Located in the Cosmopolitan building at Maboneng in the Johannesburg CBD, there’s a pretty in pink atelier that can easily be mistaken for a fragrance store or an urban lounge. However, this Moroccan-inspired space, accented with totem lamps and Coptic crosses, is all about tea. Yswara was founded in 2012 by Swaady Martin and has become one of Africa’s leading emerging brands. Embracing ancient African ideas and wisdom, Martin creates tea blends centred on African ingredients to provide the world with novel and exhilarating flavours. Looking closer, you’ll notice that the tea collections are named after African queens (Such as Makeda of Sheba), and Kingdoms (Askia of Songhai and Shaka Zulu) to mention a few.
These infusion creations are then enveloped in their signature pink packaging, complete with a bow on top! In just six years, Yswara’s solid brand identity has seen it expand its availability to 17 countries, as well as, garner iconic clients such as The Four Seasons, Radisson Blu, St Regis, BHV Paris and Woolworths. Yet, this South African brand isn’t confined to the Western rules of luxury. TDS caught up with Swaady to learn more about her luxury craft:
Yswara is such a bold brand name. What inspired it?
Yswara (pronounced ee-Swara) is the combination of my first name, Swaady, and Tyi Wara – a beautiful and powerful West African Mythological hero. Born from the union of sky goddess Mousso Koroni and an earth spirit, he came to earth to teach mankind social values and agricultural techniques. Tyi Wara is a composite of three symbolic animals. The antelope which represents strength and grace, as well as the pangolin and aardvark which symbolise determination and conscientiousness.
We have to ask… why choose tea as the basis of a luxury empire?
It was two-fold. On one hand I am very passionate about agro-appreciation which is the transformation of our agricultural commodities in Africa into high value finished products. And when I left corporate, I wanted to do something in that space where I would contribute to the reversal of the African commodity trap. As you know, we constantly export our raw materials, untransformed and at low value. They then come back into the continent as high value a product, which basically keeps the value out there. What I wanted to do was create a high-value product in Africa that has an appeal to the local and international market.
Once I had that idea, I obviously wanted to work directly with farmers and artisans to emphasis their impact in the process. The next question became what kind of commodity would I transform? Looking at my own consumption patterns, I’m a big tea and herbal tea fan. I come from a family where we consumed a high quality tea. I already knew quite a bit about tea, having visited multiple plants. Thirdly ‘is this a commodity that represents a significant export of Africa’? Africa is the largest exporter of tea, just not the largest producer. And lastly, I looked at what the opportunities for tea were like globally. Tea is the second largest consumed beverage, after water, in the world. People are becoming more health conscious, so, tea as a category is the fastest growing beverage. All that put together became the idea, Yswara.
How many tea blends exist under the label?
I have created about 300, but the blends that we sell are about 30. We select the blends based on what we like and what is it that we want to share. So the office contains all these blends in glass jars that we drink and the ones that we want to drink every day are the ones that we sell. It’s as simple as that. For example, we decided to sell a chocolate and coconut blend because the office really took to it. We keep the process organic to ensure it’s enjoyable.
Are the blends constantly available or limited edition?
Sometimes I find that we phase out certain blends and change others. Yswara is like a person; sometimes Yswara is tired of a blend and just wants another one and we try to respect the voice of the brand. So, who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow?
Apart from the cultural and traditional influences, do international demands and trends influence your blends?
No, absolutely not. I’m not doing this as a marketing exercise. It starts with me. I am a tea lover and I create blends and flavours that I like. And then I put it out there and some people will resonate with it while others won’t. Hence, it’s really a business that comes from the heart.
Where do you source the ingredients from?
We source our teas from a lot of tea-producing countries in Africa – Malawi, Rwanda, and Kenya. And then the ingredients come from all over Africa, such as Botswana, Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Madagascar, and South Africa. It’s a combination of which country has the freshest/ or is known for the commodity, as well as, availability. I always go to visit and try them out, and if it tastes good I add them to the teas. I’ll give you an example, we used to get our hibiscus/rosella from Nigeria and Sudan because they have very good product. But I recently discovered a new variety in Malawi which I absolutely love. Rosella is not something that Malawi is known for but it just happened that this particular farm has this amazing soil to grow rosella.
What would you say is the most out of the box ingredient you’ve put into your tea so far.
Probably Kola nut, I don’t think people have that in their teas. Folks in West Africa must be rolling their eyes, wondering how I can mix kola nut and vanilla.
Product branding seems to be crucial to the brand, from the packaging and materials used, to the pink and rose gold signature…
Yswara pink is this dusty pink which is a colour I’ve created. Pink has always been my favourite colour, since I was born, and my family actually sing the pink panther theme song whenever they see me. For me, pink is a very African colour and you can see it in nature; in every sunset and sunrise. However not everyone thinks so. When I went to conference in Paris about luxury, and I was talking to a global trend analyst, their first response was that ‘pink isn’t an African colour’. They assume that anything from Africa has to be brown, black, or earth tones; which is such a stereotype.
But you started out with black packaging…
In the first two years of Yswara, we worked with a beta version of black canisters as I was working on the packaging, which took 18 months because I was working on the colour. We chose black simply because it’s an easier colour to work with. The decision to launch temporary versions of the product was to start building the market as opposed to waiting for everything to be perfect to launch. That’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received, because by the time my aesthetic vision was ready for launch, I had learnt so much in the process.
Granted you use materials recommended by the food industry, nevertheless the end result is just so stunning; it looks like it is part of jewellery set.
Thank you. I see it as something precious. I see it as a privilege to actually be an entrepreneur and create something. There’s just a lot of love that goes into it and just honouring the preciousness that comes from the African soil. We have all these gems that are growing and I felt like they needed to be packaged like they are precious because they are.
Your interview with Forbes clarified that you deal with much more than tea.
We also offer tea time related accessories, such as copper plated tea measuring spoons and tea infusers. In addition we have aromatic teatime candles, which are made from 100% biodegradable natural Soy Wax infused with natural fragrance and essential oils.
Speaking of candles, you’ve done a few collaborations with other brands on this front. As a luxury brand, what criteria do you follow to determine if a collaboration will suit your brand?
It has to do with kindred spirits. Yswara has its own identity and it resonates with certain people and brands that share similar values, aspirations, ethics and ambitions. The latest collaboration with Ardmore is very exciting because we are both passionate about communities and so we partnered to create a limited edition to raise funds to help eradicate mother to child transmission of HIV/AIDS
You coined the term “luxe ubuntu” – is this the CSR division of the brand?
I don’t think that CSR isn’t relevant in the context of Africa. As Africans, we are always taking care of someone. We don’t have to look for someone to help. Again it’s looking at who we are as Africans and one thing is that we care for people. It makes sense for my business that in its DNA that we care about people.
Secondly, I’m not the kind of person who likes exclusion. I felt that there is a way for Africa to define its own luxury, which is not a replica of what French, Italian or Japanese luxury is. For me African luxury is one that is inclusive rather than exclusive. When someone comes into an Yswara store, I don’t want them to feel like they don’t belong there. And that’s the reason we located our store where it is. It’s not in an uber, high end expensive area; rather, it’s in an area where everyone goes.
What are some of the challenges in building a Luxury brand on the continent?
A Simpler question would be what the challenge of the day is, because we experience challenges every single minute. The challenges are endless, from red tape with anything associated with government, to lack of skilled personnel, lack of high standards with certain suppliers, and the fact that it’s very difficult to export out of Africa because the cost of transport is horrendous. Being an entrepreneur is challenging but being an entrepreneur in Africa is not for the faint hearted.
What needs to be done for more African luxury brands to thrive?
The biggest thing is that Africa is still being cut off from the rest of the world. How do we facilitate the export the finished products out of Africa? For me, this is a key element we still haven’t dealt with. If you look at transport from France to Nigeria versus France to the USA, knowing full well that the distance between France and Nigeria is far shorter than say Paris to new York, the former will be between five and 15 times more expensive. How do you justify that? When our products reach their destination, they can’t be competitive on a global scale.
If you want to export raw cocoa or tea, of course there are channels of export. But if you want to export high end chocolate, for example, out of Africa, it’s almost impossible. How do you explain how African produces 85% of the world’s cocoa and there isn’t a single African chocolate factory in the top 100 chocolate factories in the world. For me, until this challenge is properly addressed, everything is just endless talks at summits and conferences.
Finally, what does luxury mean to you?
Luxury is extraordinary products and experiences. It has to be out of the ordinary and really be something that’s dream like. Extraordinary is a powerful word. By the way, Yswara is still on its journey. Our products are extraordinary but there is a lot around our universe that we need to continuously improve on such as creating exemplary customer service and building a stronger online presence. So, I would call Yswara a baby luxury brand. We’re just born, there’s a long way to go.