows” or “untouchables”. The same law must be applied to all, no matter their state or position in the society; non-governmental organizations can also provide support for them through training and skills acquisition programs that will help build their capacity; they could also provide finance to grow their businesses; more mentorship programs should be encouraged, and incubators of young enterprises should be supported by public policy aimed at improving the quality of these youths and their ventures; and also, avenues should be created where young entrepreneurs will be able to connect, learn and share ideas with already successful well-established entrepreneurs.

What, according to you, are the attributes needed for tomorrow’s billionaires?

There is no overnight success. You must start by dreaming big and working towards achieving it. You must be determined to succeed despite all odds. Do not allow your setbacks or failures to stop you but rather make them your stepping stone. Develop your strengths to attain excellence and be tenacious, never give up on your dream or aspiration. Your word must be your bond. You must make strong ethical values and integrity your watchword. Always act professionally and this will enable you to build confidence in your customers and clients. 

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Entrepreneurs

The Sun King Bows Out: Legendary Hotelier Sol Kerzner Has Died

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Solomon (Sol) Kerzner, one of the world’s most innovative hoteliers, founder of the Southern Sun hotel group, Sun International and Kerzner International, has died of cancer surrounded by his family at the Kerzner family home, Leeukoppie Estate, in Cape Town, South Africa. Always a maverick, Kerzner was a titan of the hotel and resort industry who redefined the scale and scope of integrated destination resorts worldwide. He was 84.

The son of Russian immigrants, Kerzner was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1935. The youngest of four and the only son, Sol was a working class boy from a rough neighbourhood but he would grow up to become one of the most influential entrepreneurs in South Africa. Having founded the country’s two largest hotel groups — Southern Sun and Sun International — Kerzner would go on to achieve international prominence with groundbreaking resorts that helped transform the tourism industries not only of his home country but of Mauritius, The Maldives, The Bahamas, Dubai and other important international destinations.

Kerzner’s career in hospitality began in 1962 when he decided to leave the accounting profession and purchased The Astra, a small inn in Durban, South Africa. Kerzner quickly transformed this rundown establishment into one of the most popular hotels in the area, a success that whetted Sol’s insatiable appetite for innovation and demonstrated a trademark ingenuity that would define his 60-year career.

Kerzner’s most monumental and controversial achievement was the creation of Sun City.  Here, in an area north of Johannesburg where there were no roads and no infrastructure, Sol imagined and delivered the most ambitious resort project in all of Africa. Commencing work in 1975, over the next ten years, Kerzner built four hotels, a man-made lake, two Gary Player golf courses, and an entertainment center with an indoor 6,000-seat arena, which played host to a world-class roster of artists including Queen, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, Shirley Bassey, as well as huge world title fights, and many other spectacular events. Once again, Kerzner defied the naysayers to train a best of breed workforce and to operate Sun City on a totally non-racial basis. Even the most cynical of visiting overseas journalists had to concede defeat in trying to find racism behind the operation of the vast resort.

Sol is survived by his children Andrea, Beverley, Brandon and Chantal and ten grandchildren. His eldest son, Howard ‘Butch’ Kerzner died in 2006.

Sol Kerzner will be buried at a small, private funeral with only immediate family in attendance.

Back in 2014, the Sun King was featured on the cover of Forbes Africa for the 3rd Anniversary Issue of the magazine.

In 2018 he was honored with the Life Time Achievement award at the All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLAs).

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Entrepreneurs

The French Silhouette In Africa: How This Designer Started Her Own Business Despite A Shortage Of Funds

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From glamorous Paris to gritty Johannesburg, Zazi Nyandeni arrived with $2,700 and updated sartorial skills to showcase haute couture on South Africa’s racks and runways.

With just $2,700 in her bank, transferred from her savings account in France, Zazi Nyandeni returned home to the South African fashion industry with her freshly-minted talent. But if Paris was school, Johannesburg proved to be university. Qualifying was never easy.

About 53kms from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport is Constantia Kloof, a scenic, upmarket suburb in the West Rand, where we meet Nyandeni, the up-and-coming 25-year-old fashion entrepreneur whose brand, Zazi Luxury, has showcased in Paris, the fashion capital of the world.

“I wasn’t really introduced to fashion, but more so to art,” recalls Nyandeni of her early days. “Ever since primary school, I was exposed to paintings, drawings and music by my father when he would come back with artworks from his travels.”

She thought she was going to become a doctor growing up because of her choice of subjects in high school but still pursued design to stay close to art. Thankfully, her parents picked up that she was artistically-inclined and gave her their unstinted support.

In 2013, after high school, Nyandeni took the plane out of South Africa and went on to study fashion at ESMOD, an international fashion design and business school in Paris. She wanted to express herself without saying a word, and found her way. She spent close to six years there, studying full-time for the first three years and partially for the last two, whilst freelancing and interning for various companies in the glitzy city.

“I love to draw and not really to sew. For my first freelance job, I went for a company that would help me work on my weaknesses; I went to Loon Paris boutique and worked on my sewing techniques. They were very strict and meticulous when it came to sewing and I learned a lot about technique,” she says.

The intense training meant that even the inside of a garment had to be as exquisite as the outside and if the hand stitch was incorrect, she had to undo and redo it all over again.

READ MORE: Conscious Fashion: ‘So Much More You Can Do With Discarded Clothes’

“When I asked ‘aren’t we wasting material’, they would say ‘I’m wasting their time’,” she laughs.

The eager fashionista was juggling two jobs; the other was at a PR agency named DLX Paris, which was sourcing brands for international celebrities like American singer-songwriter Kelly Rowland.

She soon came to a realization that in fashion, there is nothing new, which is when she moved to fabric store Boutique Malhia Kent, a French manufacturer of haute couture.

Nyandeni has a soft spot for weaving. She clearly adores fabrics, and this is apparent in the weaving machine she has at her Constantia Kloof studio, placed in a corner of one of the work rooms.

She says her weaving differentiates her from the other designers, as she compares herself to South Africa’s Laduma Ngxokolo of MaXhosa Africa and Greek fashion designer Mary Katrantzou.

“You can make a silhouette similar to somebody else but the real interesting part is the fabric, so Malhia Kent deals with fabric customization, and this is where I learned that in the world of fabric, you are two years ahead of the industry; like Chanel orders their fabric from Malhia Kent,” she says.

That was the space she wanted to be in.

So in between jobs, Nyandeni co-founded Garbage, a business that looked into environment-friendly garments.

“We wanted to speak on the notations of how do we pick up the fashion industry and say that there are other ways to look glamorous and chic and it doesn’t have to be wasteful and terrible to the environment.”

The business ran for a year and sold a few garments, but sadly, collapsed. That inspired the birth of an idea, one that would solely work for her, a business that would include all that she had learned from fashion school and the stylish streets of Paris. She had also personally worked with Katrantzou, building a portfolio and a first collection. She was ready and had under $2,700 in savings.

READ MORE: Owning The African Narrative

Nyandeni returned home to South Africa and registered her company in 2018.

“In my heart, I thought I was going to be able to buy sewing machines and a small car to travel back and forth for business, be able to get staple fabrics that people would love,” she says.

It was not the case, but she started the business despite a shortage of funds.

“I called it Zazi Luxury because it speaks to more of the inside and outside of a garment and the technique used which is the core of the business. The inside is about matching the outside; I should literally be able to wear it inside out, and if not, it’s not [a Zazi Luxury product].”

Her first client was South African comedienne Tumi Morake referred by a mutual friend, and later actress Zenande Mfenyana, but currently, her clients are also doctors, lawyers and drawn from the corporate world.

“In the beginning, the business was focused on couture and it developed a bit more into business such as television, dressing anchors, and we also have ready-to-wear garments. We are broadening the business to other boutiques too.”

Zazi Luxury recently showcased at South Africa Fashion Week. This year, she will be working on a fourth collection that will be both couture and basic women’s workwear garments but featuring the Zazi aesthetic.

Zazi Luxury currently employs seven young enthusiastic fashionistas; one of who is Lebohang Ketlele, who has worked with Nyandeni for two years.

“I am a dressmaker and stylist. I don’t think I would know the things I know now if I wasn’t working here, we have dressed celebrities and that is a great experience,” attests Ketlele.

Inspired in Paris, but made in Africa, Zazi seems to have made the cut.

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