Growing cannabis may have once earned you a visit from the police. But with medical marijuana becoming increasingly popular in the West, Judy Cogan discovers African governments are keen to cash in.

A family-friendly pick-your-own fruit farm might not be the most likely location for large-scale cannabis cultivation.

But Polkadraai Strawberry farm in Stellenbosch recently received the first commercial license in South Africa to do just that.

With the go-ahead given by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority, the farm, an hour’s drive from Cape Town, expects to produce 20 tonnes of dried cannabis a year in its 46,000sqm greenhouse, situated alongside its rolling strawberry fields.

The licence is exclusively for growing marijuana for export and not for manufacturing products for sale or consumption.

This means seeds will be imported and the cannabis exported and transformed into everything from anti-anxiety medication and supplements to drinks made from cannabis-derived CBD oil.

Ever since A-list names, including Jennifer Aniston and Kim Kardashian, opened up about their love for oils, drinks and lotions infused with CBD, demand for these products has skyrocketed in the Western world.

Attitudes towards the medicinal benefits of cannabis are also changing, and investments into research in this field have soared.

Cannabis, which is legal for recreational use in some US states, legal for medicinal use in others, and strictly prohibited in the rest, has been touted for a wide variety of health issues, with the strongest scientific evidence around its effectiveness in treating childhood epilepsy.

In Israel it has been used to treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

And the UK is considering prescribing cannabis-based products for a whole range of medicinal uses.

At present, its use in Britain is limited to doctors on the General Medical Council’s ‘Specialist Register’, but it’s hoped all GPs will soon be allowed to offer the drug to patients suffering from anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain.

The global market for medical cannabis is currently estimated at $150 billion and could reach $272 billion in 2028, according to Barclays Bank. Europe’s medical cannabis industry alone will be worth an estimated $2.79 billion by 2025, with the non-medical CBD market estimated to rise to $16.5bn in Europe by 2025.

It’s no wonder David Beckham is making moves into the cannabis-based skincare industry via his investment vehicle, DB Ventures. And if you need any proof of changing attitudes around cannabis products, look at Yohanan Danino, the chairman of Together Pharma, Israel’s biggest manufacturer and distributor of medical cannabis, who also happens to be a former police chief.

CBD oil.jpg

Booming demand for these products in Europe and North America is prompting African countries to rethink their own policies on cultivation.

Since 2017, a number of African states have legalised cannabis farming for medicinal or industrial purposes, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Uganda and South Africa.

In October 2020, Rwanda joined the list, having approved the cultivation and export of cannabis, even though the use of it for both medical or recreational purposes remains illegal in the country.

Driven by the potential boost to export earnings, the Rwandan government is already in talks with four European and American companies about growing and processing cannabis for export to meet rising pharmaceutical demand.

The move could help shore up Rwanda’s state coffers, which have been hit hard by global Covid-19 lockdowns.

Back in South Africa, and the owners of Polkadraai Strawberry Farm – brothers Barry, Leslie and Julian Zettler – are already planning to extend their growing capacity, despite facing a number of initial challenges.

‘Our license is strictly for cultivation only, and we’re still waiting for [regional] companies to be licensed to manufacture and take our product and turn it into CBD oil, tablets or any other cannabis-based products,’ Leslie Zettler told Cape Talk radio.

‘We’ve got the license to cultivate and export, but I can’t sell it to the public and I can’t make finished goods.

‘I can only sell it to a licensed entity who is authorised to turn it into a finished product and those licenses haven’t been issued yet.’

With the supply chain stunted somewhat, the brothers are focusing on rebuilding their greenhouse ‘to make it more cannabis-specific’ while ensuring their crop is of the highest quality.

‘We need to make sure the materials or seeds we bring in are 100 per cent clean so we have a reliable import for seeds, and that’s still in process,’ he added.

'We are currently experiencing a lot of challenges, but until things start to open up, we are just going to be testing and getting everything ready.’

In Uganda, farmers face similar roadblocks following initial breakthroughs.

In April last year a Ugandan farm, run by Industrial Globus, a joint venture between Industrial Hemp, a local business, and Israel’s Together Pharma, dispatched Uganda’s first ever commercial cannabis exports.

It’s the country’s first and, so far, only foray into the medicinal cannabis market.

The cannabis is grown and stored at the farm outside the Ugandan town of Kasese under tightly controlled conditions in vast greenhouses roughly the size of four football pitches.

The plants are watered with hi-tech irrigation systems and labelled with barcodes, with strict procedures designed to comply with World Health Organization standards for ‘Good Agricultural and Collection Practices’. The cannabis is then escorted to the airport by anti-narcotics police, flown out of the country and sold to pharmaceutical companies around the world.

The opportunities for marijuana growers in Uganda are enormous, but are currently limited because Ugandan policy towards cannabis is a haze of confusion.

Hemp in Africa.jpg

‘It is still a controversial crop in Uganda,’ explained Benjamin Cadet, a director at Industrial Globus and a former Red Cross worker. Cadet sat in the Ugandan parliament between 2011 and 2016 and took an interest in medicinal cannabis after leaving politics.

‘We have two camps, the science-driven camp and the morality-driven politicians who thought maybe we were going to pollute morals.’

The farm employs about 110 workers, mostly from the surrounding villages, who earn 16,000 shillings ($4.30) or more a day.

But despite the apparent benefits to the local economy, no other Ugandan farms have been awarded a commercial licence since 2012, despite scores of entrepreneurs and local firms having applied.

This is largely down to strict requirements to enter the industry imposed by the Ugandan government. These rules cover areas such as security and minimum levels of capital, which many Ugandans feel is immediately setting them up to fail.

Meanwhile, international firms like Together Pharma have the capital and experience to overcome government restraints. The situation has left a sour taste in the mouths of local businesses put off by red tape.

But it’s not all bad news. In April this year Lesotho, which has already attracted multi-million-dollar investments from as far afield as Canada, became the first African country to be granted an EU licence to sell medical cannabis in Europe.

The country’s top medical cannabis producer, MG Health, announced it had met the EU’s Good Manufacturing Practice standards, allowing it to export cannabis flower, oil and extracts as an active pharmaceutical ingredient.

This breakthrough could create thousands of jobs for villagers and help open doors for more exports to other global markets such as France, the UK and Australia.

The economic potential for African countries is huge, according to experts.

A 2019 report by Prohibition Partners, a UK-based market intelligence firm, profiled nine African countries and estimated that, if they all fully legalised cannabis use, the market would be worth more than $800m for medicinal cannabis by 2023, and $6.1bn for recreational cannabis by 2023.

The global market for cannabis is still young and unpredictable, but optimists believe the sector is going to be huge as demand continues to grow. The well-being sector alone has seen a flood of CBD products launched onto the market, including tinctures, oils, gummy sweets and topical creams, while CBD products for pets are also making an appearance.

Despite the challenges faced on Polkadraai Strawberry farm, Leslie Zettler is looking towards a bright future. ‘This is probably the most new and exciting industry out there,’ he said. ‘There is a huge amount of research going into new products and developing what the different strains can do, and it’s just incredible what’s going on. It’s very exciting.’

The enterprising young businesswoman turning Nairobi’s plastic waste into environmentally friendly building materials. By Zachary Ochieng in Nairobi.

Above the din of roaring factory machines, I am greeted with a cheery ‘karibu’ (welcome) by Nzambi Matee.

Wearing a blue overall, and with a disarming smile, the 29-year-old ushers me into her sweltering office in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, where Matee’s construction supplies firm, Gjenge Makers, is based.

An environmentalist at heart, Matee quit her job as a data analyst at an oil company in 2016, after growing increasingly disheartened about the amount of plastic rubbish in her hometown.

‘I saw a lot of plastic waste lying around and that got me worried. I decided to use my expertise to make a contribution towards eradicating this menace,’ said Matee.

Together with a few like-minded individuals, she founded a plastics collection company that would sort and sell plastic waste to other recycling companies.

The idea was buoyed by a competition sponsored by the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre, which offered $750 to the company that collected the most plastic rubbish.

Matee and her group developed a mobile app that saw them collect tons of plastic waste and emerge winners, but they soon ran into headwinds.

With her team collecting the waste faster than local recycling companies could take it, she began thinking up alternative uses for the discarded drinks bottles and came up with a new idea: to make building material from plastic rubbish.

She spent the next year refining her idea, while studying social enterprise at the US-based Waston Institute, and upon her return to Nairobi in 2018, started research and development on the eco-friendly paving blocks and manhole covers.

Matee aims to promote recycling and upcycling in Kenya and Africa, and provide job opportunities for skilled and unskilled youth and women in Kenya’s bourgeoning engineering sector.

Nzambi, second left, with her colleagues in the factory.jpg

Her team collects waste plastics from the streets of Nairobi, processes them, and mixes the recycled plastic with sand to form a mixture, which is then molded into durable, lightweight paving blocks.

Gjenge’s bricks come in an array of colours, from traditional terracotta blocks to eye-catching blues and greens.

Tested to hold twice the weight of concrete blocks and up to 30 per cent cheaper, they’ve proved popular with residents and businesses in Kenya, with the company projected to break even later this year.

With four full-time and six part-time engineers, the company – which won last year’s UNEP Young Champions of the Earth Award – currently produces around 1,500 bricks per day. But it hopes to triple capacity this year to meet increased demand and create more jobs.

Plans are already afoot to sell recycled blocks in other countries within the East African Community, as well in Nigeria, where local suppliers have expressed interest in Gjenge’s products.

Matee has fostered partnerships with various organisations in order to help ramp up production, including the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre, Alquity Investment Management, America’s Watson Institute, Make-IT in Africa, and the iLab research and development unit at Nairobi’s Strathmore University.

The Kenyan businesswoman is confident that her team has what it takes, adding: ‘We are extremely excited to have recycled more than 2,000 tons of waste over the last two years and won five awards, while creating employment for the youth.’

Visit gjenge.co.ke.

Gjenge engineers at work.jpg

It’s the lifestyle choice promoted by Western celebs like Beyoncé and Messi. But, as Judy Cogan discovers, veganism is being embraced by people from West Africa, thanks to a London-based chef and food blogger.

When Tomi Makanjuola stood up and told her family she’d given up eating meat and dairy, the news was met with incredulous looks and a flurry of questions.

The Nigerian food blogger was in her third year of university at the time, and a semester spent in France ‘eating a lot cheese, butter and processed meat,’ triggered her decision to adopt a full-time vegan lifestyle.

‘In France, I slowed down for the first time and looked at what I was eating and how it affected my mood and energy levels,’ said the chef, who now lives in Croydon just outside London.

‘I made that link and it was a big discovery for me.’

She had been devouring articles, books and documentaries on animal rights and farming around the world.

‘The more information I consumed, the more I didn’t want to be consuming animal products.’

But Makanjuola understands why her family was sceptical, especially given the meat-rich diet she’d grown up on in Lagos, and continued to eat in the years after her family moved to England when she was 14.

Her mum cooked all their family meals from scratch, creating complicated Nigerian dishes and filling the house with warm and spicy aromas.

‘Becoming a vegan was a huge lifestyle change for me,’ said Makanjuola, who runs the popular food blog The Vegan Nigerian.

‘Growing up with the Nigerian food culture, the word vegan wasn’t in my vocabulary. Back then I didn’t even know anyone who was vegan. My family were like, “what are you doing? Are you sure?”’

But while meat, dairy and eggs would be off the menu, the last thing Makanjuola wanted was to overhaul her whole diet completely.

Determined not to miss out on the foods she had loved since childhood, she began experimenting with ways to make her favourite West African dishes vegan-friendly.

mosa

The first popular dish she focused on was Nigerian pepper soup.

‘I loved the rich flavours of the broth and it was always so very spicy,’ she said.

‘But it is usually made using chunky pieces of chicken, beef, or goat meat, with no part of the animal spared.’

Makanjuola set about creating her vegan version of pepper soup, maintaining the richness and depth of flavour she loves by using only plant-based ingredients.

‘I would experiment with dried and fresh mushrooms and add certain tubers that are popular in Nigeria, such as yam and cassava in place of the meat.

‘I used lots of spices and eventually I got a similar taste to the original. That was one of the many traditional Nigerian dishes I have adapted and was a big breakthrough for me.’

Her family, though supportive, were hesitant of trying her meat-free takes on the ‘classics’.

‘There was a bit of resistance at first,’ explained Makanjuola.

‘It seemed like such a foreign concept to my relatives.

'They would say “why are you messing with this dish, it’s fine as it is!” But they would always try whatever I cooked and loved it all. I only cook vegan food at home for my family and sometimes they’d finish the whole plate before I’d even get to it.’

okra sweet potato salad

Meanwhile Makanjuola was having a lot of fun in the kitchen and with every experiment became more excited about vegan food.

This led to her launching her popular blog The Vegan Nigerian in 2013.

‘I really enjoyed cooking for fun and from a young age I’ve always loved being in the kitchen.

‘I loved finding new ways to veganise familiar Nigerian foods and I wanted to share those recipes and show people — this is what is possible.’

Her intention in the beginning was to use her blog to reach out to people within her own community in Nigeria and the UK diaspora to say there’s no need to feel deprived of the foods they love when adding more plant-based dishes to their diet.

‘Early on, in terms of my audience I was picturing my mum and dad, my siblings, aunties and uncles.’

The blog has evolved over the years and grown into a full-time job for Makanjuola.

She admits not all Nigerians who read it have embraced a vegan lifestyle.

‘My Nigerian audience tend to be ‘meat reducers’ or heavily focused on incorporating healthy habits and recipes into their lifestyle rather than going fully vegan themselves.

‘I also have a loyal following of vegans in general, those people who want to expand their vegan repertoire or those who aren’t familiar with West African food and make a new discovery.’

In the months before Covid-19 gripped the world, Makanjuola had been busy taking part in foodie events, cooking at temporary ‘pop-up’ restaurants across London and enjoyed regular research visits to Nigeria.

She has also self-published four books, including her latest Plantain Cookbook, a bold and bright collection of 40 vegan-friendly recipes, with plantain at the heart of them all.

With in-person dining still outlawed in the UK, she plans to get to work on a ‘full-blown Nigerian cookbook’ of traditional dishes with a vegan angle.

She spent the last year working on new recipes, reconnecting with her online following through social media and has launched a series of online culinary courses.

‘With Zoom [video conferences] becoming really popular last year, it was a good way for me to transition from the in-person events to an online format,’ said Makanjuola.

‘I have to say I actually enjoy it slightly more now.

'I reach a wider audience and the thing I love and enjoy the most about what I do is the amazing like-minded people I connect with along the way.’

Her current course, Traditional Nigerian Snacks, available to book on her website, teaches participants how to make five traditional bites, such as Yamarita, Chin Chin and Puff Puff, all with a vegan twist, while also giving insights into Nigeria’s rich snack culture.

Nigerian snacks

Makanjuola is on a mission to show people that vegan food can be versatile, colourful and really tasty.

‘Flavour is key with vegan food,’ she explained.

‘A lot of people hold the misconception that it is all bland. I love using bright and bold flavours.’

There’s no denying veganism is on the rise across the globe.

In the UK, the number of vegans is thought to have increased four-fold between 2014 and 2019, to 600,000.

While a record-breaking 560,000 people around the world signed up to do Veganuary in 2021, a commitment to follow a vegan lifestyle for the month of January.

‘I can still remember eight years ago, struggling to find vegan options in restaurants,’ said Makanjuola.

‘I love the way the mainstream is catching on to veganism and it is much more than just a fancy Instagram trend. At the heart of it all is how we treat animals, the planet and each other.

‘I think people are hearing that message and feel it is something they’d like to explore. I am excited to see where it leads.

‘The number one thing is do your research,’ she added.

‘I don’t recommend turning vegan on a whim. Take your time to really understand every part of it and then have fun! People are veganising Caribbean, Indian and Asian food. There is something for everyone.’

Makanjuola’s passion for cooking was ignited as a child and she made her first bowl of Jollof rice aged 10, under the guidance of her mother.

Today her family have not only accepted her vegan life choice, but have adopted parts of it into their own lives.

‘I’ve seen such a huge shift in the way my family eats,’ she said.

‘For instance, they no longer consume any dairy products — all of the milk, margarines and cheeses they eat are plant-based.

'My mum and sister might just have meat one day a week, and I get family members telling me their health has improved since I inspired them to eat more plant-based foods.

'That really keeps me encouraged along the way.’

For recipes, see www.vegannigerian.com.

Jollof Rice

Jollof Rice

by Tomi Makanjuola (@VeganNigerian)

Serves 4

Ingredients:

- 2 cups long-grain rice or “sella” golden basmati rice

- 1/2 tin chopped or plum tomatoes

- 1/2 red bell pepper

- 1/2 scotch bonnet / chilli pepper

- 2 cloves garlic

- 1 tbsp fresh ginger

- 4 tbsp sunflower oil

- 1 small red onion (sliced)

- 2 and 1/2 cups water

- 1 tbsp curry powder

- 1 tsp dried thyme

- salt to taste

Method:

  1. Rinse the rice a couple of times under cold water and set aside.
  1. Place the tinned tomatoes, red bell pepper, chilli, garlic and ginger in a blender and blend until smooth.
  1. Heat the sunflower oil in a large saucepan or cooking pot. Add the onions and sauté on medium heat for 1-2 minutes. Add the blended pepper and tomato mixture, along with the washed rice. Cover with 2 and 1/2 cups of water. Add the curry powder, thyme and salt to taste. Stir to combine.
  1. Turn the heat down to medium-low, cover the pot and simmer for 25-30 minutes until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid. 
  1. Stir the rice gently and take off the heat.
  1. Serve with a side of fried plantain, coleslaw or seasoned vegetables. 

It’s the airborne delivery service that’s transformed healthcare provision in Ghana and Rwanda.

While many people might think companies like Amazon will be the first to start with drone delivery services, few realize the technology has already been in use in Africa for several years - and for a far greater purpose.

Medical start-up Zipline has been using drones to deliver life-saving medicineand blood transfusions in Rwanda for four years and in Ghana for nearly two years.

And the US company is set to expand its drone-delivery service to Kaduna in Nigeria. 

The service will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from three distribution centres – each equipped with 30 drones – and will deliver to more than 1,000 health facilities serving millions of people across the populous Nigerian state. 

The Silicon Valley-based logistics company has also started to play a growing role in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Ghana, Zipline began delivering Covid-19 test samples collected from patients in more than 1,000 rural health facilities to labs in the country’s two largest cities, Accra and Kumasi.

The service allowed the government to monitor and respond to the spread of the disease in some of the country’s most remote and difficult-to-reach areas, and reduced testing time from days to hours in some cases. 

In Rwanda, Zipline worked with global health non-profit organisation Partners In Health to ensure that quarantined cancer patients, who were unable to travel to the hospital for care and consultation, could continue to receive their chemotherapy treatments during the height of lockdown. 

Meanwhile, in the US, Zipline launched the first long-distance emergency drone logistics operation for hospital pandemic response, transporting deliveries of personal protective equipment to frontline medical teams in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Recently, the start-up announced a partnership with a major manufacturer of Covid-19 vaccines to build an end-to-end distribution system that will see the company distribute the vaccines in the countries where it operates.

‘Where you live shouldn’t determine whether or not you get a Covid-19 vaccine,’ said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo.

The drone company wants to help rural areas that have been hard hit by the coronavirus.

‘We can help health systems bypass infrastructure and supply chain challenges through instant delivery.’ 

The Covid-19 vaccine delivery service should help health facilities avoid the need for ultra-low-temperature freezers by receiving on-demand deliveries of the precise number of vaccines they require at any time, safely and compliantly within the required temperature profile.

‘We will build ultra-low freezers at all of our distribution centres. And we are developing special packaging that will help maintain safe temperatures in flight to allow the vaccine to be used within five hours,’ Justin Hamilton, Head of Global Communications and Public Affairs at Zipline, told NewsAfrica.

Zipline declined to specify its vaccine partner but said it has built a system that can deliver ‘all leading Covid-19 vaccines.’ 

It was initially thought that the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech must be stored in extreme cold temperatures of -70C, requiring special freezers. 

But recently, both companies announced that tests have shown that their coronavirus vaccine can withstand warmer temperatures, between -25C to -15C, which are at levels commonly found in pharmaceutical freezers and refrigerators. 

vaccine.jpg

‘This is good news for the world,’ Zipline’s Head of Communications said.

‘But we want to be in a position to deliver all vaccines at any temperature. They will still be a scarce commodity that needs to be distributed efficiently and effectively.’ 

A Pfizer spokeswoman said it supports Zipline’s efforts to expand access to vaccines and medicines to those in hard-to-reach geographies.

‘We share Zipline’s commitment to innovative solutions to ensure equity in the distribution of vaccines and medicines, she said, though she declined to specifically confirm a deal had been signed with Zipline.

Zipline expects to be ready to deliver Covid-19 vaccines in all the markets where it operates from next month.

The company’s fixed-wing, battery-powered drones navigate by GPS.

The unmanned aircrafts are able to carry 1.6 kg of medical supplies – about the weight of three pints of blood.

Through a very cleverly designed catapult-type system, the drone plane is accelerated to a 100km per hour (60mph) cruising speed in only 0.3 seconds. 

As take-off and landing are the most difficult stages of a flight, the drones don’t land on the designation but simply drop the supplies in an insulated cardboard box with a simple parachute, which afterwards can be thrown away.

Thanks to this system, clinics don’t need any infrastructure to sign up as a client or a distribution centre. 

Each aircraft can fly 160km (100 mile) roundtrip, in strong winds and rain, day or night, to make on-demand deliveries in 30 to 45 minutes on average.

A single distribution site can operate dozens of drones and supply an area of up to 20,000 square kilometres – or just under 8,000 square miles

Zipline says its drones have flown more than six million kilometres(3.5 million miles) and made nearly 400,000 deliveries in the last five years.

In Rwanda, the company’s drones transported a staggering 20 per cent of all the blood used in transfusions outside of Kigali, leading Zipline’s CEO, Keller Rinaudo, to describe the East African nation as a ‘role model’ for how the rest of the world’s health care systems may one day work.

Journalist Britt Collins shines the spotlight on a New York-Accra fashion brand, combining African designs, ethically sourced fabrics – and a touch of Hollywood glamour.

When Abrima Erwiah and Rosario Dawson started their socially conscious clothing brand Studio 189, they set out with a simple mission – to make great clothes and generate opportunities for struggling artisans and women across Africa.

Fusing their passion for nature and fashion, Erwiah, a former executive for luxury fashion house Bottega Veneta, and Dawson, a successful Hollywood actress, create beautiful, sustainable pieces that don’t harm animals or the earth.

‘It’s a social enterprise, which is much more powerful than aid,’ said Erwiah at Studio 189’s showroom in the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

‘It’s unfair that natural resources are often extracted with value added elsewhere, leaving communities in a position to beg for charity support.’

Studio 189’s collection of bright, bold prints and sleek, figure-sculpting tailoring is crafted from natural materials, such as raw cotton and silk, and sewn and hand-dyed by local artisans in Ghana using traditional methods.

‘We’re inspired by the wonders of nature and the idea of going to the source to understand where things come from and what they will become in the future.’

Operating between Accra and New York, the fashion brand has grown immensely since its launch in 2013, and is now sold through online global retailers, such as Net-a-Porter and Yoox, as well as in its own Manhattan boutique.

Studio 189 has won multiple awards and counts luxury Italian brand Fendi and international sportwear label Nike among its collaborators.

It has also partnered with the ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative, a UN alliance for sustainable fashion that works with the likes of Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood to support local talent in Africa.

SS20_Studio189_268.jpg

Luckily for Studio 189, ethical brands seem to have weathered the Covid-19 pandemic much better than many global fashion houses.

‘In the beginning I was afraid I’d have to let people go and worried for the health and safety of my team,’ said Erwiah.

‘And then soon something magical happened. Customers started looking for more sustainable, more human brands. In addition, our community rallied behind us and supported us a lot.’

‘I also pivoted and started making face masks,’ added the designer.

‘We received many orders, which helps us stay afloat.’

The cloth masks – made from off-cuts – even feature the brand’s signature hand painted designs.

Erwiah’s African heritage remains central to Studio 189’s ethos – pandemic or otherwise.

Her father’s family immigrated from Ghana and Ivory Coast, while her mother’s came from Mississippi.

‘My family moved to Pittsburgh during the great migration to find work as cleaners and factory workers. My mother later moved to New York. Her younger sister Naomi followed and tried to become a model.’

Erwiah’s aunt Naomi Sims, widely known as the first black supermodel before the word existed, broke the colour barrier after appearing on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1968, pioneering the Black is Beautiful movement.

Growing up in a close-knit community, Erwiah was always socially conscious and interested in people’s stories.

‘I remember when we were kids and didn’t have money, my mom would see someone who was in need and always gave to them whenever she could. And I’d say, “Why are you doing that? That’s your last dollar.” And she’d say, “It’s okay. We don’t need it. We are rich with love.” She would look them in the eyes and treat them with dignity.

‘It’s just about taking a moment to see each other’s humanity. I don’t know what my life would be like if my family and people in my community didn’t do their best to support and encourage me. If I can do my small part and pay that forward for someone else, I will.’

SS20_Studio189_133.jpg

Wanting to carve herself a meaningful space in the world, she volunteered at with the Kering Foundation in 2010 in Uganda, where she discovered the work of the Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel-Prize-winning entrepreneur, and the concept of social enterprise.

‘I liked the idea of creating a business that had impact at the heart.’

Erwiah met her future business partner, Rosario Dawson – who has starred in several US blockbusters, including Men in Black II – when the pair were teenagers in New York in 1994.

Dawson lived in an abandoned building with her parents in the East Village and was plucked off the street and cast for her debut film role in Larry King’s Kids.

Erwiah was attending a French school and planning to study business at New York University.

'Rosario and I both come from hardworking families who sacrificed and created a path for us. It’s not about ethics for me, but doing the right thing, consciousness, humanity.’

For years, the two long-time friends talked about doing projects together.

‘Rosario invited me on a life-changing trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the opening of the City of Joy, a community centre offering support and trade-based education for female survivors of sexual violence,’ said Erwiah.

‘We were awed by these women, who had faced so much atrocity but were resilient and wanting to see their villages and country thrive. What struck me most was that the women would make crafts and sell them, and take the proceeds and invest in agriculture. They would farm things like cassava to feed their families and sell it to send their kids to school. I realised that there are micro-economies existing on the outskirts of many societies that keep the world going.’

Inspired by these spirited, hopeful women, the pair decided to use their star power and business acumen to create Studio 189.

‘Rosario and I thought we could add value by working with marginalised communities to build a platform. And instead of focusing on the usual narrative of poverty, war and charity in Africa, what if we also highlighted the beauty. What if we worked with people that had been through various hardships, but we all come together through the power of our creativity.’

Studio 189 fabric printing.jpg

Soon after Erwiah relocated to Accra and started establishing a network of craftspeople and tailors.

Two years later, on Valentine’s Day 2013, they launched their first capsule collection in support of the One Billion Rising campaign that grew out of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls.

Erwiah admits starting a fair-trade business in West Africa had been a steep learning curve that came with a mountain of challenges.

‘I’ve had to deal with serious issues that no education and professional experience could have prepared me for – poverty, death, sexual violence, disease, illness. I had to deal with how to work during the Ebola epidemic, along with infrastructure issues, such as electricity outages, poor roads. Even now I don’t have running water and my electricity comes on and off.

‘When I have to do a call with a retailer, I hope to God nothing goes wrong because people don’t understand what it takes to create and build here, to create infrastructure that can uplift, innovate and also try to compete in a crowded marketplace.’

Each of Studio 189’s production is carefully considered, from working with local talent to using manufacturing techniques that produce zero waste.

All the materials and fabrics are recycled or bought in the Ghanaian markets, and the organic cotton is grown in Burkina Faso and transported to Accra for patchworking and creation of the garments.

The fashion industry at large is hugely wasteful and exploitive, and is the second biggest polluter after animal agriculture. But Erwiah sees no reason why fashion should be such a problem.

‘We need to change what we value,’ she said, reflecting that consumers need to look at clothes in the same way many make ethical, cruelty-free food choices.

In the past, Erwiah thought she was powerless to make an impact.

‘I used to think I was too small, too insignificant and kept waiting for someone else to take the lead, but at what point do you take accountability?

‘Ultimately, it’s not about success and accolades, but trying your best with whatever means you have.’

See, studiooneeightynine.com

Africa’s cities may soon be less noisy and polluted, says Andrea Dijkstra, reporting on a new rent-to-buy electric motorbike taxi service in Nairobi.

Motorcycle taxis – known in Kenya as ‘bodabodas’ - are responsible for more than 50 per cent of CO2 emissions in the transport sector, explained Kimosop Chepkoit.

Chepkoit is the founder & CEO of Ecobodaa, a new start-up that offers professional riders the chance to swap their gas-guzzling motorbikes for affordable battery-powered alternatives.

He is passionate about cleaning up his capital city’s toxic air. ‘We think it’s better to start where we can have a maximum impact.

'Two-wheelers are also easy to electrify and don’t need such a capital expenditure [on] heavy infrastructure, compared to cars.’ 

While the electric motorbikes are more environmentally friendly, crucially they will also give bodaboda riders higher profits, according to the Kenyan entrepreneur.

That’s because users will have lower fuel expenses and will also save on servicing costs because electric motorbikes don’t require oil changes and are built with fewer moving parts.

This might lead to savings of as much as $3 per day, explained Chepkoit.

‘A saving of even $1 per day means a lot to the riders,’ he said. 

‘These are young people with families and dependents in rural areas.

'$1 is the difference between having milk for the kids and not be able to afford milk.’ 

The Kenyan company will start commercial activities this month when it launches its first 10 Ecobodaas in Kibera, the informal settlement in Nairobi where the start-up launches. 

Riders pay a deposit, which is 10 per cent of the base cost of the Ecobodaa.

Then, after paying an 18-month lease of $3.90 per day through the Kenyan electronic mobile money service M-Pesa, they become the registered owners of the motorcycle but not the batteries.

Motorbike leasing is a very common thing in East Africa, more so in Kenya and Uganda where more than 70 per cent of motorcycle sales are through the lease-to-own model.

Kenyan motorbike taxis go electric.jpg

The electric motorbikes will be among the first to compete with Nairobi’s 100,000-plus petrol-powered motorbike taxis. 

For $1, the bodaboda riders can swap the bike’s battery in less than two minutes for a fully charged one.

‘Right now, we have rented four locations in [Nairobi’s] Kibera and Kilimani areas, which we will use as swap stations once we launch. We plan to have 100 swap stations in Nairobi by end of 2021,’ explained the Ecobodaa CEO.

‘The prospected savings on fuel, oil and maintenance are definitely interesting,’ said 26-year-old bodaboda rider Jacob Sum about the Ecobodaa launch.

Sum has been working as a motortaxi rider for four years now and bought his own petrol-powered motorbike two years ago.

‘I often drive around 200 kilometres per day, which costs me around 530 Kenyan shillings [$4.80], while this would cost me with an Ecobodaa around three battery swaps of in total only $3.’

The bodaboda rider is a bit sceptical, though, about the battery range being only 60 to 75 kilometres.

‘Sometimes I bring clients from Nairobi to Naivasha which is 80kms go and 80kms back,’ he said.

‘I also use my bike to drive to my home village, which is 342km one way. For these rides, you need to swap your battery, but where?’

Based on GPS tracker information and interviews with 300 riders, Ecobodaa’s founder concluded that battery range wouldn’t be a problem for most drivers who, he said, tend to fuel up every 30km.

Ecobodaa is part of a growing number of electric motorbike start-ups that have sprung up across the region in the past two years.

They supply and manage the motorbike-taxi drivers who run the most common form of public transport in most cities.

Bodawerk and Zembo have started providing electric motorbikes in Uganda. Metro Africa Express (MAX) has launched electric motorcycles for the Nigerian market.

Ecobodaa and British start-up ARC Ride are active in Kenya.

While two companies, Ampersand and Safi, currently provide electric motorbikes in neighbouring Rwanda. 

When Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, announced last August that he wanted all of the country’s motorbikes to be electric as soon as possible, Ampersand’s waiting list exploded.

Rwanda’s first electric motorbike company now has about 7,000 drivers on a waiting list for its vehicles.

The problem is that it can deliver only 40 bikes by the end of March. 

In Kenya, Chepkoit noticed that there was a lack of electric motorcycles that would meet the tough riding conditions in Africa, and therefore designed one himself together with Steve Juma, his Ecobodaa co-founder and former classmate.

‘We manufacture in China and assemble in Nairobi,’ explained Chepkoit, who is an electrical and electronics engineer.

‘The Ecobodaa is designed for our African cities, and we intend to move into other East African cities after our successful launch in Nairobi.’ 

See, ecobodaa.bike

Ethiopian designer Feiruza Mudessir talks to Judy Cogan about her streetwear stylings, and how she’s creating an Ethiopian-inspired oasis amid the bling and skyscrapers of the UAE.

Feiruza Mudessir opened her first stand-alone store at The Westin Mina Seyahi hotel in Dubai last October.

It was a big step for the Ethiopian, whose edgy men and women’s fashion label, Finchitua, fuses hip streetwear designs with traditional Habesha fabrics.

Her range of vibrant sarongs, tulle skirts and bleached embroidered denim jackets are infused with references to her East African heritage.

‘I’m a proud Ethiopian,’ said the designer. ‘My label stays true to my roots.’

Ethiopian fashion by Finchitua.jpg

Indeed, everything in Mudessir’s boutique, which is situated on Dubai’s iconic Jumeirah Beach, tells a story of the designer’s history.

There’s a silk scarf inspired by Ethiopia’s Aksum Empire and a bag printed with its ancient Ge’ez script.

While other items, such as her colourful Mirchi Masala skirt – named after a mix of ground spices in Hindi — are a nod to her teenage years modelling in India.

But it’s Mudessir’s African heritage that really inspires the designer, who founded her fashion label a few years after moving to Dubai in 2003.

She is currently in the process of collecting Ethiopian literature to create a reading area within her store to teach her customers about the heritage and culture of her birthplace.

Ethiopian fashion in Dubai.jpg

‘I want my customers to relax and feel like they’re walking into an Ethiopian home,’ said the businesswomen.

‘I love telling my customers facts about Ethiopia, its diversity and rich history. They are buying into that story, after all.’

Before setting up her label, it was important to Mudessir that she took the time to properly research Ethiopian history and its culture, starting from the Aksum Empire.

‘I knew the basic history, but if I want to inject that into my designs, the only way to do that was to go back to the beginning. Digging deeper has been fun and feels like a real privilege.’

Bahilawi_Finchitua.jpg

The traditional Habesha fabric Mudessir uses in her collections originates from the Dorzee tribe in southern Ethiopia and is now her trademark.

However, sourcing the material proved a big problem for the designer.

‘I noticed the shemanes [traditional Habesha weavers] would only supply their hand-woven fabrics to big retailers,’ explained Mudessir.

Luckily, her sister and her family still live in Addis Ababa, and, with their help, she was able to cut out the middlemen and set up her own team of local weavers.

‘By going directly to the source, I could put more money into the women’s pockets,’ said Mudessir.

‘I also pay them in advance, which helps them immensely because the retailers pay them in arrears. It’s hugely fulfilling seeing the positive impact we have on these families.’

She added: ‘We’ve been working with the women for four years now and we’ve even redesigned the Habesha pattern to make it unique to Finchitua.

‘My number one goal is to tell my story through my designs and always remain true to my roots, while at the same time giving these women a sustainable income and a higher quality of life.’

Finchitua’s popularity is growing year on year with orders coming in from all over the world.

A T-shirt will set you back $65 and a custom-made denim jacket around $190.

‘Using traditional Ethiopian fabrics with modern material, like denim, gave my designs a really distinctive look, and my one-off jackets, dresses and tutu skirts have gained notoriety, particularly with European customers.’

Mudessir has also introduced Arabic calligraphy into her designs as well as modest streetwear and denim abayas (the traditional cloak worn by Arab women).

‘My collections have grown with the diversity of my customer base,’ said Mudessir.

Ethiopian fashion.jpg

Her journey into the fashion designer she is today hasn’t been smooth sailing.

She signed up to a ‘crash course’ in design in Dubai and ignored advice from her tutors to accept a role in a well-known fashion house upon graduating.

‘I was determined that the first clothes I made would have my own name on the label, which looking back was pretty naïve,’ she admitted.

Instead, Mudessir created one-off made-to-order pieces while working full-time as a visual merchandiser at global retail giant Mango.

Then came an idea to upscale an old denim jacket.

‘I had a vision of creating this denim jacket by incorporating all three of my worlds: Ethiopia, India and the UAE. That’s how my first AfroRetro collection was born.’

Ethiopian inspired fashion.jpg

Mudessir also dabbled in the difficult world of pop-up stores, local fashion shows and market stalls.

‘I had very little knowledge of the business side of fashion back then and zero industry contacts,’ she explained.

‘I chose the hard way, but I have learned a lot through my experiences and I’ve loved this whole process of self-discovery.’

Fashion, though, is a notoriously difficult industry to crack, as Mudessir found out while working with a ‘huge’ global denim brand.

‘I was approached to create fresh designs with the brand that would culminate in a professional photoshoot and a behind-the-scenes documentary,’ said Mudessir.

‘It was a dream come true! I put my heart and soul into the project and worked day and night for two months straight.’

Unfortunately, two days before the launch, Mudessir received some bad news – she’d been dropped.

‘They decided to collaborate with a bigger named artist on the project instead.

‘It crushed me. I felt so let down. The pain of disappointment was real. But I did find my own silver lining.’

Determined not to be kept down, she added the designs to her collection and made a killing.

‘Those pieces have since become my best sellers. I wouldn’t have come up with the concepts if it wasn’t for that particular opportunity, so surprisingly enough, all the pain was all worth it.’

Mudessir’s happy-go-lucky attitude is very much part of the brand’s DNA. It’s even in the name: Finchitua means ‘the girl with a gap between her teeth’, a reference to her gappy smile.

Like the rest of the world, 2020 has brought little to smile about for the Dubai-based designer.

When the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the world earlier this year, the five-star hotel where her store is based was forced to close. It only reopened again in October.

‘I’ve had a lot of time to be creative,’ mused Mudessir on the lockdown.

‘I used the time to finish working on a new capsule collection that focuses on the African fabric Kente. I’ve never worked with this fabric before so it’s a new look for Finchitua.

‘When it is safe to do so I plan to do a big brand campaign in Ethiopia,’ added the patriotic businesswoman.

‘Ethiopians are proud to see their culture spread to other parts of the world, but I get a lot of encouragement to take the Finchitua brand back to Addis Ababa – to celebrate our diversity, warmth and heritage.

‘I feel it’s my duty to share the beautiful stories of Ethiopia past and present.’

See, finchitua.com

bahilaw-tunic-white-dress-front.jpg

Latest Print Edition

May 2021 Edition

© 2021 TT Media Limited