PARIS — Armed with a 100-million-euro investment fund and a vast network, Ghanaian entrepreneur Roberta Annan is eager to leapfrog Africa into the burgeoning global luxury market.
“I’ve appointed myself as an ambassador — nobody has appointed me — to really position people that are doing things so we can rebrand and reposition how people view Africa,” Annan told a gathering here Tuesday organized by investment bank Ohana & Co.
“She is probably one of the best ambassadors for Africa,” Karine Ohana, managing partner of the firm, said by way of introduction, going on to note that the population of the African continent is expected to rise to 2.5 billion by 2050, making it a key trade partner for Europe.
Guests including designer Olivier Theyskens, former French minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and industrialist Laurent Dassault heard how Annan was supporting entrepreneurs like Menaye Donkor, a former Ghanaian beauty queen who presented her cosmetics brand, She-y, at the event. The line, made in Italy, uses ethically sourced shea butter from Ghana and algae from Senegal, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Menaye Charity Organization, which provides education for underprivileged children.
“These are the types of success stories we want to project outside, because the perception of Africa is not the right perception. What is actually happening there is so different from what we read or see in the news,” Annan said.
Earlier in the day, she had attended the Paris Peace Forum, where she launched the Impact Fund for Africa, a 100-million-euro investment fund supporting African creatives working in fashion and lifestyle. The fund is a partnership between her African Fashion Fund project and the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI), a flagship program of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
It will be managed by Roberta Annan Capital Partners, a specialized boutique investment and advisory company, with members from the EFI serving as non-executive board members.
Through the African Fashion Fund, Annan has previously organized internships for African designers at companies including Edun, the socially conscious clothing label founded by Ali Hewson and her husband Bono, and Macy’s, via its DC Fashion Incubator.
At the Paris Peace Forum on Tuesday, she organized a fashion show featuring Ghanaian brands Duaba Serwa and Chocolate by Kwaku Bediako, alongside Senegalese designer Sophie Zinga.
At the Ohana cocktail, Annan sat down with WWD to discuss her efforts to bring diverse creativity to the world stage, the impact of Instagram and how to make Africa synonymous with luxury.
WWD: Ahead of the launch of the Impact Fund for Africa, you have been doing the groundwork identifying brands that you think have potential to develop internationally. What have you found?
Roberta Annan: Yes, in fact I’ve invested my own capital for the past six years under the African Fashion Fund, which I created as a foundation. I created this after working with Franca Sozzani on the special issue of Vogue Italia called “Rebranding Africa.” I was a project developer on that magazine and I was the one that basically spearheaded all the arrangements and the meetings on the continent. And after doing that, I realized that there was such a demand for African fashion and lifestyle and beauty, but you could not identify or see these anywhere. So I created a foundation to address those challenges, and through my foundation I issued an annual fellowship that would take an African designer from Africa to a fashion city around the world to study for six months and we would pay for all of that. And that converted to a business incubator where we were supporting the business ideas, and we are now in talks with Parsons to do a short course certificate that African students can actually take on the continent. I was approached by the U.N. to partner on this fund, so it has even escalated to a major thing, which is 100 million euros that is going to look at not just fashion — we’re also going to look at theater and film, and we’re also going to look at music.
WWD: African fashion has found a new platform on Instagram. Do you think social media is going to change the image of designers from African countries?
R.A.: Technology obviously has played a major role. Social media, of course, in terms of connectivity and people being able to exchange and communicate, it’s easier when you don’t have to rely on phones, you don’t have to rely on travel. You can actually see product, you can see nice imagery, you can see pricing, you can exchange.
As Africans, we have the propensity to actually leapfrog when it comes to the era of technology, just as we have done with mobile technologies and looking at mobile money. I feel like in the fashion space, we can also leapfrog. We can look at how fashion and technology, coupled, can accelerate access to products and things like that. So we should not only limit ourselves to brick-and-mortar, we should look at how the Internet can also play a role in closing up this value chain, this loop.
WWD: African companies have access to a huge domestic market. Can fashion brands build a sizable luxury business directly at home, or is it still important in terms of credibility for them to show in Paris or New York?
R.A.: If you look at the couturiers in France and Italy, the Armanis and the Diors — they started this craftsmanship and created what luxury is. We look up to these brands, so it’s important for African brands to also look up and try to, not mimic or replicate, but also adhere to the same core values that actually create luxury. So we cannot live in a silo and forget about the rest of the world. That means we need to have an exchange on validating each other and making sure that we have quality control and assurance measures in place. But we also cannot neglect the fact that we Africans can also produce for ourselves. Our population will reach more than two billion in the next few years, a population where 65 percent are under the age of 25. That means that in the next 10 years, it’s populated by the youth, and we’re doing less than 20 percent of trade within the continent. So we need to look at ways in which we can address this. One of the things we’re looking at within the fund is to establish retail in major fashion capitals, but also bring that same model to Africa.
It’s not always about the outside market. We also have to address the market that we have and tap into it. A few African governments have come together to sign a free trade agreement to ensure that there is more regional integration and trade within the African continent, so that’s also key and we can take advantage of that.
WWD: Nigeria’s thriving Champagne consumption suggests Africa is a big potential market for luxury goods, but people still don’t associate Africa with luxury.
R.A.: They don’t. It’s like an oxymoron. What we are trying to say is that you cannot talk about luxury without including Africa, because if you look at the core aspects of luxury — craftsmanship, rarity — we do have craftsmanship. It’s just that we need to find a way to commercialize and package our craftsmanship in a better way. And that is why I love this product [She-y] because it’s shea butter, but packaged in a way that’s luxurious. So it’s not impossible to do. It just has to be done with the right people, with people who have expertise. We need to engage with international experts who understand the market, who understand the industry, because it’s very nascent in our part of the world. That is why this is important, to build those bridges.