Taking African contemporary design to new heights

There is a new name in African contemporary design, AfriConté.The brand uses Zambia’s natural resources and artisans to design the finest contemporary homeware. AfriConté describes itself as “A pro-African homeware brand that collaborates with talented Zambian artisans to birth unique handmade contemporary African décor pieces.” AfriConté is run by three partners, Mubiana Kabaghe, Mayaba Shakankale and Adele Makayi.  Mubiana shares , “The reason why I co-founded AfriConté is because I’ve always wanted to be part of the change I want to see in Zambia. What I mean by that is seeing African businesses, indigenous Zambian businesses grow, while also contributing to the community through social impact.”

Mubiana’s strength is in business development, Mayaba’s is in design and styling, while Adele’s strength is in branding and marketing. All three partners recognise the importance of working with pre-existing skills like those of artisans across Zambia.

AfriConté is a pro-African homeware brand that collaborates with talented Zambian artisans to birth unique handmade contemporary African décor pieces.

AfriConté’s debut was at the 2020 Zambia Arts and Design Show (ZADS) where they quickly found success that exceeded their expectations. Mubiana explains, “The business had just started but with ZADS we introduced ourselves and our sales were good. We made a profit and we’ve had repeat business since then and clients recommending us to other clients.”

Mubiana continues, “My heart is set on taking Zambia to the world through what we do, exporting our culture but in a contemporary way that is appealing globally. We are taking pre-existing designs, for example baskets, and adding a contemporary touch to them that is relevant in the hospitality sector, home décor, office décor and so forth.”

L-R: Mubiana Kabaghe, Mayaba Shakankale and Adele Makayi

Hanging baskets from ceilings or on your living room wall as accent pieces are just some of the ways in which locally made crafts have been used in contemporary design. It’s not just about functionality but also about creativity and making spaces aesthetically pleasing. Mubiana reflects on this trend saying, “In Scandinavian countries you see people using woven accents like chairs or woven side tables with a glass top and steel frame, and it just all comes together nicely.”

The business first launched with a range of terracotta planters, an idea that came about when Mubiana realised that there was a gap in the market. She noticed when going into a particular major brand store that was the main supplier of these pots that they had stopped importing them due to COVID-19 restrictions. “I thought these pots come all the way from Germany, there must be a way to make them locally. I realised we had the resources and we could use local potters from Kabanana Compound to make the planters. I also discovered that the clay is predominantly found in Mkushi and known locally as Mkushi clay. We give the artisans the designs and they create the products using their expertise in pottery.”

From there the business began incorporating local baskets like the makenge basket and Tonga basket into furniture for the home. Sourcing the baskets was fairly simple, with the goal of helping local artisans in rural areas. Mubiana shares, “I met a lady at the Kabwata Cultural Village who sells baskets and when we introduced baskets into our designs a few months ago, she became our go-to person. She introduced us to people in rural areas that handmake these baskets and that was how we first formed connections with the weavers. Most of our woven stuff comes from Choma in Southern Province and Kalabo in the Western Province. Our goal is to diversify so we are currently reaching out to the Eastern Province. The beauty of weaving is that it’s specific to certain areas. The materials, the designs and techniques are different from province to province.”

Challenges the new business has faced are those of keeping the prices fair while paying local artisans fairly and meeting customer needs. Mubiana details, “We had to identify our target market, and I think that’s the starting point, because then the target market is able to appreciate our product and also understand our prices.  We are not a mass market kind of product, we are very niche. So with that not everyone will appreciate the price but there is a lot that goes into the work that we do from the labour, skill and design. It is an entire ecosystem with our weavers being six hundred kilometres away and bringing baskets to us, as well as our operational costs.”

Fair pricing has been achieved through partnering with agents who are the people that work with the weavers and communicate with them. They also work with Prospero Zambia who have an artisanal and natural products assessment department which has pre-existing relationships with various artisans and weavers in a number of rural areas. This has made the work easier by following these channels to leverage the work AfriConté does. For example, the Prospero database makes it easy to identify weavers who can weave for the international market.

As the business grows, AfriConté has already begun to incorporate more woven furniture in the form of the Malawi chair from neighbouring Malawi, which is in keeping with the goal of elevating contemporary African designs. When it comes to expansion or creating new product lines it is a long process. Usually clients will determine whether a product is phased out or altered to suit what they want. Feedback is important as it helps planning and designing alongside what is trending on the international market, while keeping designs unique and authentic to the brand.

With growth has come the demand for a physical store. “A lot of people would like to see and interact with the product. That is how the need for our physical location came to be. We also noticed we lost a few sales due to not having a physical presence,” Mubiana tells me. AfriConté now has a new physical store conveniently located at number 27 Kabulonga Road, in Lusaka.

As AfriConté looks to the future there are talks with Prospero of expanding the business further with the international wholesale markets in the US, South Africa and the UK. The long-term goal is to make this the primary revenue stream in terms of sales, in order to sustain the work in the local market, expand the product line, keep the store open and continue to support local artisans. Big players in the hospitality industry including Chita Lodge Kafue have taken notice of AfriConté and ordered several different products. AfriConté pieces can also be seen as part of the décor on the set of Millennium TV’s breakfast show.

Thinking outside the box and taking a refreshing approach to business growth is what will see AfriConté thrive not just in the Zambian market but the world at large.

“The beauty of weaving is that it’s specific to certain areas. The materials, the designs and techniques are different from province to province.”

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