Akosua Afriyie-Kumi is a perfect example of how the narrative is changing across Africa, with young creative entrepreneurs taking center stage. After schooling and working in the UK for a couple of years, she moved back to Ghana to set up AAKS, an accessories brand that produces hand-crafted bags.
Having been featured on some of the biggest magazines in the world, including Vogue, Elle, Guardian, Forbes Woman Africa and CNN , she has already achieved what some can only dream of in a relatively short amount of time. However, the self-professed workaholic only sees this as the start of greater things to come.
Here, Akosua tells all about her journey so far, from how the idea of AAKS was conceived to where she hopes to be in the near future.
Tell us a bit about the person behind AAKS
Akosua: My name is Akosua Afriyie-Kumi, I’m a fashion designer from Ghana and I make hand-crafted bags.
And what is AAKS all about?
Akosua: We make hand-crafted bags from the Northern region of Ghana. I work with a weaving community to make my bags, but prior to that I lived in London for eight years studying then came back to Ghana to start my brand, AAKS. I wanted to get into hand-crafted bags because I felt there was a gap in the market. Everybody was doing clothes, and even though I studied fashion design, I felt making accessories was where my passion laid. When I came back to Ghana on holidays, I saw woven baskets on the road sides and I thought ‘why hasn’t anyone done anything new with them?’ That was my light bulb moment. I started researching into baskets bags and AAKS was born.
So the idea was conceived. How did you go about setting up the company?
Akosua: I came to Ghana with money that I had saved from working in the UK and began looking for weavers that could make my ideas come to life. It was very difficult because it’s a craft-based business that I wanted to get into and it takes a very long time to achieve it as its all hand made. I struggled to find the weavers in the first place, then I stared networking with people around the cities in Ghana and during conversations everyone was asking the same question: ‘why aren’t you going to the North? That’s where they make baskets’. It’s something that I overlooked thinking I could do it in Accra or Kumasi in the city, but then I traveled upwards and found out it was the perfect place for me to bring my ideas to life. The perfect place to do what I love while supporting a community and the women in the community, especially to see value in their craft.
So you make the bags in the North of Ghana and send them to Kumasi ?
Akosua: Yes! I make the bags in the North of Ghana then I send them to Kumasi where my studio is, and we do all the finishing with leather, the lining, hand-stitching and then we sell them internationally to many stores worldwide.
Oh really? What stores are carrying your bags?
Akosua: I sell in Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters. I sell in approximately ten stores in America, five stores in South Africa, Souq Karakoy in Turkey and I sell in Italy, Germany and Australia as well. In Ghana, I sell with Elle Lokko – a concept store in Accra – and I did a Pop Up store because I felt I wanted to introduce my brand properly to the community in Ghana as well as myself.
Looking at everything you’ve achieved, how would you describe your journey so far?
Akosua: It’s been extremely tough. It hasn’t been easy because all my products are handmade so there are bound to be a lot of mistakes that need to be rectified with shapes, quality control. Also, living in two locations while trying to build a brand – I think it’s not the best idea as I travel quite often between locations to get things done, but the good side is doing something you love makes it worthwhile.
What’s your biggest achievement so far?
Akosua: Oh wow! I have so many. I think it was at the beginning when four months into launching my brand, Anthropologie got in touch with me which made me feel like I was really on to something because they’re such a big store in America. I thought there was no way they’d ever find me but there I was, little me in Ghana with a massive store in America contacting me four months after launching my brand. It was just incredible. I also got featured on Vogue Italia and honestly, I was so shocked. This was about six months into launching AAKS. I was picked as one of the 11 top designers from Africa. I couldn’t believe it.
That’s a lot of exposure. When did you launch AAKS?
Akosua: I launched in September 2014, so it’s almost two years and I feel it has moved rapidly. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it. I just thought I was going to make bags and sell to a few people, but it has gone crazy. I’m just so surprised with the response. People have been so kind and supportive and it’s all been through hard work and my parents have been really supportive. I couldn’t have done it without my family.
I know a lot of people have great ideas but worry about the challenges that come with execution. What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Akosua: It was really different working in Ghana. I’m not sure about other African countries, but in Ghana I struggled with timelines. I came to Ghana with a preconceived idea of how fast things would be for me, but it didn’t work out that way. Weddings (and) funerals are extremely important and working along these timelines was a big struggle at the start. But now, I’ve been able to appreciate it actually because I think it’s extremely important to have that work-life balance. So my biggest struggle has been rectified *laughs*.
Can you make the bags yourself now?
Akosua: No, I can’t. Weaving takes very long – it’s not something you can just learn today or tomorrow. It’s a skill that has been passed down through generations. I can make little things because I’ve been learning as well but I cannot make a bag, shamefully. Haha!
We’d love to see you in Lagos at some point. Do you plan to expand to other African countries?
Akosua: Yes, definitely. I’m hoping to do another pop up store in Lagos if everything goes well as I have been sponsored by the Design Network Africa to have my pop up store in Accra and the sponsorship extends to one other West African country, and I think Lagos is the perfect place.
That’s great to hear! Before we go, do you have any advice for anyone thinking about starting up a business?
Akosua: I would say they should own their craft in whatever they do. Find a gap in the market, focus and execute it well. Whatever they want to do, they should be very confident with the execution and in themselves believing that it would work if they put an effort into it. It’s really easy to get wrapped up in the planning of your business and sometimes it’s okay to know what you want and just go for it.
Finally, where do you see AAKS in about five years?
Akosua: I’m hoping to have my own store one day, and being stocked in some of the biggest stores in the world like Barneys, Selfridges (and) Liberty in London – these are my dreams. And of course having a presence in Africa, promoting the work that I do with my weavers and pushing ‘Made in Africa’ products, which I feel is very important.
So when you’re there in five years, I’ll be back to talk to you.
Akosua: *laughs* that’ll be great!
Thanks so much for your time and I look forward to seeing you in Lagos.
Akosua: It’s been amazing. It’ll be my first time in Lagos actually, so you’d have to show me around all your hotspots. Haha!
Shop AAKS at aaksonline.com/shop and follow on Instagram @a.a.k.s
Photos: AAKS Editorial