Born in the UK, Seth VanBeek did his primary and high school education in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. From a very young age, his mum always took him and his sister on holidays around the world, and that is when he discovered his love for flying. The former Christian Brothers College (CBC) student has since moved back to London with his family, and he took some time to tell us about how God has favoured him during a pandemic.
Career Guidance is something a lot of kids in Zimbabwe and Africa do not always receive. What inspired your decision to become a pilot and what steps did you take to find out more about that career path?
Making the decision to become a pilot was not difficult at all. I always knew from a very young age that I wanted to become a pilot, and I knew that I could start at 17 years of age.
The only difficult part on making that decision was the funding part, because flight school is very expensive, and my flight school of choice actually turned out to be more expensive than what my mum and I had budgeted. Thank God for my mum, because when I qualified to get into flight school, she sold our house in London to pay the £85,000 tuition fees for me.
I searched on the internet a lot to find out about flight schools and courses offered, but sometimes you will only be shown the nice side of things on the internet; for example, some flight schools will only show you their nicest aircraft online, yet when you get there you may find that the rest of their fleet is old and therefore not safe. So my mum and I travelled to a few flight schools to see for ourselves, and that way, we were able to choose the best school with the best facilities.
How did you do in your O’ Levels, and what grades did you need to gain entry into flight school?
In high school I actually didn’t put quite a lot of effort. I barely studied for my O’ Level exams, and it was just grace that I came out with 3 As, 5 Bs and 1 C. I didn’t even focus on science subjects, I just did general subjects like Physical Science, Maths, Geography, English, etc., of which for flight school I only needed 5 O’ Level passes, with a C or better in English, Maths and Science to qualify.
You had the choice of attending A’ Level first or going to flight school straight after your O’ Levels. Many children are told to complete high school first and get a degree, before they can be allowed by their parents to even think of going to flight school. How did you reach your final decision of going to flight school straight after your O’ Levels, and why was it so important for you to do that?
I spoke to my geography teacher one day and told him my options of either going to A’ Level, or going to flight school and breaking the record of becoming the world’s youngest commercial pilot, and he said to me, “Seth, the world is developing. If you’re able to start without A’ Levels, then there’s no point in wasting 2 years of your life, because by the time your friends finish their A’ Level exams, you would’ve already qualified as a pilot.”
How easy or difficult were the flight school entrance exams?
When you get to flight school, you do an entry exam which includes Mental Physics and Maths, but I didn’t find it very difficult because it was all O’ Level stuff. It only starts to get very difficult when you get to the part where you have to do aviation related calculations, but again those are all based on O’ Level Maths principles, so ultimately it wasn’t very difficult for me.
With the support of your mum who sold her house in the UK to pay for flight school tuition, you managed to enrol at Egnatia Aviation Training College in Greece. It must have been very tough being so far away from home at only 16. How was your initial experience at the school and what coping mechanisms did you use to make the experience more enjoyable?
I had never really been away from my family, and here I was at 17, moving to a whole different country by myself. I had to mature pretty quickly. The first few days were very difficult, I was very homesick and I missed my family a lot. My housemate did not help the situation because he was not friendly at all, and even quite rude. I managed to get a new housemate, but he also turned out to be quite untidy and not very clean.
All of this added to my frustration at the start of my flight school journey, and we were in a very small Greek town where people didn’t speak English; so I had to find ways to adapt very quickly. In about two weeks, I was already feeling accustomed to the place. I still missed home a lot, but I took comfort in knowing that the course was very short and in 18 months I would be done. It helped that my mum visited about 3 or 4 times when I was there, and I was able to visit home 2 or 3 times, but in my final year, things got so hectic that I was not able to visit home at all. I was now used to my new normal though, so I persevered. Looking back, those days shaped my character a lot.
Whilst at flight school, besides the actual flying practice and flight simulations, what subjects did you focus on?
I didn’t really major on any subjects. We did a total of 14 subjects which included Flight Planning, Mateorology, Radio Navigation, and General Navigation, just to name a few, and I must say that they were very, very challenging subjects.
I also realised that for me personally, flight school was not very difficult, but it was just about the work and effort which I put in. Even getting to know all the buttons in an aircraft didn’t prove as difficult as it looks, because all the buttons are labelled, and after you’ve been practising for a while, you end up knowing where everything is – though of course during a flight you cannot press a button without double-checking what it is for, for safety reasons.
I know you are extremely passionate about flying, but a lot of people fear flying. What gives you the courage to brave the skies?
I actually feel safest when I’m in the air than when I’m driving. Even if you look at the ratio of air crashes to car crashes, it’s 1:10million, and if you count the number of major air crashes that kill a lot of people in a year, they’re very few compared to road accidents. Aircraft have something called Redundancy, so almost everything is duplicated. So for example, if one engine fails, you can just switch to the next one, and you will always get a warning when something is not functioning properly.
You went on to graduate top of your class, and your instructors actually labelled you as ‘one of the best students they had ever had’, both academically and socially. What do you attribute your success to?
My mum had made such a huge financial investment in me such that when I got there, I knew that I had to give it my all, and thank God I passed all my exams and tests first time round, and I actually graduated top of my class with an average of over 90%. One of the instructors who was in charge of the Hellenic Airforce actually told me that in all his time in his career he had seen very few pilots who were quite like me in terms of working hard, following instructions, and being well-mannered in general.
Just after you graduated, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and as you were looking for a job at an airline, tens of thousands of pilots around the UK and in the whole world actually lost their jobs. What gave you the strength and confidence to carry on looking for a job, despite these unpleasant statistics?
Though it was very challenging, I never doubted that I would get a job sooner or later. What made me feel a bit better was knowing that there were tens of thousands of pilots in the same boat as me. I kept on praying and believing that God would make a way for me, and now during the second lockdown which is even worse than the first one, God opened a door for me.
Besides sending out your CV over a thousand times in the last year or so, what else did you do to try and secure a job?
I stayed persistent at all times, constantly sending emails, contacting Directors of companies via LinkedIn, and making phone calls to companies. I figured that everybody would be sending out emails and cover letters, applying for the same jobs I was, so I figured that it would be better if I made phone calls, because at least that way they could put a voice to the name, and that voice would stick with them and make a difference, compared to the other applications. I consistently called my new boss every 2 or 3 weeks, just checking if he now had an opening.
The day he called me to offer me the position, he actually told me that they had received hundreds of CVs, but I was the one person who came to their mind first because I was constantly in contact. He actually joked with me saying, “I gave you the job just so you could stop pestering me.” – laughs.
However, even when you do make that phone call, it’s about how you conduct yourself on the phone; humility, confidence in your skills and in yourself, and your faith, will go a long way. What companies want to see at the moment is who is most passionate, and who will go above and beyond to get that job. So I just kept on telling myself that I had nothing to lose by calling – the worst they could do was just say no, then I’d just move on to the next company. I had more to gain by putting myself out there every single day. I was actually planning to go to companies after the lockdown and look for a job in person. Eventually, at 19 years old, I have landed my very first job through persistence and consistency.
During that time, you also started an online programme to help young kids who would also like to become pilots with some valuable information. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Due to the difficulties that I had faced while trying to find out more about becoming a pilot and choosing a flight school, I decided to make the process easier for other young people by developing specialist aviation packages focusing on “How To Become A Pilot”. The programme has 3 sections which are, ‘Find A Flight School’, ‘Airline Pilot Training’ and ‘Nutrition and Lifestyle’, and they are based on my own experiences of my whole journey at flight school.
Finally a few weeks ago, your prayers were answered, and you got a job working for a private jet charter company. How did you feel when that call came in, and how does it feel to know that all your hard work at flight school is finally going to pay off?
I’m very excited now because I’ve actually just been on training in Austria, and when I start work I’ll be flying all over Europe. I’m also truly blessed because the salary is really, really great, and compared to commercial airlines which have really hectic schedules, I will get a lot more time to spend with my family. My mum cried when I got the phone call, and I was lost for words, I had no idea what to say. I’m so thrilled that God showed himself strong for me, a young boy from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, when there were so many pilots who are way more qualified and wouldn’t even need training like I do.
There are currently 90,000 unemployed pilots because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and from all those, I was chosen for this amazing job. After sending my CV nearly a thousand times and getting so accustomed to receiving rejection emails, it still hasn’t sunk in that I finally have a job. In fact, the morning just before the call came in, I had actually received a rejection email and I had just said to myself, “Well, it is what it is.” To think that my new company actually chartered a whole private jet just to pick me up from London and take me to Austria for training, during a time of strict travel restrictions, it’s all so mind-blowing. It’s a testimony for me, because everything happened in God’s time, and this is what God means when He says “I will do exceedingly and abundantly above all you ask.” It will be such an honour to buy my mum another house in the next year or so.
What are your goals for the next three to five years, and do you see yourself breaking any more records in the aviation industry?
I have quite a few goals for the next 3-5 years, one of them being that I want to break the record of becoming the youngest Captain, which currently sits at 26 years old. I also have a vision and a plan to build a flight school in Zimbabwe for the underprivileged with a scholarship programme. I also want to start an airline in Zimbabwe which allows African pilots with low hours to build up their hours.
What are your parting words to young Africans out there who also dream of becoming pilots one day?
Don’t let anyone deter you from achieving your goals. If it’s your dream to become a pilot, stick with it and run with it. Everybody has different paths; your path may be that you have to go through another career in order to save up money to go to flight school, but aviation is more than just a career – it’s a passion; and if you have the passion, you must know that you’re going to achieve your goals by working hard and pushing through all the barriers to get there. When you finally do get there, the victory will only be that much sweeter.
Connect with Seth:
Facebook: Seth vanBeek
LinkedIn: Seth Vanbeek
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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