I came across Raffia while going through my Facebook newsfeed a year ago. It wasn’t the fact that the up and coming fashion brand has the same name as one of my favorite cousins, but rather because it – or more specifically, its trademark “batakari” – was so familiar. It represented ‘home’. I reached out to schedule a chat with founder Madonna Kendona-Sowah who responded positively, noting – quite accurately – how rare it is to meet Ghanaian women of Northern descent in our peer group. What followed was an insightful conversation that delved not just into the threads and stitches behind building a fashion brand in Ghana, but also into what it feels like to be a globally-conscious individual navigating the stereotypes around Ghana’s three northern regions and its people.
Madonna Kendona-Sowah could be your average African returnee. Like many others, she left a lucrative job in the West to pursue an idea she believed in. What sets her apart however is the fact that she is one of few Northern Ghanaian entrepreneurs with global reach and local impact.
Madonna comes from a family where education is held in high regard. Both her parents are educated and all her sisters have gone the full mile. Madonna is herself a graduate of the prestigious Columbia University where she secured a Masters degree in public administration and policy. And yet, most people are surprised to find out they are from Ghana’s north.
” Really? You’re a northerner? You don’t look like a northerner,”Madonna said, imitating the incredulous look and questioning we both know all too well. Then, more seriously, she added: “Tell me, what does a northerner look like?”
Madonna’s family hails from Navrongo; a city in the Upper East region and an area where Ghana morphs into a melting pot of cultural influences from countries like Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali. With over half of Ghana’s poor concentrated in its three northern regions, many Ghanaians consider the north to be the backwaters of the more affluent south. Forget the fact that the economically viable shea nut is home to the region or that popular foods like waakye and sobolo (hibiscus juice) are native to its people. For many, the North is home to the poor, uneducated, and unrefined. This misrepresentation, Madonna argues, is due partly to the relative silence and invisibility of Northerners.
“The Northern voice is very rarely heard – which is ironic because our President is from the North. Those of us who move down south or are born there tend to assimilate. So this was to take a stand: Here we are, we’re still here. ”
The Genesis of a Socio-Conscious Brand
By “this”, Madonna means Raffia – the fashion brand she created in 2013 and is using to weave social consciousness and novelty into Ghana’s fashion scene. Beyond frequent childhood visits to see her grandparents in her hometown and being in tune with her roots, the Accra-born creative director brings a nuanced understanding of poverty from her previous role as an economic development specialist.
“I didn’t like economics, I liked logic. I moved towards policy because it gave a human face to numbers crunching. I wanted to combine my passion and training; to do fashion but also have a positive impact,” she said.
Madonna’s foray into fashion design started as far back as the early 2000s during her days as a University of Ghana student. She became interested in making clothes with Dutch wax print – long before the “African print” trend took off – and approached MKOGH founder and ‘African print’ pioneer Mawuli Okudzeto to work with him. At Columbia University, Madonna would sketch designs and send them to her mother in Ghana to be sewn into clothes and sent back. Her wardrobe was filled with clothes that represented her culture and ideas.
“I’ve always been more inclined to do more creative stuff. I painted as a child. When I was in a boring meeting – when people doodle – I drew dresses,” she laughed. “The way I expressed myself was through my clothes. I always wore something that represented where I was from and my ideas.”
While discussing what it means to follow one’s dreams, Madonna hit on an issue that is pertinent to anyone looking to do something out of the norm: self-doubt.
“The idea for Raffia didn’t concretize until last year . I kept making excuses: you need more training, other people more experienced,” she admitted. “But all the signs kept saying, ‘Start something. You don’t have to have the experience, you have the passion.’ ”
She also touched on societal expectations and sticking with what you know you’re good at – even if it’s not necessarily what you love or believe in:
“When you’re naturally good at school, you don’t stop and think about what you want to do, but rather what is expected of you.”
Eventually, Madonna found the courage to take a plunge and make her dream work after receiving positive feedback from family and friends who saw some of her Gonja cloth designs and outfits on Facebook:
“For me courage means closing my ears to the little voices in my head. It meant rising above that to fulfill what I think I was meant to do – to make a change doing what I love.”
The Raffia Aesthetic
Madonna designs for people like herself – young African professionals or global citizens who are open to wearing fashionable African designs, but are sensible about what they wear.
“I’m all about transitioning from work to happy hour – I toyed briefly with calling our first collection the versatile collection. Most of the pieces could go with one another. The dress can be worn with a nice white blazer for instance. The Raffia woman is looking to find as much use from her clothing and high quality clothes that are socially-conscious.”
While that statement made me appreciate Raffia even more, it was what followed that sold me on the brand:
“Even though Raffia makes beautiful clothing, it’s a social enterprise. Our focus is on the North – that’s where Raffia is from and the community we seek to move forward. We’re looking to have a closer relationship with the community to overcome obstacles.”
Authenticity is at Raffia’s core. The brand stays true to its founder’s heritage by using Gonja cloth, popularly known as batakari, to distinguish itself, while diversifying the use of the fabric beyond the traditional smocks, kaba and slit. For Madonna, the fabric is also a conversation starter and eye-opener on socio-economic issues.
“We went with that because everyone has their own name for it, so nobody thinks they “borrowed it”. Where I come from it is called kasena gɔrɔ (kasena cloth) because it’s of the Kasena people from Navrongo. It’s really unifying,” she explained.
The hand-woven and dyed strip cloth incorporates a lot of white and indigo, unlike its southern cousin, kente, which tends to use hues of yellow and green. The batakari industry is also more gender diverse than the kente industry, which is made primarily by men:
“Kente in the south is exclusively made by men because the loom is placed between the thighs and is thought it would be offensive for women. In the north men do not exclusively make it, but there are more men that women.”
That said, male batakari weavers are generally more enterprising and understand deadlines better; a fact that has led the self-proclaimed feminist to switch gears on her plan to work with an all-female team. She believes the situation highlights the dichotomy in education and opportunity between men and women and emphasizes the need for socially-conscious enterprises like Raffia:
“There’s a reason for it and it has to do with how girls are raised – you don’t speak up for yourself, you sit back and watch. Raffia is focused on addressing education, women’s empowerment and employment. A percentage of our profits help fund Youth Alive projects for little girls to go to school and have school uniforms, books – what they need to have an impact.“
Triumphs & Lessons-Learned
Madonna has been working tirelessly on Raffia for almost two years and the brand just released its second women’s collection after a capsule edition of men’s accessories. The “overwhelmingly positive” reception Raffia has gotten so far has been a pleasant surprise for Madonna:
“Honestly, I thought people closer to home would take a while to warm up to it, but a huge part of it is the fans who have northern sounding names on our Facebook page” she gushed excitedly.
The innovation and value add behind Madonna’s idea is already being recognized. Last year, Madonna was nominated for the Re-Connect Entrepreneur Spotlight, spearheaded by Circumspecte. Earlier this year, she was selected as one of 1000 Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Program (TEEP) 2015 entrepreneurs to receive business and financial support; an experience she describes as “a huge validation of what Raffia is trying to achieve” and “very helpful in shaping the entrepreneur I want to be”.
As many other entrepreneurs can attest, starting up in a country like Ghana where business guidelines and etiquette can be murky is not without its challenges. The lack of finance and localized information are two issues Madonna has had to grapple with:
“My first year was spent figuring out how to create and sustain cash flow. Also it has been difficult because a lot of the resources online are pertinent to businesses abroad. Sometimes doing business in Ghana feels like walking around in the dark.”
The business landscape isn’t the only challenge. Madonna has an independent streak, one which often makes her uncomfortable about asking others for help and sometimes gets in the way. Nevertheless, she is committed to learning and is working to improve that aspect of herself. Other entrepreneurs have proven to be a valuable resource to Madonna, alongside tidbits from entrepreneur-focused websites like Startup Fashion and Entrepreneur.com, and e-learning platforms like Skillshare and iversity.
Madonna believes there’s much work to be done in addressing the stereotypes about the north and showcasing the breadth of what the three regions have to offer:
“Young Northerners should put themselves out there. It can get a little annoying, but it’s also an opportunity to teach people. We have more in common with people in Guinea and Mali than we do with people in the South. It’s kind of understandable that people who haven’t been past Kintampo would have these stereotypes. It’s a matter of trying to keep your cool and teaching people.”
I couldn’t agree more.