How to Spread it: The importance of African luxury

2014-12-16 10:00

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Swaady Martin-Leke wants to preserve and celebrate Africa’s rich culture and history. She tells Sue Grant-Marshall why tea is a good place to start

Swaady Martin-Leke, born in Ivory Coast and globally raised and educated by her intellectual parents, sees herself not only as the successful entrepreneur she is, but more importantly, as a custodian of Africa’s rich culture and history.

After a highly successful decade at General Electric, where she held leadership positions in several divisions across the world, she settled in South Africa and decided to follow her passion for African culture and heritage.

Martin-Leke founded Yswara to create luxury products produced by African artisans using the continent’s natural resources.

It has created a high-end luxury product in its unique African teas and plans to expand this to include unique teaspoons, biscuits and chocolate.

Why do you feel the need to preserve and promote Africa’s ‘endangered cultural heritage’ by revisiting the continent’s ancestral craftsmanship?

I’ve had a privileged upbringing, travelling the world, visiting museums, art galleries, cultural and design centres. All this has become part of my DNA. I realised there were very few young Africans who wanted to contribute to our culture. And yet it is a splendid one.

In the mighty African empires of the past, artisans perfected numerous complex techniques under the tutelage of royal courts, making use of the richness and diversity of resources found on our continent.

Finery that some artisans were commissioned to create were of such importance that the craftsmen lived with their rulers. The artefacts they meticulously created were significant, not only in their artistry, but as expressions of history, as visual keepers of legends and to honour kings and queens.

How will forgotten cultures help Africa move forward?

Africa is booming economically and we need to harness this for our heritage. Yet we don’t know it.

Instead of being taught African history at school, I learnt about European wars and kings.

To go somewhere as Africans, we need to know where we came from. We should be proud of our culture. By doing so, we can define ourselves as modern, contemporary Africans.

Why did you choose to start your luxury brand, Yswara, with tea?

I grew up in a tea-drinking culture. Importantly, it makes good commercial sense because tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world. And although Africa is the world’s largest exporter of tea, there is no global African gourmet tea company.

When did you launch Yswara?

In December 2012. I wanted to reverse the African commodity trap, in which no value is added to raw materials, by creating a socially responsible African luxury gourmet brand.

Our goal is to transform the continent’s agricultural resources into luxury goods and gifts. Yswara focuses on high-end African teas. We educate our customers on the quality and benefits of our teas and create a total experience beyond just the drink.

The company produces a range of 27 speciality loose-leaf and herbal teas, as well as offering various tea-related accessories. These include perfumed candles named after African cities such as Kigali and Addis Ababa, and exquisite ceramic teapots.

Where do you source your teas?

From small farmers across Africa on single estates. They struggle to make a good living because they don’t have the volumes of tea commercial companies do. Nor do they have easy access to markets, and marketing and branding. We applyfair-trade principles.

One of my main suppliers builds a school a year and clinics in his community. As the demand for high- quality teas grows, so will the effect trickle down to farmers. Big tea companies pay between $0.75 and $1 (R11) per kilo to farmers. We pay between $30 and $60 per kilo to our growers because it’s not mass produced.

As we create world demand for our speciality teas, so our farmers will earn more and the whole community will benefit. I am an Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellow. He inspires us to commit our talents to serving the needs of the continent.

What is it about true African luxury – you have coined the term Luxe Ubuntu – that appeals to you? Is it because the words ‘African’ and ‘luxury’ are perceived to be mutually exclusive – and Luxe Ubuntu is the antithesis of the ‘basket case’ Africa was once labelled?

You’ve hit the nail on the head. The luxury industry is an amazing driver of success in business – just think of Chanel and Cartier. Reflect, too, on how luxury products promote and sustain arts and crafts – as they have done in empires such as Egypt and Greece.

You talk about a ‘dialogue’ between tradition and modernity?

We’re contemporary Africans who remember our rich cultural heritage. But we’re global in outlook. I was working on new Yswara packaging recently in a sand-desert pink hue and was told, ‘that’s not African enough’. I responded: ‘Why not? We’re more than brown and green.’ Africa owns colour, we are colour. The rest of the world borrowed it from us.

What’s your dream?

To build a $100?million company that is truly global and has shifted the global perceptions about Africa.

This series is developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust and the African Grantmakers Network

To support a cause, visit

How To Spread It returns on January 11

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.