Having graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Finance and Economics at Wits University in South Africa, and thanks to bank recruitment drives and in particular, graduate recruitment programmes on campus which did not need the dreaded ‘work experience’ requirement, Rumbidzayi Munyaradzi managed to secure a job in Investment Banking in Johannesburg, South Africa. For the next twelve years, Rumbi steadily progressed and flourished in her career.
However, at the beginning of 2020, the groundbreaking trailblazer who had now become an Executive Director decided to quit her job. One would be curious as to why after all her success she would leave such a high-profile job at a prestigious banking institution which afforded her all the perks such as living a very comfortable life and lifestyle travelling to over 30 countries around the world. Read on to find out why Rumbi made that decision and how she’s been using her break to inspire the youth, especially young girls.
What made you decide to quit your job, which I know many young skilled people would kill to have?
Investment banking was an exciting career for me which gave me deep exposure to the African continent’s politics and economics. At the same time, it was very intense in terms of the time commitment and workload. At the point when I left, my aim was to rest and consider what new challenges I would want to pursue outside of the professional lane I was in.
I didn’t take a gap year during my school years, and I think all of us have phases when rest is essential to our wellbeing and to regain perspective of our accomplishments and motivations. We are living longer and working longer. Taking this career break is my way of making sure I have the long-term stamina to work sustainably, and to re-connect with my interests outside of work.
Can you tell us briefly about your job? What did it entail, what did you enjoy about it, and what were your biggest achievements?
My job revolved around helping major companies and governments to raise large-scale debt financing from international investors. Each borrower has unique reasons as to why they need the money: it could be to fund the purchase of another company, to invest in projects or infrastructure that lead to growth, or even to replace existing debt they have on their balance sheet which was priced at a more expensive rate in the past than what they could achieve when borrowing in current conditions.
From when I started as an Analyst to when I left as an Executive Director, my job required me to be a PowerPoint ninja (putting together and delivering marketing presentations), conducting client research, coordinating the transactions through various processes within the bank and then with external parties, leading client presentations, and supporting the client in their decision-making processes about the transaction structure.
Rather than list achievements, I’d say what I’m most proud of is working on transactions that had the potential to uplift how whole economies work. Some of the government deals I participated in led to the creation of industrial parks which created employment for hundreds and thousands of young people who were previously jobless, and they built infrastructure such as roads and bridges which improved trade and every day living. I believe that those who have the power to do great things on behalf of the common good need to occupy that space.
Overall, I worked on deals that raised over US$30 billion for African governments and companies – and that is only a slice of total deal activity on the continent. There is a lot of capital looking for investment that young people curious about finance can tap into and lead.
How has the adjustment period been like from getting up every day to rush to work, to being at home trying to enjoy time off while planning your next move?
When you plan to take a break like I have, I see it as a privilege to be able to do so. The transition was pretty easy because work doesn’t define my sense of self-worth, so I didn’t lose a part of my identity because I’m no longer an executive somewhere.
Being a Type A personality, being on a break doesn’t mean I don’t do anything, it just means I do other things besides work. I even consciously leave room for productive boredom: where I just think and let my brain sort through all the random ideas in my head. I usually do this when I go for a walk or soak up the sun in my garden. Thinkers need time to process, and it took my previously hectic work schedule to appreciate how important thinking time is for me to feel grounded.
During your career break, you decided to pursue a Master’s in Digital Transformation and Innovation Leadership from IE University in Spain, which you have completed. What made you choose that programme, and as a person with a background in finance, what career options do you think best take advantage of those two worlds?
I regularly read a lot of magazines and newspapers tied to economics, business, technology and current affairs, and in 2018/2019 I noticed a particular emphasis on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Looking at the type of technologies being highlighted, I realised that while my career might have relevance now, it wasn’t preparing me for the kind of future that all these new technologies represented. The degree was my way of investigating what technology means to me as a citizen and as a knowledge worker. I like education where I benefit personally and professionally – the whole point to me is to emerge as a better thinker and decision-maker, not a better producer of work.
Going forward, I’m most excited about opportunities in financial technology that make payments easier across Africa, that increase access to financial services to those in the informal sector, as well as making it easier for tradesmen and farmers to access marketplaces with transparent pricing information. Africa has so many unmet needs that innovative business ideas don’t really need to compete with others. They could actually just focus on making money from people who are currently excluded from consuming important services and products for lack of appropriate solutions.
Taking time off also gave you the opportunity to get started on various phenomenal projects which are aimed at providing mentorship and career guidance for high school students, such as GenZim Connection. What motivated your decision to work on these projects, and can you tell us a little about them?
The Zimbabwean education system struggles to provide enough holistic support and transparent communication with teenagers, especially in the 16-19 year range. As a young adult, you are starting to deal with more intense and advanced issues that could have long-term consequences. Access to mentorship can play a major role in teenagers making better decisions and being more confident about how they are approaching life. In talking to various people who also grew up in Zimbabwe, I realised many others felt this kind of support was lacking and that not much has changed all these years later.
Rather than create a formal program, the GenZim Connection website is my personal hands-on approach to engage in digital mentorship at scale, and without limiting that kind of opportunity to top performers as so many programs do. I’m most interested in engaging with girls because they are less likely to reach out for mentorship and networking than boys. This tendency has an unfortunate way of extending into their careers – no, the workplace is not a meritocracy, you need networks – so I want to help shift this attitude early.
The name “GenZim” is a combination of Gen Z for the teenage audience I want to engage with, and Zim(babwe) because I would like this to be of most benefit specifically to our next generation of Zimbabwean society. My website is www.genzim.com and I cover a range of personal development and life skills topics through the “Gen Z Pocketbook for Teenage Girls” – a book I wrote specifically for this website – and the monthly blogs I share. I also have a video channel where various Zimbabwean professionals talk about their career and education journeys so that GenZim’ers can learn from relatable people about the many exciting career paths available to them. I also hope they see that life has no formula but with agility and experimentation, they will attract opportunities.
We grow through community: by asking questions, asking for help, sharing resources and so on. Beyond the information I will share and the professionals I will introduce GenZim’ers to, I am hoping to create a positive safe space for the students to interact and learn from each other too. Social media can be a great part of that too! I’m on Facebook and Instagram as @genzimconnection. What we can build together is far greater than what we could ever achieve alone.
How has the response been to the book, and do you think that it is achieving the goals which you set for it to achieve?
I started sharing the e-book in October 2020 and the response so far has been very good as a self-published effort. I’ve had about 300 downloads and expect it has circulated much more broadly in offline channels like WhatsApp. My teen readers appreciate having a resource they can better relate to, and which covers the other ingredients of a happy life besides the “do well at school” narrative.
The impact I’d like to have is to have more open and honest conversations about the issues teens are facing, creating positive ways of resolving problems and thinking bigger than whatever the immediate limiting circumstance might imply. That takes time. Some of the things I write about can seem so simple that one might be tempted to think they know it all already. However, the more I observe what’s going on in our culture, I see that it’s not that people don’t know what’s the right thing to do. It’s that they struggle to do it consistently enough to get the full benefits of living that way. Through this book, and the website, I’d like to contribute to that sense of community that makes it easier to level up by providing positive reinforcement.
The book has a section where there is advice on how to deal with the negative effects of social media on mental health, which in my opinion, is explained brilliantly. What made you speak up about this topic, because it is often overlooked and kids suffer in silence, which in turn affects their self-confidence and self-esteem at later stages in life, including at the workplace?
We’ve all heard the saying, “hurt people, hurt people”. School brings together people from all sorts of environments, and it’s bound to happen that some are exposed to some kind of trauma at home or elsewhere in society (where they have less power) which they vent on others at school (where they have more power). The most difficult part about growing up now is that the bullying has gone virtual, and may not be visible to anyone else except the victim. That is a very particular kind of isolation which can spiral if we don’t create a more open culture that protects our young people, and keep reinforcing that they have access to help and hope whether they are the bully or victim in a given scenario.
Depression, self-harm, suicide, and other types of mental illness are on the rise for Gen Zs, let alone the self-esteem issues you’ve mentioned. I have encountered too many situations in my social circles over the years of Zimbabweans who are struggling with mental health to the point of suicide to not take this seriously. It’s not a first-world problem, it’s our problem too.
When you are in Zimbabwe you often take time to visit and engage with high school students at various schools as part of your mentorship programme. What key points have you noted which you would like to see transformation in?
I’d love to see the career conversation move away from narratives like “I’m studying this combination at A’ Level, what degree or profession can I apply for?” That is indeed a good place to start to identify one’s next step, but it doesn’t end there. Education is a vehicle – each student must decide where it takes them, not the other way around.
I’d love to hear more diversity of thought about career options: there is still a huge obsession around conventional career paths like accounting, engineering, law, actuarial science and medicine. These are all great options, but when I ask a few more questions about why these students have chosen them, it’s more about what they’ve been exposed to rather than what they could do as an optimal fit of their interests, talents and in-demand skills. So we need to fix this issue of exposure: we need different skills to build a different Zimbabwe.
Do you have any words of advice for a young African girl who would one day like to follow in your footsteps and become a successful Finance Executive?
- Prioritise experience in the early part of your career by going to an environment where you can get exposure to a variety of transactions and sectors as well as lots of deal flow: practice breeds competence.
- Stay on top of current affairs so you can spot opportunities and connect theory with the practical.
- Build your professional network: information and relationships are a unique currency.
- Lots of people who don’t study finance in university go on to become successful finance executives because the technical skills can be taught on the job. Critical thinking, analysis, communication, marketing and leadership are among the soft skills you can strengthen in other disciplines that can cross over very well. Nowadays, IT skills such as coding are also considered a welcome bonus even in the banking world. Focus on what you have to offer, and lead with that.
- Keep an eye on your next move and be open to the idea that you might be able to achieve a lot of growth within the same company, rather than hop to a brand new environment.
How can people who want to volunteer their knowledge, their expertise, or their time get in touch with you to advance the career guidance and mentorship initiatives?
That would be great! I’m available on email via firstname.lastname@example.org or on WhatsApp via +263 78 678 0499.
Learn more about Rumbi and also check out her blog on rumbimunyaradzi.com. Also watch Rumbi’s GenZim Career Insights Channel on yakontent.com.
Interviewed by Gugu Mpofu
Mirroring The Times In Sculpture With David Ngwerume
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
My Work Is My Passion – Zim Rugby Guru Nelson Madida
A chat with Zimbabwean professional rugby player Nelson Madida.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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