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Women in STEM – Marie-Ange Akaga Assonouet

I think that it’s important for parents to discuss career choices with their kids, to advise them based on their own experience and guide them as much as they can.

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Women in STEM - Marie-Ange Akaga Assonouet Asante Afrika Magazine
Marie-Ange Akaga Assonouet
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Gabon, a central African country, is rich in natural resources. Located on the Atlantic Ocean, it borders Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of Congo. It is sparsely populated, with a population of 2 million as of 2017 and forests covering 85% of its territory. It is in this small country where a smart and gifted young lady was born and named Marie-Ange, which is translated to Mary-Angel. Serene, diplomatic, astute and wise, are just a few words to describe our ‘Women in STEM’ September feature. We caught up with her and got to find out more about her education and career choices.

You have a very interesting job at a very prestigious financial institution. Can you tell us what your job entails?

I am currently working in a sub-regional banking institution as “chef de service” (Head of Service) of the Communication Unit in Yahoundé, Cameroon. I organise and execute the institution’s external and internal communication for our branches which are in a number of countries across Central Africa.

How did you manage to secure such a high profile job?

First of all, I am a Christian and I feel blessed to work where I work. I followed a multi-phase entrance process (application, written and oral tests, and then interview) and was successful. I then did a 10-month training programme in between headquarters based in Cameroon and Central African countries. I got the job at the end of the training phase. It was quite an adventure and I really enjoyed the experience!

What do you enjoy most about your job? 

I must admit that I like working in the banking sector and particularly for an African institution, as it is a key sector for our countries’ development. I also like the fact that my work gives me the opportunity to represent the institution and inform the public about the work that we do. I appreciate the community aspect of the company. It implies taking into account the environment, habits and realities of each Member-State and it gives me a global perspective.

Finally, I’ve learned more about economics, monetary policies, finance and many more subjects related to the banking sector and I’ve found it really interesting.

Before you moved to Cameroon, you were working in Gabon. Can you tell us more about your job there and what it entailed?

I was working in the communication department of an agency in charge of coordinating the execution of Publics Work’s projects on behalf of the government. At that time, my country was engaged in many major infrastructure projects (roads, bridges, dams, stadiums and so much more). The agency was in charge of supervising those projects for the Ministry working with contractors, “bureaux d’études techniques” (Technical Design Office) and other stakeholders.

The Communication team was in charge of presenting our projects and their benefits to the public from beginning to end, as well as the benefits and perspectives for the country. I was working on external communication which included production of documentation (presentations, press releases and advertorials), liaising with the media and organising events.

What is life like in Gabon and what are the differences between living in Gabon and living in Cameroon? Which country do you prefer living and working in?

Well, I was born and raised in Gabon. I have my entire family and friends there. I can say that life there is what I have always known. I have my favourite landmarks there and therefore I like it a lot! Consequently, it was particularly nice to go back home and work in my country after my studies. I liked my job mainly because it allowed me to get involved in projects pertaining to the development of Gabon.

Working in Cameroon is undeniably very different. I had to discover and learn a lot of things about the country, as well as learn about Cameroonians’ ways of living. I have been living here for a couple of years now and I have found my marks. Working in a regional institution has also allowed me to see the bigger picture, to think from a community of many states’ perspectives and to adapt my work in accordance. I like it and I like my job.

Of course I will always prefer working close to my family and friends, but working in Cameroon has helped me grow as a person and as a professional.

Women in STEM - Marie-Ange Akaga Assonouet Asante Afrika Magazine
Marie-Ange Akaga Assonouet

You completed both your Undergraduate and Postgraduate education at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Can you tell us more about your tertiary academic journey?

I got my Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, and then a Postgraduate Diploma in Management specialising in Marketing and Communication from UCT. Prior to joining UCT, I studied English. It was compulsory as French is my first language and I did my primary and secondary studies in that language. After my English studies, I passed the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, one of UCT’s requirements for French-speaking applicants.

You mentioned that your parents convinced you that if you wanted to have a good job and make it in life, you must study Computer Science because I.T was the next big thing. Were you personally keen on studying Computer Science or you had another programme that you were passionate about which you would have rather done?  

I did not really want to major in Computer Science. I did not study that subject in high school, therefore I did not know what to expect. I have always liked science so I wanted to study something in line with Biology or Chemistry. However, when deciding on my major, my parents advised me to choose a promising field like computer science. I.T was the ‘it’ thing in my country at that time and I have always been adventurous and eager to discover new things; so I applied for a BSc in computer science like my parents wanted, rather than Biology or Chemistry.

What modules did you focus on for your undergrad degree in Computer Science?

You’re taking me way back (laughs). I studied programming in Java, C++, MySQL, and I also did the following modules; Database Management, Operating Systems, Networking, Problem Solving, Algorithms (Brute force, Divide & Conquer, etc.). I also did Programming in different environments (Microsoft and Linux). Those are the ones that I remember (laughs).

Computer science can be a very difficult and stressful programme. What challenges did you face during your studies? What encouraged you to keep on pushing till the end?

My biggest challenge was the fact that I had not studied computer science in high school but it was my major. Therefore I had a heavy programme meant for students who already had good knowledge of the subject. This meant that I had to spend twice as much time learning the basics and trying to understand the concepts, but mainly to practice, practice, practice! To improve in coding, you have to program day and night. That’s the only way to learn and to master the technique.  I remember now how I felt at that time; it was like I was forever studying and practicing and doing nothing else.

I told myself that I would not quit so I worked hard and battled until I graduated. Actually, once I got my degree I was so glad and so chuffed that I made it (laughs).

Being a Francophone national, did you face any language barriers during your studies at UCT and if yes, how did you overcome them?

I definitely faced language barriers while at UCT. My biggest challenge was the fact that I had to learn the language in about 6 months and be fluent enough to comprehend tertiary level English. At the beginning I was struggling to understand entire lectures. I couldn’t understand everything so I had to read notes and books to fill in the blanks. Of course at that time my dictionary was my best friend. Fortunately, with time, my English improved. Like with many things, practice makes perfect!

Why did you choose to shift your focus from technology to communications for your postgrad qualification?

I graduated but I didn’t wish to work in this field my entire life. I found that programming was “machine orientated” so I didn’t see myself being a programmer. I felt like I wanted to interact with people more than with my computer.  I needed a job where I could meet more people, talk more, travel more and organise events or activities. Working in my current field allows me to do all of that.

You then chose a career in communications; what is it that you enjoy the most in your field?

I am a very talkative person so I find myself doing the right job which I absolutely enjoy. As I said previously I enjoy interacting with people, discussing and learning from that process. I like the aspect of informing audiences what comes with institutional communication.  I enjoy learning about each sector of the company as communication requires transversal knowledge and acts as a relay of information. I also appreciate my current position which affords me the opportunities to get involved in institutional processes on a national or even regional level.

How has the knowledge and skills gained from your first degree been useful in your chosen career path?

During my programming years, I learnt the following; first of all, you must persevere – as a programmer you have to continuously work on coding, testing and problem solving. You have to keep trying and keep debugging until your program works. Secondly, you must think out of the box – you have to think out of the box to find solutions. Often, new ways of doing things come up with new concepts and that will help you to improve your solution. Finally, it is important to have a method of operation – you have to be organised and disciplined when programming.

You are as passionate about Career Guidance as we are. What advice would you give to parents who do not want their children to follow their dreams and do courses that they are passionate about, but would rather have their children doing courses of their choosing?   

Firstly, I believe that parents want what’s best for their children. However, things have changed a lot. There are no longer certain study fields that guarantee a job at the end. Children can have a good job and a beautiful career in the field they embrace and they will be happier doing what they like. Therefore I think that it’s important for parents to discuss with their kids, to advise them based on their own experience and guide them as much as they can. But when children have decided what they want to do, it is important for parents to respect theirs choices.

You are a successful black woman at a prestigious institution in Africa. What advice would you give to young Africans who would like to get to where you are one day?

Well, that’s a tough one!

First of all, I still consider that I have so much to do and so many challenges to tackle so that advice will also be relevant to me. First of all, work hard because opportunity or luck cannot compensate hard work. Your hard work will definitely pay off. Secondly, be convinced but even better, be passionate about what you do. It will help you to stay focused during hard times. Thirdly, it is okay to fall – just don’t stay on the ground forever. Stand up and carry on.  Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself! Acknowledge your very little accomplishments; you deserve it.

I would also like to emphasise the potential of Africa. The current economic situation is not so good but we can change things. Let us not lose hope. I am a real Afro-optimistic. There are so many areas to explore here and the future belongs to our continent. We need to become leaders and also raise new generations of leaders who will want to work and unleash Africa’s potential.

Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu

Art

Mirroring The Times In Sculpture With David Ngwerume

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I am sure we all can agree that the beginning of the year 2020 was a rude awakening wrapped in a global event for the books due to the Covid19 pandemic. Zimbabwean sculptor slash Lawyer, David Chengetai Ngwerume, took to his creative outlet to not only process but provide a map for future generations in the form of his work, ‘The COVID-19 Pandemic Collection’ that has taken the world by storm.

According to Ngwerume, art “…is a duty and calling…”

The 40-year old’s sculpting journey started in the humble communal lands of Musana in 1995 under the instruction of revered fellow sculptor Cosmas Muchenje. He continued to excel in his academic studies as well which led him to an LLB (Bachelor of Laws, Honours) in 2006 from the University of Zimbabwe.  

Mirroring The Times In Sculpture With David Ngwerume Asante Afrika Magazine
One of Ngwerume’s pieces

According to Ngwerume, “Art is a duty and calling that I persistently continue using various forms mainly in Stone Sculpture in invoking thought into Humanity, share awareness with the contemptuous world.” Ngwerume’s sculptures have been exhibited all over the world from Hong Kong (China), Canada to the United States of America, and locally in Zimbabwe at the Hebert Chitepo Memorial. 

“My ambitions are global so I am in for it; it’s not always about where you are but where you are going.”

The sculptor’s ‘The COVID-19 Pandemic Collection’ comprises of pieces such as ‘MJ’ inspired by the pop icon Michael Jackson, encouraging people to mask up and get vaccinated. Another piece in the collection is called, ‘We are Torn’ which encourages people to sneeze into their elbows.

He is currently working on two other collections:

  • ‘Thy Next World Collection’ which addresses concerns pertaining to humanity as we move into the future;
  • And ‘Taking the Reins Collection’ which looks at the advancement of the world through the relationship between people and horses and their loyalty to humanity.

Ngwerume’s art is a reflection of the times and he is not stopping any time soon. He is also responsible for the iconic ‘Scales of Justice’ sculptures situated in front of the High Court in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare and the second capital, Bulawayo. We got to chat with the sculptor.

Mirroring The Times In Sculpture With David Ngwerume Asante Afrika Magazine
  • The first question is probably something you get a lot, but I just have to ask; how did you manage to find yourself in the world of law and sculpting? To us laymen, the fields look so vastly different.

I am a hard worker and I believe staying in work in both professions has made me invincible. The modern-day world is driven by skill and knowledge and it is acquired by putting in more effort.

“As a creative I also can tell you inspiration is everywhere, everyday life is filled with endless sources of influence.”

  • Have you ever found yourself in a position to choose between the two (law and sculpting) or a situation where one had to suffer for the benefit of the other?

Never! My ambition has always been to do more and I believe amongst the many I do I can manage both. If anything my professions feed off each other in a way.

  • What is the intention of your art?

To influence change in this world and make it a better place through various mediums from Stone Sculpture, paintings, installations and various other mediums in portraying contemporary messages that invoke thoughts into humanity towards shaping their moment in times and make this world move towards positive thinking. 

  • In a past article, it is mentioned that you draw inspiration from your experience practising law; can you remember the first case that inspired an exhibit? Why did you find the case worthy of being your muse?

The first case I got inspired by was a Domestic Violence case. It motivated me to do a painting titled, WOMEN – STRUGGLE from the CRADLE. It was the extent of damage this particular domestic abuse case had inflicted on those involved that moved me to create.

Mirroring The Times In Sculpture With David Ngwerume Asante Afrika Magazine
Ngwerume with more of his work.
  • In another article it is mentioned that you mostly use serpentine stone, why is that?

I use various types of stones in my sculpting, like Spring stone, Opal, Lepidolite and Granite. It all depends on the message I intend to portray.

  • Would you say you have any sculptors who either they personally or their work influences your work?

I am inspired by many sculptors like Michael Angelo, Gustav Vigeland and Dominic Benhura to name a few. As a creative I also can tell you inspiration is everywhere, everyday life is filled with endless sources of influence.

Mirroring The Times In Sculpture With David Ngwerume Asante Afrika Magazine
  • Sculpting isn’t really popular in Zimbabwe, how can you say the sculpting scene is in Zimbabwe? Is there a support structure from fellow sculptors or it’s more of finding your own way?

Zimbabwe in a nutshell is about finding your way, but the upside of today’s world is that it’s a global village. In this global village, if you do your best, the world will always notice. My ambitions are global so I am in for it; it’s not always about where you are but where you are going.

  • Could you please try explaining to us the creative journey you took in creating your popular COVID 19 Gallery?

The COVID-19 Pandemic is a global event affecting us all, and as an artist, I found it prudent to play my part in capturing the moments and share my views on Awareness and Vaccination.

Mirroring The Times In Sculpture With David Ngwerume Asante Afrika Magazine
Ngwerume’s piece ‘MJ’
  • In making the exhibit MJ, how did you hone in on making the sculpture about the U.S pop star Michael Jackson?

MJ was the first public figure to move around wearing a mask, and his actions were early warnings of our reality, where the air we breathe is not safe as before because of COVID-19. His messages then were foretelling.

  • According to New York-based art dealer Shingirai Mafara, your pieces are going to be part of the United Nations World Health Organisation permanent collection. Such an achievement, congratulations! How does knowing your work will live on long after you are gone feel? One could call it time travel of sorts, conversing with future generations.

I believe art is a reflection of perception and I am grateful for such higher strides being attained through my ingenuity. It is humbling to know that my work will inform, maybe even inspire future generations all over the world.

  • How has it been coming into contact with big art dealers like Shingirai Mafara and do you think that has or will affect your style or subject matter moving forward?

Such dealers inspire my work and further my will to create and give me higher hopes that my art will be seen globally.

Mirroring The Times In Sculpture With David Ngwerume Asante Afrika Magazine
Ngwerume’s piece, ‘Halt Child Marriages’
  • Your most recent exhibit, “Halt Child Marriages” is definitely one for the times. As a man, where do you think the root problem lies in Zimbabwe’s child-bride pandemic?   

The issue when it comes to child marriages is pure ugly GREED. The greediness in those men is uncalled for, it’s dirty, it’s illegal and it is immoral to view the young Girl Child as an object. We need to right such wrongs, and I am more than happy to lend my artistry to the cause.

(All pictures used are courtesy of David Ngwerume’s Facebook)

Interviewed by Hazel Lifa

hazel@asanteafrika.net

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Features

My Work Is My Passion – Zim Rugby Guru Nelson Madida

A chat with Zimbabwean professional rugby player Nelson Madida.

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Image: Zimbabwean Professional Rugby Player Nelson Madida
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Hazel Lifa

For Nelson ‘Terminator’ Madida, a simple day at the office is light years from what many of us envision as a job. The professional rugby player, coach and trainer is one of the lucky few who get to do what they love on a daily, and he couldn’t be happier.  Madida’s sporting career has come with a slew of awards like the 2015 Best Forward Player in Matabeleland, and the 2017 7’s Player of the Year. These awards ultimately led him to play for Zimbabwe’s national rugby team.

“The world finds itself in a difficult position due to this pandemic… I have come up with a fitness and health programme meant to keep people focused on something other than the coronavirus.”

Once he had dominated the player aspect, Madida shifted to training others and making bold moves in the world of rugby. Dubbed a ‘rugby guru’, Madida’s experience playing internationally highlighted how opportunities in spaces like the rugby world were closed off to women. This realisation steered Madida’s involvement with the Nyambose Girls Academy through the programme, HOPE. The programme was aimed at using the sport of rugby as a tool to empower the girl child and encourage gender equality in the game of rugby. The Nyambose team went on to win the 2017 Bulawayo Women’s Club League.

My Work Is My Passion - Zim Rugby Guru Nelson Madida Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Madida on the field.

The Covid19 pandemic was a huge disrupter for many and the father of one is no exception. Never one to be short of ideas, Madida started an online fitness and health programme in 2020 to keep people’s bodies and minds in shape. The programme has Zimbabwean and South African participants who have benefited from the self-crafted training regimes and free medical advice on muscle issues and injuries Madida provides. 

Madida stated, “The world finds itself in a difficult position due to this pandemic. The sporting world has suffered severely from the consequences of the virus… I have come up with a fitness and health programme meant to keep people focused on something other than the coronavirus.”

“My work is my passion.”

nelson madida

Madida is also the Sports Director at Christian Brothers College (CBC) in the city of Bulawayo. We caught up with the sportsman/mentor/ trainer/coach/community leader for a chat.

Zimbabwe participated in the Tokyo Olympics Sevens rugby qualifying trials in Monaco, how was the trip?

It was fun and inspiring. It’s always a great time when I get to meet and play with players from other countries/teams.   

Any highlights from the experience?

I got to see the growth of rugby in Zim through the new crop of players on the Zim team and other new players from other teams.

Being a trainer as well, could you say rugby influenced your fitness level or has the game just been an added advantage?

I have always been a fitness fanatic, but rugby as a sport naturally pushes you beyond the boundaries to become a better and supreme competitor.

From the field to the community; what inspires your involvement as a community leader in the Bulawayo community of Pumula?

To help and motivate the younger generation to be the best they can be, and that starts NOW! People often think this happens overnight, but no, we should start in the immediate communities we live in.

Could you give us a basic breakdown of the community activities you are involved in?

1. I run a rugby academy that helps kids with Depression (suicidal risk).

2. Mentorship through rugby.

3. Keeping old people / senior citizens healthy and happy through fitness.

My Work Is My Passion - Zim Rugby Guru Nelson Madida Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Madida and fellow teammates celebrate winning the Rugby Africa Cup 2018

You started an online fitness and health training program right about the time the pandemic started, how has that been?

It has been progressive and a challenge at the same time, adapting to the new normal has its growing pains but I am optimistic.

When you started training a girls team at Nyambose Girls Academy did you experience any push back from stakeholders seeing as rugby has long been seen as a boys-only sport?

No, we had a lot of support for the girls’ rugby team. It was heart-warming to see how people could see what we were trying to achieve.

Any new projects or programs in the near future?

YES, definitely; but I won’t spill the beans just as yet.

Having played rugby this long any regrets or advice you can give to rookie players you wish you had known sooner?

Regrets none, advice? If you love something never give up but always know that failing is a part of a learning curve.

Any sportsperson who has influenced your career and why?

Myself, (laughs) I think it’s important to always give yourself more credit for how far you have come and what you have achieved. I saw what I wanted and went for it, I didn’t have all the answers but I kept pushing even when others didn’t have faith in my vision.

If you weren’t doing what you do today what would you be doing?

(A pause followed by a nervous laugh) Honestly, l don’t know… this is all l have ever known. My work is my passion.

Any noteworthy differences between being a player and a coach?

Not differences really but similarities rather, you are always learning on both ends which ensures I am never bored.

Interviewed By Hazel Lifa

hazel@asanteafrika.net

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Fashion & Beauty

AKEWA – A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra

A chat with Gabonese/French fashion powerhouse Francois Aveyra who apprenticed for huge international brands such as Balenciaga, Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier, among others.

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Image: Akewa Designs
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Having been an apprentice for huge international brands such as Balenciaga, Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Cor Raniero Gattinoni, you would think that founder of prêt-à-porter brand AKEWA, Francois Aveyra, is one very tough and proud individual. Reserved but always smiling, Francois is quite the opposite. A happy soul who enjoys life, loves nature, and is not pretentious, his friends and family describe him as a confident and trustworthy person who brings sunshine and good vibes into their lives. A bit of a loner sometimes, Francois loves people who are as reserved as he is, and maybe the quiet time is what gives this creative genius all the inspiration and motivation he needs to churn out exotic and colourful designs which celebrate contemporary African creativity.

AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Francois Aveyra

Says Francois, “I love making clothes, bags and accessories which represent my story. My products represent who I am… a mixture of different cultures.”

When he was a young stylist in the 80s, Francois made a name for himself working at Parisian events which were attended by the likes of Grace Jones, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Serge, Gainsbourg, Andy Warhol, and Claude Montana, among many other stars.

Based in Marrakech, Morocco, the yoga-loving design guru took some time to tell us his life story and about his exceptional achievements in the fashion industry.

“AKEWA is an expression of gratitude. It means ‘thank you’ in my Gabonese language which is called Mpongwe.”

AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Akewa Designs
AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Akewa Designs
AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Akewa Designs

You were born to a Gabonese father and a French mother. Can you briefly tell us about your childhood, and life lived between the two countries?

I grew up in France, and I would travel to Gabon, Central Africa, over the summer holidays. Flying between those two worlds brought me a lot of exposure, compared to my friends. By that time, most of my friends had never been on an aeroplane. I loved travelling and I felt so privileged. My father was a very traditional man, and through visiting his side of the family, I was introduced to Gabonese music, dance and spiritual traditions, all of which intrigued me greatly. From my childhood, I attended and assisted my father in many spiritual ceremonies; I loved it, and I felt so powerful with him.

How and when did you decide that fashion was what you wanted to do as a career?

I was close to the beach with a friend one day, and we were talking about fashion. She was supposed to start work as an assistant to Guy Laroche, a great haute couture designer in France. Suddenly, I had a revelation, and I decided right there that I wanted to attend Fashion School in France. My father refused at the beginning, but after a few months of fighting, he accepted the idea. I had always felt so attracted to dance, music or acting, and I would have probably chosen a career in the arts, but life and destiny brought me to fashion.

Before that, I had actually started law school, and after doing just one part of my studies in Bordeaux, France, I stopped because I realised that becoming a lawyer wasn’t meant for me, and I went to Design School in Paris.

My mother is a hairstylist and I spent most of my early years behind the hair salon doing hair on some dolls (laughs). My grandfather was a painter, and so from seeing him work, I started to draw at a very early age. I spent most of my time with my grandma who was very elegant and smart. She was a great influence to me. She played violin so well, and we would watch black and white movies together. I believe I got most of my artistic and creative influence from my entire immediate family.

“My dream was not really to be recognised, but to do what I wanted to do passionately, and to meet with people and share my knowledge…”

AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Akewa Designs
AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Akewa Designs

As your career progressed, you decided to leave Paris. Which country did you go to first, and what did you do when you got there? Which other countries did you eventually work in as well, and what did you do there?

When I completed Fashion School, I started working for small brands like Naf Naf, but my dream was to work in Italy, because I was so impressed by Armani and Versace designs. I was able to realise my dream, and in Italy I worked for Cor Raniero Gattinoni in Rome, who had clients like Ingrid Bergman, Anita Ekberg, etc. Her mother, Fernanda Gattinoni, was very famous in the 60s during the ciné cita period. A lot of American productions were produced in Italy at the time.

AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: A young Francois

After a while I moved back to Paris, and then London, because I wanted to discover the world and to feed my spirit of creativity. I eventually settled in Morocco in 2016, where I’m based now. By the way, soon after I was done with Fashion School, I founded my first brand in Gabon, LEAMONO, in association with Albertine, who was the daughter of the president at that time, and her cousin Ursula.

AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Akewa Designs

As the years went by, you managed to grow in your career and you became the owner of an artistic agency. Can you tell us more about the agency and the work you did, and what motivated you to start that business? 

Having worked in different sections of the fashion industry, I learnt so much over time. Among other things, I worked as a Booker in various modelling agencies, I was once a stylist for advertising and magazine agencies, I worked as a Casting Director, and I also worked as a Press RP in English. Armed with all this experience, my global vision of fashion, and sheer curiosity, I then decided to create my own agency representing talent which included fashion photographers, stylists, hairstylists, makeup artists, illustrators and directors.

I am naturally someone who loves to take care of others, and if someone is feeling bad, I will do my best and exert all my energy to make that person feel better, and achieving that goal gives me a lot of satisfaction. Hence I created the agency because to me it was only logical, seeing as my job was concentrated on looking after others. I enjoyed being the ‘orchestra chief’ or ‘conductor’ of the whole operation.

I totally loved my job, being everywhere, doing production, and applying the vast knowledge I had gained over the years. Choosing talent, mixing them up, and developing them with an artistic vision of their career was the highlight of my vocation.

Your business grew from strength to strength, and as you mentioned earlier, you were privileged to work as a Model Booker and Stylist for some of the most prestigious agencies and influential people in the world’s largest fashion capitals such as Rome, Paris, New York, and London. How did it feel to have made a name for yourself and be recognised, reflecting on how far you had come from when you were a young man in Libreville, Gabon with big dreams?

To me, whether one comes from Africa, China, the countryside, or a small city, if you have big dreams, the feeling will be the same. When you do things with heart and passion, everything comes naturally, step by step, because obviously one does not wake up with a crown on their head overnight.

My dream was not really to be recognised, but to do what I wanted to do passionately and to meet with people and share my knowledge, as well as learn new things. Above all, I wanted to do what makes me happy, and that was the most important thing to me.

AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Akewa Designs

Can you tell us about the birth of the brand AKEWA? How and when was it born, and why did you choose that name? What does it mean and what is its significance?

AKEWA was born in Marrakech. Initially, I was just supposed to help a Moroccan designer and disappear (big laugh), but I started working for a friend in decor for 6 months before I then decided to create shoes and bags which I sold to friends. Soon after, I was now selling the products online, and when I realised it was going well, I decided after a year to open a physical store and that was when the brand explosion happened (smiles).

AKEWA is an expression of gratitude. It means ‘thank you’ in my Gabonese language which is called Mpongwe. The context is “thank you to life, and thank you to freedom”. I feel very attached to the notion of freedom, because for me, it signals a rebirth.

Did working with big brands and big names such as Mick Jagger, Carla Bruni, Madonna and Grace Jones have an influence on your decision to start your own fashion brand?

As I mentioned earlier, my biggest goal from a young age was to discover the world; I was so attracted to the fashion and creative industries, and I wanted to be part of that. I arrived in London at the young age of 17, and I was at Kings Road with the unconventional hub of young and fashionable creatives during the punk era. The stars did feed my curiosity, and yes they definitely influenced me – they were a light to my path.

Everybody was very simple at the time, we all shared the same feelings and moods. Life was also very simple back then – there were no iPhones or other similar gadgets to capture and expose you in a bad situation. Everyone was very cool and we all minded our own business.

I had my own type of ‘swag’, confidence and personality, and even though I wasn’t famous, that worked for me because the doorman would always let me in at events (laughs).

AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Akewa Designs
AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Akewa Designs
AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Akewa Designs

Where do you see the brand AKEWA in the next 5 years?

Well, Covid-19 has been quite a hindrance, but I hope that it will soon pass and everything will be going well again in a couple of months, because what I want is to see AKEWA all over the world.

I’m working on a perfume right now, and I’m also preparing the “Who’s Next – Paris” ready-to-wear international exhibition for January 2022. I trust God that all will go well.

AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Akewa Designs
AKEWA - A Celebration of African Creativity & Craftsmanship By Francois Aveyra Asante Afrika Magazine
Image: Akewa Designs

You are also into philanthropic work. Can you tell us about your involvement with Refugees Got Talent? What is your role there and what inspired your decision to become part of it?

When I first arrived in Marrakech, I shared my flat with a friend who runs a refugees association called Global Migrants Africa. I immediately felt a lot of concern for the people he was working to assist, and I lobbied my network of friends and colleagues to support the initiative.

The organisation supports a lot of artists and sculptors by lobbying an African market for the products, and I decided to invite potential customers to purchase the products. I also collaborated with another association to find ways in which they can provide dance classes for young children. We even got the likes of Léonore Baulac, a French ballet dancer who is an étoile (star) at the Opéra National de Paris Ambassador of Associations, to come and assist.

Also, most of the members of my teams at my atelier (design workshop) and shop are actually migrants from Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Cameroun.

What words of advice would you give to a young African who has dreams of making it big in the fashion industry just as you did?

That is very simple; NEVER GIVE UP, AND FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS!!

To see more of Francois’ alluring designs, follow @akewa_african_lifestyle on Instagram, and @AKEWA.STYLE on Facebook.

Interviewed By Tholakele Dlamini

creatives@asanteafrika.net

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