A A K S was founded by Akosua Afriyie-Kumi with the aim of creating sustainable jobs in Africa and introducing the world to weaving techniques used by the women of Ghana. Handcrafted in Bolgatanga, A A K S creates bags in styles that maintain the spirit and durability of their ancestral counterparts, characterised by bright exuberant colours.
A Ghanaian native after a time in London, Akosua graduated from Kingston University London with a BA (hons) fashion degree and amassed an impressive resume of fashion industry experience. Whilst in London she used the Business & IP Centre’s workshop programme and networking opportunities to help build her experience and business acumen. She continues to attend Business & IP Centre’s webinars online from Ghana, where she is now based.
Since launching early this year, A A K S has been shortlisted as an emerging designer from Africa by Vogue Italia, has panelled for the Guardian UK Small Business Network and now stocks her bag collection in Anthropologie amongst other retailers.
We got in touch with Akosua to ask her some questions about her experience of starting a business.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
I grew up around basket bags as a child in Ghana, I used to give them as gifts and also use them for storage. I remember having a lot of ‘I wish it was more like this, I wish it was more like that’ moments - I wanted it softer, almost foldable and also more colourful with blends of colours which were tasteful and modern with a beautiful finish and detail.
Building on this idea I started researching bag designs and fibres and found a lot of attractive benefits which were in line with the vision and ethos I had for my dream brand. I established A A K S after seeing a gap in the market for beautifully handcrafted bags. I knew I wanted to go out on my own and pull together all my passion and talents to create something unique that would be fulfilling both personally and professionally, so I embarked on my journey to Ghana to make this happen.
What planning did you do before starting up?
Prior to starting, I did a lot of design research into different types of weaving around the world, I studied fashion so I had a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve three dimensionally and creatively. I visited the British Library Business & IP Centre to be able to learn about the business side of my work and the team were of great help in directing me as a startup business on essential topics such researching into a new market, e-marketing, intellectual property rights and finding information on my competitors. As a creative person, I initially lacked this information and skill which are now part and parcel of my business.
What is unique about your business?
We strive on being a transparent, sustainable brand that designs small capsule collections so we can focus on quality and authenticity. All our bags are handwoven by craftsmen and women using organically sourced materials. Our weavers are directly paid fair wages and their skills are greatly enhanced. In the long run, we hope that our brand will go someway to contributing to the revival and sustenance of weaving as a thriving art.
What challenges or obstacles have you had to overcome?
It was challenging at the start to identify the community that could bring my ideas to life, then when I stumbled across the community of weavers with the right skill set, we couldn't communicate due to a language barrier. Weavers only spoke a local language, so I had to use drawings and hand gestures at the start and later found an interpreter. This challenge was overcome quickly when I started learning the language from the weavers and we are having a joy of a time working together.
What is the most rewarding/challenging aspect about your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is being able to work for myself and building a strong sustainable brand in Africa that is recognised worldwide. The challenging aspect is not having much time in the day to get things done quickly. Since our work is done by hand, everything takes days to complete, but this is the beauty of our brand - and our product – and we make sure we communicate this to our clients.
Your bags are handmade by artisan weavers in Ghana. How important is working with local producers to your business?
Weavers bring a new light to my brand. Their skills are harnessed to produce top quality products and they are earning a steady income from doing what they love. Words such as 'empowerment', 'passion' and 'lasting' describe what I feel these group of artisanal weavers bring to each creation of our bags and the preservation of their art. Working with the weavers has also impacted my life and I hope my work can encourage weaving to be valued as a major income earner for many in the cooperative.
You are involved in all steps of the production process. How do you balance design work with overseeing the business end of things?
It’s very exciting to be involved in the design and making process of each bag, but sometimes it can get overwhelming to balance it with other aspects of the business as I work singularly with the weavers. I make lists which is a great productivity booster and allows me to set times in the day to do my accounts, write emails and also find time to do creative work.
Come along to our next Inspiring Entrepreneurs event which will celebrate the contributions of Black British entrepreneurs and creative talent in the UK with a panel including: MOBO CEO and Founder Kanya King MBE; June Sarpong MBE, TV presenter and Founder of Lipgloss Productions; Yinka Ilori, Designer and Levi Roots, Reggae Reggae entrepreneur and MOBO nominated musician.
Sally Jennings on behalf of the Business & IP Centre