Between luxury and inequality in Africa

luxe ubuntu Swaady Martin, Yswara tea owner
luxe ubuntu Swaady Martin, Yswara tea owner

The number of African millionaires continues to grow and the continent’s luxury market is booming – as sharply as its wealth gap. Anna Trapido looks at the rise and rise of the new African luxury brands, networks and clubs

Affluent Africans have traditionally had to travel to Europe and latterly Dubai (where it is easier to get visas for the multiple accompanying nannies) to buy luxury goods, but recent commercial vibrancy has seen continental wealth grow to such an extent that the purveyors of the fine and the fabulous are now coming to us.

Whether your heart desires classy concept stores (such as Joburg’s Luminance and Cape Town’s Merchants on Long) or high-end retail locations (such as the Morocco Mall in Casablanca and the Achimota Retail Centre in Accra), we’ve got it all.

Our continent’s share of millionaires is still a fraction of the rest of the world, but the numbers have quadrupled in the past decade. The Knight Frank 2015 Wealth Report states that Africans in the category of ultra high-net-worth individuals – who require a net wealth of $30 million (R475 million) – are projected to grow 60% by 2020. Is it any wonder that the nice people at Porsche and Rolls-Royce released their latest marques in Johannesburg and Luanda, in step with Frankfurt and London?

The African economic miracle may have slowed somewhat since the 2014 collapse of commodity prices, but you would hardly know it to look at the luxury brand-laden shopping trolleys and dustbins of the continent’s elite. Wealthy Nigerians bemoaned the 50% drop in the price of crude oil, but it didn’t stop 2015 being the year that they drank their way into the top 20 Champagne-consuming countries – it is the second-fastest-growing Champagne market in the world – and became the 10th-largest international importer of Hennessy cognac.

The Angolan upper crust grumbles about the kwanza’s 50% depreciation against the dollar and about banks restricting foreign currency withdrawals, but finds considerable consolation in the opening of Prada and Gucci shops in Luanda’s brand-new $50 million Sky Gallery shopping mall. It was the least the company could do, seeing as Forbes Africa recently quoted Gucci marketing director Filipo Pinto-Coelho as saying that visiting Angolan shoppers had made up 58% of the 2014 luxury label’s market share in Portugal alone.

The presence of international premium-product stores on African soil undoubtedly stimulates the local economies of leading cities through jobs, taxes and property development, but it would be a mistake to imagine that everyone is swigging on single malts while spraying on bespoke scents. As a region, sub-Saharan African income inequality is second only to that of Latin America. In the past decade, real per capita incomes have grown steadily, but the gains are unevenly distributed. In essence, the rich have become a lot richer, while the poor have only moved up a little.

Wealth gaps are bad news. Wealth gaps within sight of the Apple iStore and the Rolex outlet are even worse news. According to pioneering psychological research conducted by Richard Easterlin in the 1970s, increased awareness of inequality, reinforced by goods that are visible but unattainable, results in demoralisation, a lowering of overall happiness and productivity at an individual and national level.

Unhappily, the UN World Happiness Report 2016 flags rising levels of inequality. For 2012 to 2015, out of 10 world regions, sub-Saharan Africa ranked last.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) October 2015 regional economic outlook for sub-Saharan Africa refers to evidence at a global level that inequality of income and gender hamper growth because it reduces access to education and health, which lowers people’s productivity and mobility. The IMF argues it can lead to sociopolitical instability and poor governance, which discourages investment, employment and growth.

Most of the rich aren’t stupid. Self-interest is pushing a significant portion of them away from old school hedonism. Bill Gates’ The Giving Pledge began an exploration of philanthropic luxury, and meetings such as the Geneva 2013 Sustainable Luxury Forum indicate that sustainability is a reputational imperative for premium brands.

The African elite fit into a broader global context, and increasing numbers of creative, entrepreneurial individuals are defining a luxury language that breaks down inequality and rebrands Africa by pushing the barriers of excellence for African-made products.

One such individual is Reni Folawiyo, founder of the Lagos Alara concept store. Designed by world-acclaimed Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, Folawiyo’s shop is an achingly stylish, utterly idiosyncratic selection of the best in fashion and interior design from Africa and the world. A chaise longue discovered at Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile is given equivalent status to a chair with a Gothic arched back designed by Artlantique, a company that recycles the brightly painted wood of Senegalese fishing boats.

African fashion brands such as Maki Oh, Tiffany Amber, Lanre da Silva Ajayi, Lisa Folawiyo, Ré Bahia and Tsemaye Binitie take pride of place next to international work by Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Valentino and Dries Van Noten.

Folawiyo’s ambitions for Alara go beyond filling a gap in Lagos’ luxury landscape. She wants to “address a deeper issue – the fact that so little of what’s made in Africa is considered luxurious in the first place. Alara was conceived to show the world who we are today ... That we create and enjoy objects of exceptional quality and beauty ... To support and encourage those who wish to exchange, educate, elevate and beautify.”

She observes that “luxury and elegant experiences are not shallow when we respect and reward the principle that a product of beauty is created by a person of beauty”.

How to respect and reward the producers of beauty is central to CEO of Yswara fine African tea brand Swaady Martin-Leke’s notion of “luxe ubuntu”. The recent winner of the Brand Africa award is preparing to open a flagship store at the Cosmopolitan Building in Maboneng, Joburg, at the end of this month and has recently concluded a deal with Selfridges in the UK.

She explains: “Luxe ubuntu describes the concept of an inclusive luxury business model, in which all the members of the supply chain who contribute to the production of a luxury product are beneficiaries of the economic value generated ... We are committed to reversing the commodity trap by keeping the value-add in Africa.

“We continuously strive to uplift African farmers and artisans, especially women, by giving them routes to new markets and by expanding their production capability and meaningful income.”

She believes that such meaningful income will come from developing a taste for high-quality African-made products globally.

Luxury is lovely. What is needed, for all our sakes, is a more even distribution of loveliness. We all win if Africa’s economic momentum can reinforce a sense that beauty and the widespread appreciation of beautiful things are key components of a functional (and happier) society.

Sustainable success requires us to redefine and revel in African luxury.

Members-only clubs have always provided a private, privileged domain for conducting business and fostering social networks.

At best, they are a mutually supportive space for those of similar interests and experiences. Bonds are formed and information shared in relaxed, convivial and discrete settings. At worst, many clubs have a horrible history of exclusion along race, gender and religious lines.

Overt intolerance is (mostly) a thing of the past, but exclusion and asymmetrical advantage for the elite is very much part of the package. Let’s face it, even today, few clubs admit the poor, unless they are dressed as waiters or cleaners.

The problems of prejudice notwithstanding, club membership is one of the most effective ways to climb the ladder of success – especially in Africa. Ours is not a stagnant elite. Virtually all African economies show promising growth, which translates into space for talent and tenacity to rise. Clubs facilitate the connections necessary for upward mobility. They also serve as status shorthand for those with more ambition than time.

Membership indicates that an individual has made it through a vetting process to distinguish the “us” from the “not us”.

Colonial clubs can have a retrochic charm, but they are not where the power and potential of modern Africa meets and makes decisions. Nairobi’s Muthaiga Country Club (founded in 1913) and Johannesburg’s (temporarily closed) Rand Club (established in 1886), and many others, belong to a bygone era. Members are now multiracial, but they are predominantly old guard and old money. Many are just plain old.

Earlier elites are not all in decline – the Monrovia Masonic Grand Lodge (founded 1867) has recently reasserted itself as a major social, economic and political force in Liberian life, but the winds of change are generally blowing through African club land. Colonial/post-independence cronyism and inherited wealth are gradually giving way to more meritocratic, predominantly technology-led, business-born elites.

What follows is the #Trending guide to the coolest contemporary clubs on our continent:


7b Etim Inyang Crescent, Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria

Patrick Koshoni’s club offers open exhibition space, a members-only lounge library and an alfresco bar. African art is set amid mid-century leather armchairs, shelves of highbrow literature and flatteringly soft lighting.

Koshoni’s aim is to “facilitate the social intercourse of persons connected with or interested in arts, science, design and social justice. We provide stimulus for new thinking and social re-engineering by offering a meeting point to discuss issues.”

Vintage Nigerian Highlife music and jazz is played at conversation-enabling volumes, while cellphone and laptop use is permitted only until 7pm. Even then, cellphones must always be on silent. All aspirant members (known as patrons in club lingo) must be proposed by an existing affiliate and considered by an advisory board, which meets monthly. An annual subscription of 200 000 naira (R15 900) is payable upon acceptance.

Koshoni says: “We do not have a dress code, but we expect that patrons will dress as they mean to be addressed.” Judging by the plethora of fine tailoring on show, patrons mean to be addressed as superstylish, Afro-positive, world citizens with Paul Smith and Louboutin addiction issues.

Capital Club East Africa

Imperial Court, Westlands, Nairobi, Kenya

Entrepreneurship is always the order of the day at the first African chapter of the Capital Club, an invitation-only business club with branches in Bahrain and Dubai. The club is close to several international banks and Kenya’s ever-expanding stock exchange. Capital’s dress code is casual and phones are actively encouraged. There are nine videoconference rooms and free Wi-Fi. A chauffeur service ensures a safe drive home after an evening out at the one of the three restaurants or on the roof terrace bar (which keeps every malt known to man and then some).

A committee tasked with “protecting the integrity and calibre of membership” is in place to help with nominating and approving applicants. Among those who made the cut are Robert Collymore, the CEO of Safaricom; Japh Olende, the managing director of AIG; and Kenyan-American digital technology strategist Isis Nyong’o Madison, who is listed as one of Africa’s Top 20 Youngest Power Women by Forbes.

With fees of about 210 000 shillings a year (R33 000), Kenya’s crème de la crème is guaranteed.

Virgin Active Classic

Alice Lane, Sandton, Joburg

In recent years, business networking has shifted from golf courses to treadmills. Virgin Active Classic occupies a prime Sandton location. It is within walking distance of the headquarters of financial and business big shots such as Nedbank, Investec and RMB, and the parking lot is always full of the latest luxury German sedans.

The former Reserve Bank governors, media
moguls and children of politicians working out on the state-of-the-art equipment aren’t just there to get fit; they are also working on their business bottom lines. Sweatworking (networking at the gym) is everywhere. Friendships formed during anti-gravity yoga classes and in the aqua lounge can be shaped into profitable partnerships in the adjacent conference rooms and networking nooks. Members can send emails while they spin, and skype to their heart’s content.

Capped membership and high fees (R1 800 a month) ensure exclusivity.

Voices at the Taj

Taj Hotel, Wale Street, Cape Town

There was a time when many clubs excluded women. Few such establishments still reject the fairer sex, but why bother with the boys? Women are starting to create their own exclusive spaces away from the
male gaze.

Newly launched Voices at the Taj provides a vetted, invitation-only private members platform that, according to founder member music/media entrepreneur Catherine Grenfell, “allows some of the most respected minds in female entrepreneurship to network, debate, collaborate, socialise and empower each other within a sorority of power females”.

An initial membership fee of R795, plus a variable monthly levy (depending on the extent of access to the sisterhood of the travelling platinum card), entitles members to coworking space in the Taj Exec Club Business Lounge, hi-speed internet access, dedicated-members concierge, gym and female-only sauna areas. PR and media support, vetted vendors and regularly hosted speaker lunches, cocktail events and supper clubs are also part of the package.

Club G20

Various venues around the world

Homer Simpson once asked: “Why won’t those stupid idiots let me into their crappy club for jerks?”

Several African central bank governors and heads of state feel that way about the G20. The ultimate private members club holds annual gatherings replete with superb networking opportunities. The dress code is formal.

Seemingly closed to new members, only one African economy, South Africa, has been invited to join the club in an individual country capacity, but this hardly seems adequate.

Both Nigeria and Egypt have larger economies, and are arguably more strategically significant to global financial stability than several of the smaller G20 members.

While there is no clear application route or expulsion procedure, it is surely time for Argentina to do the honourable thing and step aside

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