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The First Lady Of Afropop

South African music duo Mafikizolo is back, scooping all the top awards in Africa for their double platinum album Reunited. One half of the group, Nhlanhla Nciza, also a style icon and fashion entrepreneur, has amped up her music – and her life.

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The names Nhlanhla Nciza and Mafikizolo are like bread and butter. Nciza embodies style and elegance, but behind this creative, is a businesswoman trying to make her mark parallel to her music career.

When she grabs the microphone, the world dances at her feet. Nciza fills the stage with joie de vivre and ebullience. She has the voice most people only dream of, that contemporary, yet retro throwback to Miriam Makeba, which appeals to both young and old. She dances on stage with panache, like a shy child being encouraged, but with elegance and class.

Nciza, 36, is not just the ‘first lady’ of Mafikizolo, but a woman harnessing another passion into a business. Having taken interest in the imaging of her career, it naturally followed that this stylish songbird would make a successful foray into fashion design, through NN Vintage.

Mafikizolo, which means ‘new arrivals’ in isiZulu, has long outgrown its name. Nciza and fellow band member, Theo Kgosinkwe, have stuck it out for more than a decade, through thick and thin.

The duo has enjoyed a longevity uncharacteristic of many music bands. They started out competing at talent competitions, and now they’ve ended up winning numerous accolades.

“The awards mean a lot. We’re getting more love than we did before,” she says.

At the fourth MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMAs) in June, in Durban, Nciza thought she had no chance. A Nigerian was certain to win with their country’s 125 million subscribers ready to cast their mobile votes. A safe bet, since the Nigerian mobile market is the largest on the continent. Instead it was Nciza and Kgosinkwe who ended up walking to the podium for Song of the Year, for their hit anthem Khona. They also won for ‘Best Group’.

“Winning Song of the Year means a lot especially that Nigeria has a bigger population than South Africa, and we still won the award. It shows that people still love our music all over the continent,” says Nciza.

Mafikizolo returned from the United States (US) in June following their debut at the Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards in Los Angeles. The judges nominated Mafikizolo for Best African International Act, pitted against other exceptional African musicians including Nigeria’s Davido. Together, they had collaborated on a song called Tchelete, meaning money in seTswana, that’s currently ruling the airwaves in South Africa. Davido won on the night but for Mafikizolo, just being there – and performing for the first time in the US – was remarkable.

Fifteen months after releasing their double-platinum eighth album, Reunited, following their hiatus, the group sealed their comeback with eight wins at the South African Music Awards (SAMA) in April, along with Channel O and Metro FM Awards, also in South Africa.

 

Trials And Tragedy

Mafikizolo’s story is also one of struggle. The band formed in 1997, and signed with one of South Africa’s biggest recording companies, Kalawa Jazzmee Records. Their first four albums barely made a ripple.

Worse was to come…

In December 2001, the group, then a three-member band, nearly died in a car accident. The trio had decided to drive to Katlehong, following a performance in Durban. Once home, they decided to drive in the dead of night to Mafikeng for a performance the next day.

“Theo wanted to drive, I guess he wanted to impress his new girlfriend, now his wife. So the rest of us fell asleep and we were woken up by a big bang. And the next thing I remember was lying on the gravel on the side of the road,” says Nciza.

Their car had been hit by a train. Fortunately that night, all of them survived. The rest of the band was discharged the next day from hospital, but Nciza had to stay on for over three months.

Lucky to be alive, the group released an album the following year, Sibongile, meaning ‘we thank you’ in isiZulu. It was their breakthrough.

All was well. The group had picked up the pieces and were getting back on their feet when tragedy struck again on Valentine ’s Day in 2004. Vocalist Tebogo Madingoane was shot and killed in a road rage incident in South Africa.

Madigoane had brought the Kwaito sound to the group and his loss was another blow. Nciza and Kgosinkwe never thought they would end up as a duo, but in sadness, they did. After mourning Madingoane, the two picked themselves up with the sound of Mafikizolo.

Then came a purple patch. They released three more albums, Khwela, Van Toeka Af and Six Mabone.

 

Mafikizolo 2.0

Their popularity grew but in 2008 they took a break to reinvent themselves as solo artists.

“It was scary for me and a completely different experience as I was so used to depending on Theo for so many things… I had to gain confidence and believe in myself, so I used my other talent to grab people’s attention and that was my [passion for] fashion,” she says.

During this time, Nciza released two albums, Inguquko (Change) and Lingcinga Zam (My Thoughts), and also started to put more hours into her clothing business, which she had started a year before.

However tragedy followed her. Nciza and her record company executive husband, Thembinkosi Nciza, lost their five-year-old daughter Zinathi in a car accident in December 2009. She was with her grandmother on their way to a pre-school to pick up a cousin when their car crashed into a tree. The grandmother blacked out behind the wheel and suffered minor leg and chest injuries.

“My work was greatly affected. I was in the middle of promoting my second album when Zinathi passed, so everything was on hold. A part of me is gone and it is the kind of emptiness that I may have to accept that may never be filled… I really did not know where to begin, where to start picking up the pieces and for a very long time I just remained in one place not knowing how to move on, it felt wrong to move on,” says Nciza.

“Were it not for my husband, I really don’t know how I could have started living again. In 2012, I was blessed with a son, Luvuyo and I am just grateful to God that he gave me a chance to be a mom again.”

LOS ANGELES, CA – JUNE 28: Singers Theo Kgosinkwe (L) and Nhlanhla Nciza of Mafikizolo perform onstage at the Music Around the Globe during the 2014 BET Experience At L.A. LIVE on June 28, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/BET/Getty Images for BET)

After mourning her daughter, she pulled herself together, mustered strength and continued with her career. Her family kept her going.

“Keeping busy helped me focus on other things, so I started writing music again, performing and started designing again,” she says.

Through NN Vintage, Nciza started to hire young people looking for jobs.

“I wanted to develop young talent. It was more about the love [of clothes and music] and not making money. I didn’t look at it in the business sense,” she says.

Nciza says she acquired her compassionate nature from her father, a court interpreter, who, even when his immediate family was struggling, would invite cousins into his home. Nciza ventured into the fashion business without any prior experience.

She hired eight seamstresses, a receptionist and rented a small studio where they could work from, financing it all herself, at a cost of around R70,000 ($6,500) a month. Revenue from her music career kept the business alive. But it was doomed from the first stitch.

“I realized a year and a half into my business that I had employed too many people and [had] too much equipment. When the recession came, I was probably the first person to go down,” she says.

“I lost a lot of money, around R600,000 ($56,000) including my savings. I was new in fashion and I needed to prove myself. I was a new designer and I couldn’t sell a R10,000 ($930) dress.”

Most times, the people who bought her dresses were those who knew her and her music, yet there were times when she struggled to make sales. She was so proud she kept the business failures to herself.

“I didn’t want to tell people that NN Vintage wasn’t there anymore,” she says. Her husband could have helped financially, but Nciza wanted to go it alone. She had to let go of nearly all the employees who worked for her. By the end of 2010, to keep her brand alive, Nciza stopped dressing clients and only designed for herself.

The following year, she went back to the drawing board. She started by sketching her own designs and slowly hired seamstresses to bring her designs to life.

“Right now it makes sense. I still want to learn more and empower myself. I want to learn how to make a garment,” says Nciza.

“When I started out, I was a bit conservative. I wore below-the-knee dresses. It was me at the time. What I do is not necessarily following trends.”

And indeed, Nciza is a fashion risk-taker. She is a musician with a palette for setting trends, just like the black and white dress on the cover of this issue, which she first wore for the opening act of the MAMAs.

“For this particular performance, I wanted attire that commanded attention, so I played with a lot of color and bright accessories. My designs are always inspired by Africa. They are feminine, yet bold and fierce at the same time,” she says.

At last year’s SAMAs, she wore a long-sleeved silver umbrella shirt with a pink ribbon around her waist and skirt. Another risk she took was at this year’s Metro FM Awards where she wore a monochrome striped peplum shirt with an umbrella skirt.

Her designs are for her fans. The revived NN Vintage is aimed at making garments for young adults and older women carving a niche in their industries.

Having been in the fashion business only a few years now, Nciza admits she is not making “crazy” money just yet, but claims people trust her brand. Nciza says she now sells garments costing up to R7,500 ($700), and is slowly getting her clients back, some from as far as Tanzania and Botswana. This would allow her to employ designers and more seamstresses and also open a store when the time is right.

“I plan to create a special range to supply to bigger stores, so it can reach all parts of the country, as that is my biggest challenge right now. I have also started with a men’s range and it will be launched soon,” says Nciza.

Few musicians are able to juggle their music careers, business and family, but Nciza is doing well.

LOS ANGELES, CA – JUNE 28: Singer Nhlanhla Nciza of Mafikizolo performs onstage at the Music Around the Globe during the 2014 BET Experience At L.A. LIVE on June 28, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/BET/Getty Images for BET)

Mafikizolo’s music is inspired by their upbringing, their neighborhoods, their stories of love, and hardship.

“You don’t need to sell your soul in order to get ahead. Try and push, only talent will get you where you want,” she says.

Indeed, hard work and talent have taken Nciza and Mafikizolo to attain the success they are enjoying today. Nciza has created a new brand of South African music and a new brand of fashion. Both have her unmistakable stamp.

Arts

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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Arts

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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