Building a venture from scratch not for the faint-hearted, says gourmet tea entrepreneur

Cote d’Ivoire-born Swaady Martin-Leke is the founder and CEO of YSWARA, a newly launched African tea company that is targeted at the higher-end consumer market. The company is based in South Africa, but sources its teas from across the continent. According to Martin-Leke, the luxury market in Africa offers increasing opportunities with the steady growth in the African middle class and discretionary income.

Swaady Martin-Leke was one of the panellists at the launch of the inaugural WIE Africa (which stands for Women, Inspiration and Enterprise) symposium in Cape Town last week.

Swaady Martin-Leke was one of the panellists at the launch of the inaugural WIE Africa (which stands for Women, Inspiration and Enterprise) symposium in Cape Town last week.

Before starting YSWARA, Martin-Leke spent eleven years of her career with General Electric. How we made it in Africa asked her to tell us a bit more about the tea market in Africa and her advice to other aspiring African women entrepreneurs.

Who are your customers?

As for any global luxury band, our customers are all over the world, in Africa and outside of Africa. Right now, about 90% of our customers are in Africa (we launched six months ago) but we ship our products all around the world via our online shop.

Where do you source your teas?

Africans have long understood the healing power of plants. The fragrant leaves of the hibiscus have long been popular in Western Africa; drinking kinkeliba bush tea is a daily ritual for many in Senegal and Gambia. Rooibos, honeybush and buchu were harvested by the Khoisan people of Southern Africa and are still celebrated for their medicinal properties.

Today, YSWARA harnesses this ancient knowledge in collecting the world’s largest selection of fine African teas. Our single estate, orthodox teas are grown in the verdant fields of the finest African tea estates, whether it be the rolling hills of Rwanda‘s Rukeri Estate or the misty peaks of Malawi‘s Shire Highlands. Each of these rare leaves is handpicked and sun-dried, processed on their individual farms using only natural methods.

Currently we source from South Africa, Malawi, Rwanda and Kenya. Our plan is to source from all tea producing countries in Africa: Burundi, Cameroon, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi (the first country in Africa to cultivate tea), Mauritius, Mozambique, Rwanda (which has a reputation for superior taste among African teas), South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, DRC, and Zimbabwe.

Describe some of the challenges you face in running this business.

Building a luxury brand fully African-made presents tremendous challenges which my team and I are still overcoming every day. Today, our product is about 90% made in Africa and we have a target to reach 100% by end of next year. The main challenge is that our Africa industrial fabric is not made for high-quality goods produced at a competitive cost relative to China or India. We struggled to find suppliers who source or manufacture their products in Africa. Then, when world-class quality is met, the consistency is not guaranteed. For example, our tea tin manufacturer just closed this month and there is no alternative in sub-Saharan Africa.

Our artisans are mostly not set up to scale their activities and are often paralysed by the prospect of growing their business beyond the “enough-to-live” stage. As a luxury brand, we cannot afford any inconsistency in quality nor sub-standard quality levels. We are competing with international brands, benchmarking ourselves to the best as we want to grow big. On the export side, the cost of exporting outside of Africa is still too high. This is hampering growth of internet sales as well as opportunities to export out of Africa globally. Despite all these setbacks, we are persevering and most of them turned out to be unexpected sources of strength.

As I was sharing those challenges with a wise mentor, he advised that “everything that is too easy is also easily replicable”.