Swaady Martin-Leke
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It is highly doubtful Shaka Zulu, the warrior who established a powerful Zulu kingdom in 19th-century South Africa while instilling fear into his enemies, had ever been likened to a pot of tea.

But for Swaady Martin-Leke it made perfect sense. “He’s a leader, so he’s nurturing in a way, but he’s fiery and he’s South African, so it has to be a rooibos; the fire was the pepper,” she says.

Thus was born Shaka Zulu tea, a rich mix of rooibos (a herbal tea indigenous to South Africa), chillies, vanilla, saffron and rosebuds. It is one of the 27 blends and flavours in the Gourmet collections of Yswara (pronounced “ee-swara”), a South African boutique that has ambitions of introducing luxury African products to the outside world.

The tea, in its many forms and exotic fragrances (Shaka Zulu is joined in Yswara’s range by the likes of Askia of Songhai, Pharaoh Tut and King Lalibela) is merely Yswara’s initial offering, alongside candles of soy wax and essential oils that can be used as a moisturiser once they have melted.

The fledgling business in Parkhurst, one of Johannesburg’s affluent northern suburbs, is the brainchild of Martin-Leke, who forged ahead with the project in spite of initial scepticism among her friends and peers. “I did my research, but no one believed in it,” she says, sipping a new blend she is testing at the elegant townhouse that has been transformed into a chic store.

Yet by September, 19 months after Yswara’s launch, the business had done better than even Martin-Leke envisaged. Some 13,000 tins of tea and more than 3,000 candles had been sold at outlets in 10 countries, from Nigeria to Norway and Kenya to Sierra Leone, mainly to hotels and other businesses but also directly to retail customers.

After putting up an initial $280,000 with nine partners, who included friends and family, Martin-Leke is seeking to raise a further $1m as she prepares to scale up, with a goal of having 30 Yswara-branded stores within the next decade. The plan is also to expand the product range to include honey, chocolate and other gourmet items that would have a distinctly African feel.

At the heart of the project, she says, “is how we keep the value-add in Africa and share the refined Africa – an Africa that’s contemporary, that represents all we experience today in Africa that is not clichés, not stereotyped”.

Indeed, Martin-Leke is symbolic of a successful, aspirant and entrepreneurial generation of Africans that have risen to the fore to counter the jaded characterisations of Africa as a continent known only for conflict and poverty.

Initially she was raised in Liberia by her African-American father and her mother, who is part French, part Ivorian and part Guinean. But war forced them to move to Senegal when Martin-Leke was three. By the time she was six she had moved to the Ivory Coast, where her mother – who raised her and her brother after their parents separated – worked at the African Development Bank. At 16, the self-described “Afripolitan” moved again, this time to finish high school in London, before further studies in Switzerland and a job with Accenture, the consultancy, in Paris.

About a year later she joined General Electric, the US conglomerate, in the French capital, and so began a defining period of her life – one that provided a return journey to Africa. In 2005, Martin-Leke was dispatched from the US to Nairobi, where she spent two years as GE’s commercial development manager for Africa, driving the company’s expansion on the continent.

After Kenya, she moved to Paris and then South Africa, where she realised her ambition for the US group to manufacture in Africa. That happened within 18 months rather than the five years Martin-Leke had expected, when GE began manufacturing locomotives with Transnet, South Africa’s state-owned rail operator.

At that point, after a decade with GE – “somewhere I have a GE gene” – Martin-Leke decided it was time to embark on new experiences and chose to take a sabbatical. It was during this period that she began her Trium Global EMBA, which is taught between the London School of Economics, NYU Stern Business School in New York and HEC Paris, with excursions to China and India.

The then 35-year-old found herself among the youngest of the students; many of her classmates were in their 40s or 50s, some of them “extremely successful entrepreneurs” with “hundreds of millions of dollars”.

Martin-Leke describes the EMBA as “extremely difficult” as she juggled her studies with living between Nigeria and South Africa and helping friends with a mobile banking company. But it was also “just amazing”, she says, adding that most of her mentors for Yswara come from Trium. Some of the research she did for her business plan was part of the EMBA.

“I wanted two things,” she says. “First, I had already spent quite a bit of time in Africa, so I wanted to extend my networks out of Africa again, and I wanted to learn from people who had more experience. Hence I wanted an MBA where the average age was very high.”

Martin-Leke traces her business drive back to her childhood. “I remember saying I wanted to be a businesswoman,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to change the world; I think at five I had that sense.”

Being a “factory person”, Martin-Leke decided to set up a business that produced something. “The question was, what product?” she says. “I thought I need to start with something that’s easy, something I know already very well and then we’ll take it from there – and something that’s made in Africa.”

Seeking inspiration, Martin-Leke looked around her house for something she loved that was “from Africa but not made in Africa”. She came upon some rooibos tea she had bought in Paris and thought: “Hello . . . I live in South Africa.”

She plans to open stores in Europe, the US and Africa – the continent that makes her “heart really vibrate”. “When I’m here I’m blooming and if you take me out of Africa I’m dying internally,” she says. But the first Yswara franchise store is likely to open as a pilot next year in Baku, Azerbaijan – a market “we’re never going to go [to] ourselves”.

“You’re asking me what comes from General Electric . . . your idea has to make sense globally,” Martin-Leke says. “It has to make sense in Africa but has to make sense globally, otherwise 15 years from now we would remain a small shop in Parkhurst.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.