Early last year, a team of Italian fashion and jewellery designers based in Kenya started CREA Africa, a company that produces jewellery and accessories in Africa for sale in international markets.
CREA manufactures jewellery and accessories from recycled and locally sourced materials including brass, bone, glass, bone, horn and crocheted materials which are handcrafted by Kenyan artisans.
“The idea was to create a company that would manufacture high quality handicraft using modern designs, handmade in Africa. We targeted the international market because we wanted to work with high fashion designers and we wanted to push them to showcase more products made in Africa,” says Marina Bottelli, managing director of CREA.
The Nairobi-based business sells its own brand of products via online and physical stockists in Europe. Global brands and leading international fashion designers also contract CREA to manufacture products for them which sell for up to US$3,000 a piece in high-end stores.
“However, there are still many questions about the quality of things produced in Africa. This continent is full of great people able to produce great things but there is still no guarantee of quality. This is what CREA is pushing; [the idea that] you can produce high quality products in Africa.”
Elisabetta Capolino, one of the co-founders of CREA, said the firm partners with artisans who run independent workshops with the view of improving their skills to ensure high quality production in Kenya. CREA’s other co-founders are Cristina Cisilino and Annalisa Bernardi.
A trained architect, Capolino moved to Africa in the 1990s after her husband, a United Nations employee, was posted to Ethiopia. She runs her own independent brand, Le Collane di Betta, which she founded in 1998 during their first posting to Kenya.
Ensuring continuous demand from leading fashion designers and brands in the international markets is one of the challenges CREA faces.
“What we are looking for is to have a constant relationship with designers who really want to support Africa. We get a lot of designers who approach us to produce for them for one collection or one season and then they go while the aim is to have long-term relationships. The artisans that we are training and promoting live off this,” says Bottelli. “Getting designers and the international market to understand that in Africa you can get very high quality products is also still a challenge.”
While ‘Made in Africa’ can be a good selling tag, in the international market it can also be a hurdle.
“Running a company from here is sometimes very fascinating to customers [in international markets], but sometimes it is also, ‘you are in Africa, that is too far away, what are you doing there?’” says Bottelli.
Nonetheless, CREA is hoping to build its own brand and plans to showcase its products in more online and physical retail stores in Europe.
“It is very challenging, but we want to be recognised as a leader of high-quality production in Africa,” says Bottelli.
Capolino advises other entrepreneurs to invest in mentoring and improving their employee’s skills and to build good relations with all stakeholders. They should also place emphasis on offering high quality products.
“I am very strict when I start working with an artisan. I give them my idea of collaboration which is not charity [type of] collaboration… It is business.”
Bottelli noted that foreign investors coming into Africa should do proper research, understand their market and its needs and operate ethically.
“You have to respect the country that is hosting you in that moment. There are many giants entering Africa without having that kind of sensitivity. You might be successful but then if you look inside yourself you will feel that you haven’t done the right thing. You have to respect the people, the rules and laws and look at the needs of the country.”
Capolino explained that Africa’s growing population and affordable labour market make it a good location for manufacturing fashion products. She added that the purchasing power among the African middle class is also growing, creating a market for high end fashion products.
“Asia is gone, north of Europe is gone and now in Europe there is an economic slump and [so is the case] in the US,” says Capolino. “But in Africa, economies are growing. People [here] now have money to buy high-end brands. This is an amazing opportunity.”