African Tea

When you think of tea production, South Africa probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But Swaady Martin’s local tea brand, Yswara, does us proud. And while she’s at it, she’s reshaping the way we look at business, resources, values and why we do what we do.
Yswara is about beauty and about transforming African agricultural resources into extraordinary products locally,’ says Swaady Martin, founder of the artisan brand of gourmet teas and teatime accessories.

African Tea Photo Gallery

‘Our teas are named after African values, and African kings and queens. We’re sharing a part of the history and culture of Africa with the world.’ Born in Côte d’Ivoire, Swaady has lived in 11 countries. ‘My father is American and my mother, French, Guinean and Ivorian. I’m a mix of American, European and African cultures. I’m a citizen of the world!’ Unsurprisingly, she’s averse to being put into a box of any description. ‘I’m just Swaady. I’m an entrepreneur. As to what defines me, I like using the phrase: “I love, therefore I am.” It’s about the passions I follow, like building Yswara, or in my corporate career at General Electric [GE], when I was working to bring world-class infrastructure to Africa. I am just someone who is following her various passions.’ Growing up in West Africa during the eighties, Swaady experienced some of the challenges of the instability in the region. Her family had to leave Liberia because of the coup and civil war.

They moved to Senegal, then to Côte d’Ivoire. There was a civil war there too, so she went overseas to pursue her studies. Rather than being shaped by her environment, Swaady feels she’s been most influenced by her parents and family. ‘They inform your life experiences; they transmit values, whether you reject or adhere to them. The idea that you have a responsibility to share those gifts in return and try to make the world a better place is ingrained in my family.’ Swaady worked for GE for 12 years, moving from country to country. This included a stint in South Africa before she moved to Nigeria. ‘The colour of the sky brought me back here. You can travel the world, but there’s no sky like the South African sky. The sky is what you see all day, every day, and if it’s beautiful, it’s a good start for a pleasant life.’

She’s an early riser, always catching the sunrise as she heads to her factory. ‘Whatever happens that day, I feel I’ve had a good start when I see the changing colours.’ Swaady has a positive take on South Africa, which she describes as a nation in reconstruction. ‘In most countries where there’s tension, there would be war, but in South Africa, there are active debates. You’re trying to heal and at the same time define what South Africa is about. I’m privileged to witness and be a part of that.’ Even so, it’s a bit of a leap from a multinational conglomerate to tea production. But Swaady is clear on her reasons: seeing African commodities leave the continent, then being exported back here is a major frustration for her, and she wanted to be part of the reversal of the commodity trap. ‘I thought I’d start with a resource I loved and knew, and tea ticked all the boxes.

At the same time, there was an opportunity globally for an African brand in the specialty tea market.’ Most of Yswara’s teas and ingredients are sourced in Africa, specifically Malawi, Rwanda, Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Botswana, Madagascar, Morocco – and South Africa, of course. ‘We scout the continent to find the best ingredients. We have relationships with farmers. We want people to really feel that connection, and that we’re offering them a product that has meaning,’ says Swaady, who derives the inspiration for each blend she creates from a little known or forgotten African story, ‘to revive and refresh all these beautiful stories from our past’. Yswara also offers custom-made teatime accessories ranging from copper-plated infusers to aromatherapy candles. It all sounds wonderfully indulgent, but Swaady is adamant that Yswara is not a luxury brand. ‘We’re not a Cartier or a Piaget; that’s not what we’re about. It’s about creating something beautiful, a way of showing love.’ She coined the term ‘luxe Ubuntu’, an inclusive luxury business model. ‘It starts with Ubuntu: I am because we are. If you live on this continent, you take care of someone.

Ubuntu is a way of living, and luxe Ubuntu is an extension of that: it’s a humanist approach to everyone in the value chain. This is something we can share with the world.’ It seems this sentiment is finding resonance: Yswara is present in 17 countries and has even found its way into the home of the Obamas. ‘We were asked to create a gift for them. But we give the same attention to all our customers – we’re unfazed by celebrity. No one is more important than another. Michelle and Barack Obama are just figures. What matters is the gesture of gifting.’ For Swaady, it’s also important that everyone feel welcome, which is why Yswara opened its tearoom in Maboneng in Johannesburg, rather than in Hyde Park or Sandton. ‘On Fridays, workers from factories a few blocks away come to the tearoom. They can afford only a little cup, but we treat them the way we would a CEO who’s arrived by chauffeur. The tearoom is modelled on a Moroccan lounge, so a CEO from Sandton City sits with a worker from Jeppestown. I think everyone has had enough of exclusivity. We shouldn’t get satisfaction from excluding others. We just need to be together. That’s what Yswara is about.’

This concept of inclusive luxury earned the brand an award nomination from the Luxury and Creation Centre in France. But for Swaady, Yswara’s success will be measured by whether it has inspired other brands to also create value in-country, whether in Africa, South America or Asia. ‘In the same way that we’re inspired by American or European companies, there’s an opportunity for African companies to inspire the world.’ Swaady may be the boss, but she’s also very hands-on. She deals with any task that falls to her, from manning a booth to helping her team at an event, to meeting with the accountant or chatting to clients. She also doesn’t distinguish between work and her personal life. ‘Everything that happens in the business is an opportunity for personal growth. Most of the time I don’t feel I’m working, because I do what I love. Trying to separate the professional from the personal makes life difficult.’ So where to next? ‘ There’s no five-year plan. If you make too many projections, sometimes you don’t see what’s happening right now. Five years from now, I could be cultivating carrots in Guatemala… Who knows?’ Not having long-term goals doesn’t necessarily mean you lack focus, she says. ‘You don’t need a plan, because your situation changes all the time – and that’s okay.’ But at every point along the way, Swaady feels we need to take stock. ‘You should ask yourself: “Does it really matter that I am doing this?” I ask myself that question daily. And the day it doesn’t matter any longer, I’ll do something else.

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