The Culture Crush’ Debra Scherer sat down with Yodit Eklund, founder of the African surf brand Bantu Wax to talk about her evolving company and African youth culture. Yodit, an Ethiopian native, eloquently shares her goal to create positive images of Africa through Bantu's own ethos and sense of community. She shows us that, contrary to popular belief, Africa is more than just a poverty-stricken continent filled with expensive safari opportunities; it is actually a dense hub of remix culture. Though many industry behemoths talk the talk of Made in Africa, Yodit's guiding force is basically, "if it can't be made in Africa, we don't make it."
Debra Scherer: So, start off just by telling us a little bit about yourself before, and what made you want to do this? Where did this idea come from?
Yodit Eklund: To be honest, I never planned on building a business. I went to UC Berkeley in California and studied environmental science and economics. So after I graduated, I moved back to Africa and made some board-shorts and swimsuits for a few friends. We used technical swimwear fabric to make some suits with some traditional African prints, but it was never supposed to be anything. Until a friend of mine sent pictures of the stuff to Barney’s, actually to info@Barneys.com, and we got called in for a meeting, and just like that, they picked it up! So basically it became a business just on its own. At that point I didn’t even know what a line-sheet was.
DS: So you only had a couple of swimsuits?
YE: Yes, I just had a few swimsuits.
DS: And they were probably like, “cool fabrics?”
YE: Well, they were really interested in the fact that it was an African surf brand. Like I feel as though Barney’s was really a leader at that time, but, yes, they picked it up and I began doing one season a year for about 4 years.
DS: And you were based out of?
YE: Africa. I live in Africa mostly.
DS: Where exactly?
YE: We do a lot of production in Ethiopia and Kenya. We do some production in South Africa and we have surf shops now in Senegal, South Africa, and Morocco.
DS: But that came later?
YE: Yes, that came later. But at the time, it was still pretty much based in Africa and running production. We just did fashion weeks and things for sales.
DS: You know, so many brands say, “ oh we’re going to make stuff in Africa and Africa is the next best market." So the fashion business is always trying to exploit the next market, and then there you were, walking the walk from the beginning.
YE: You know it’s just a local African surf brand, so it just makes sense for it to be made in Africa, you know?
DS: Right! Seems obvious!
YE: So there are a lot of reasons why Bantu is made in Africa. But at the end of the day, it’s an African surf brand, so it should be made in Africa, you know?
DS: Right! So how has the culture of Bantu developed?
YE: So, at first, we were doing one collection a year. And everyone was like "oh, well maybe you should do resort, etc." The business really grew organically, we never had an aggressive sales team. It was just kind of like people discovering it. And I think in African youth culture today, there’s nothing more exciting. There’s almost a billion people in Africa. 75% of them are under the age of 30. So you have a big youth culture. So inevitably, there’s a lot of culture coming out of Africa whether it through art, music or other ways to express yourself. And Africans are resourceful, so I think that’s what makes it so interesting.
DS: So what about the name Bantu? Where did that come from?
YE: So Bantu is from the Senegalese language, Jola, and it means gateway, because for centuries, people of Senegal considered their country on the western most tip as the gateway for Africa. And wax, obviously because we make surf wax and our swimsuits are wax print.
DS: So at that point you were basically selling at Barney’s and doing the fashion route, being part of the apparel industry and that whole vibe?
YE: We were so lucky to have so many people who really supported us when we didn’t know what we were doing. So, I really owe all of our first wholesalers everything because this brand exists also because of them, you know? But you know, it came to the point where you could buy Bantu in Hawaii, Japan, New York and London, but it wasn’t available in Africa! And because I was so protective of it in Africa, I didn’t really find retail that I wanted to put it in. So I was kind of babying it until I could do it myself.
DS: What’s retail like in Africa? Is there a Barney’s of Africa?
YE: No no. Retail has no where to go but to grow in Africa! So finally I pulled out of our wholesale accounts because I thought why is this brand that I made, as an African, that’s an African surf brand; why is it easier for kids in Tokyo to buy it than kids in Africa? Why do kids in Africa have to wait until they travel to buy it? And some people think I should have kept the wholesale, but I just really wanted to focus on Africa. I wanted to be able to surf also!
YE: You know I really believe in the African market and I think that Africa needs its own youth culture brand.
DS: So you’re a surfer?
YE: I wouldn’t say I’m a surfer, but I surf.
DS: Well okay, that’s fair enough. So it's such an incredible story and it seems so obvious that no one has ever really done this, to have a brand that’s by Africa, for Africa. That was really brave of you to just decide to not take the easy route and just stick with the wholesale business. You really believe in what you’re doing.
DS: One of the things that we’ve been talking about a lot right now at the Culture Crush, is this idea, which is sort of like a gen-x idea of the worst thing you can do is to sell-out. But now that doesn’t really exist. Now everyone is kind of born to sellout. So now every time you do something, people are like, “is someone paying you to make that Instagram post?” Almost every picture in every issue people ask, “who sponsored that one picture or who paid for it?” And its just like not everything is for sale!
YE: Well, I mean for us it’s not about selling out either, because what does that really mean in Bantu’s situation? Because selling out for us means that the brand becomes huge, and that we employ a lot of people in Africa, which means people start thinking of beach in Africa and start associating Africa with beach instead of all of these other horrible things, which in turn results in tourist coming to Africa, spending money in Africa and African government saying we need to protect our beaches. So for me, I’m not even going to lie, my goal is to sellout.
DS: What you mean though, is sell and keep ownership over the brand and culture you have created, not make a deal with LVMH and move production to China.
YE: Yes, my goal is to sell as much product as we can, but in the right way.
DS: Right, that’s what I mean. You're not taking the first grotesque thing that comes along the way for your own personal gain, instead you are making choices that benefit African society and your own culture.
Y: I think the other thing that is really important to me is that Bantu is sustainable. I don't want to give someone a job today and take away their job tomorrow. It has to be sustainable or there will be too much on my conscience.
DS: So in the past year, you decided to take retail into your own hands?
YE: Yes, so I went to Dakar and I spent 6 months looking for a store.
DS: Why Dakar?
YE: It’s one of the most iconic surf spots in Africa. In the summer it’s like the one spot that everyone goes to. Bantu comes from Senegalese and West Africa’s just cool. I mean all of Africa is cool, but it just ended up that we started in Dakar. Dakar is a peninsula, so there’s not so much space to build. What you have is a lot of French colonial architecture. So when I was looking for store spaces, either I found these grotesque and horrible new buildings that were not representative of the brand at all, or I found these old French colonial buildings. And I couldn’t launch a brand about Africa’s future from something of Africa’s colonial past, right? So we ended up finding a spot on a beach and I met with a friend who’s an architect and I asked what he thought about doing something like containers you know, so he helped design this shop. So it's basically two containers stacked on top of each other. We have like a juice bar on top and at the bottom we have the surf shop.
DS: A juice bar and a surf shop? Very trendy for Senegal!
YE: It’s cool because its on a surf spot and its become like a hub, you know? Then, I ended up connecting with a friend of mine in South Africa and we decided to bring Bantu to South Africa. So we have a shop in an area that used to actually be a beach called Woodstock in Cape Town. And so we opened the second store in Cape Town.
DS: What do you mean it used to be a beach?
YE: Well it used to be a beach and then they filled it with land, but it’s kind of a cool part of Cape Town, really mixed. You know a lot of Cape Town is not really mixed. So I like the fact that kind of everyone’s there.
DS: Right! So South Africa is very different from other African Countries, is it more international?
YE: Cape Town is one of the top 10 places that tourists visit in the world. What’s cool is that Africans all over Africa come to South Africa. Its kind of a hub, you know? So it’s not only that we get international people from Europe, America or Australia, but there are other Africans that we might not be able to reach otherwise.
DS: So people are coming from all over Africa and they can experience Bantu and Cape Town. So what’s the scene in Dakar? Is that mostly Senegalese?
YE: Yes, it's mostly Senegalese. And it’s a spot where people actually come to come surf. Dakar is actually a city where you see people come straight from their offices, get out of their suits, and change into a wetsuit, you know?
DS: That’s really cool!
YE: So it’s really like an urban surf scene. There are at least 10 spots in Dakar to surf so there’s always something you can surf. It’s pretty cool!
DS: Right, Okay! And then you have another shop in Morocco.
YE: We have a shop opening in Morocco in a place called Taghazout, which is another one of the best surf spots. It’s in a tiny little fisherman’s village with amazing surf.
DS: So are you doing the same concept with containers?
YE: No, we just found a really small store that this Berber guy owns.
DS: You know, when I think of Morocco, I think of desert, I never think of it as surfing or fishing or anything like that. So what’s it like?
YE: It’s a really cool surf scene because you can surf year ‘round. And it’s really close to Europe so you have a lot of Europeans that come. And Morocco itself, has a really fast growing surf scene. You can surf all up and down the coast of Morocco, you know? Casablanca really has a cool surf thing as well. Again its like Dakar, you see guys come after work and come for a surf, or before work. Same thing with Cape Town. So we really wanted to be in places where it was really urban surf because Africa is urbanizing, you know? And it does have amazing nature, so the combination of both is really interesting.
DS: Urban Surf? That’s really interesting. You know I keep asking questions that may sound silly to you, but people know so little about contemporary African culture. We have been fed either these sad images or scenes from a movie like Out of Africa. So any time you say you’re going to Africa, people just assume that you are going on a Safari and that’s it. Today, when people say Africa, they assume that it's just one big messed up country, but its not a country, it’s a continent, with all of these different things and different languages and all these different things going on. I mean you really have launched this international brand in a market that would be close to impossible for an outsider to come in and do something like this. Yodit, you are very soft spoken, but you’ve accomplished a lot! So it’s really an incredible story, what a difference a t-shirt can make in the world.
YE: But I think the one thing to say that is true, is that Africa is a continent, and it’s true that it's made up of many countries, but a lot of Africa experiences the same thing. We’re going through the same kind of motions, with similar demographics, and a huge growing youth culture. Africa is doing business with Africa more and more now. So it’s just really interesting because, as much as it is made up of separate countries, we share so much in common. I feel like it is still united even though there is no "United States of Africa."
DS: So you keep mentioning African youth culture, can you describe what signifies that to you and what’s unique about it?
YE: I think one thing for sure, is their resourcefulness. In Africa, the kid’s youth culture is like swag on steroids because of how resourceful they are. Finding things and mixing things and color combinations and print combinations, material combinations and the functionality of it, because they have very active lives. Whether they are hoping on a bus or running around, it's really interesting and truly inspiring. Basically, Africa’s youth is very connected, there are more mobile connected youth than in North America. And so Bantu is an African surf brand that talks about surfing waves, but Africa itself is also surfing. They’re surfing the net, they’re surfing these virtual channels. They know what’s going on around the world, they know what’s going on in other African countries, what their friends are doing, what their peers are doing. So it’s just really an exciting time because if you look up a hashtag in Africa, I think people are seeing very different images then what they are used to seeing on BBC and CNN. So now African youth can tell their own story.
DS: So give me an example of a good hashtag of Africa.
YE: I mean there are many differently things. I mean we can look up #Dakar right now and see what comes up.
DS: Okay, let's see what comes up.
YE: Okay, I see some footballers, I see some fancy cars, I see a woman in some kind of African outfit, I see something from the biennale de Dakar, I see some teenagers being teenagers, race cars for the Dakar Rally; so I mean, you’re not seeing many pictures of starving kids or that kid with the fly on his face anymore.
DS: So when you say that you see teenagers being teenagers, do you see western culture seeping in?
YE: Oh yes, for sure, but I think that its a global culture that's seeping in. I think we have local cultures and then we have global culture. I think it goes back and forth, right? I see a lot of rappers really pulling from African music and Africa’s culture. Like Kendrick Lamar, when he talks about Negus and compares it to the “N” word and says that in Ethiopia, a Negus is a king! And basically kind of changed the discourse and I think that’s really cool! And then you see now African kids are really embracing hip-hop or electronic music and you see in the electronic music scenes, African music is becoming a big deal. So it’s kind of like this exchange and I think that’s amazing! I don’t think it's one stealing from the other, it's really an exchange. And in the world that we’re living in right now, there’s not enough of that, it's cool to find that in the creative field.
DS: So is that what you’re interested in doing? Collaborations with different people and things?
DS: So what are the products? You started off with swimwear and then...?
YE: Ya, so we started off with swimwear just because it was what I could handle, like I said, I didn’t come from a fashion background, so for me to get the bikini right, it took forever! But we make swimwear, we make board-shorts, bikinis, t-shirts, wetsuits, hats, bags, etc. Some things are just really cool t-shirts with basic prints.
DS: So wetsuits? That’s a whole different business. It's like getting into denim.
YE: Well we found a great partner for the wetsuits.
DS: So are the wetsuits made in Africa too?
YE: Oh yes! If we can’t make it in Africa, then we’re not making it. Trying to keep it really local.
DS: So what’s next?
YE: I’m trying to let this brand grow organically. Nothing is forced, so we aren’t on some aggressive growth strategy. Just taking it one day at a time.
DS: Well okay, that’s awesome! So I hope that we get to do some stuff together! And I would love to get the Bantu point of view on African youth and surf culture so fingers crossed that we can make that happen and do something together for the next issue!
YE: That’d be awesome!
To listen to the full conversation, click on the podcast below: