I met British-Kenyan sisters and first-time exhibitors Sisi and El at NY Now at New York’s Javits Center. Together, they founded ZikoAfrika — loosely translated as “Africa has it” — in February 2014.
Both studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London before working in development. They became interested in development, especially through business opportunities, after seeing the disparities in wealth in the UK and Kenya.
El worked in Somalia on governance and peace building for about four years.
“My mum grew up in rural Kenyal; she didn’t have any running water; they didn’t have lighting,” El said.
“Our earliest memories are getting water from the stream down the hill and carrying it back up,” Sisi added. “Cleaning the lanterns took up all morning!”
The sisters provide their designs for jewelry and handbags to local workshops in Kenya and Nairobi, and several artisans bring their visions to life.
El explained: “The way we approach design is looking at iconic African designs, drawing on the beautiful and rich history. We take inspiration from the traditional and then make it modern with clean lines and a curated color palette. We use neon Perspex, brass and beads to create luminosity and a minimal look.”
Fair production and prices are central to the ZikoAfrika brand ethos because they believe there needs to be a greater appreciation for the cost of fashion, and it shouldn’t be to the detriment of the producer. Their products are made using a mixture of traditional techniques, such as sand casting and thread-beading, combined with new materials such as Perspex.
Here’s how Sisi described one of the workshops:
“Bombolulu is a really fascinating workshop right outside Mombasa on the coast. They only employ people with different abilities. What’s incredible about that is that’s a very marginalized community in Kenya. Because opportunities to work are so limited, they’re often completely ostracized from society as a whole. So they’re providing really valuable employment opportunities, and they’re producing incredible products as well. Another fantastic thing about Bombolulu is they’re a so-called sheltered workshop, which means accommodation is in the same space as the workshop. It’s really important to consider, and we don’t usually think about it when we’re able-bodied, but trying to get around in a wheelchair in a developing country is really, really difficult, and it’s usually the biggest barrier to employment. We go to visit the workshop on a regular basis, it’s a very open process of meeting the artists and collaborating on the production.”
Another workshop ZikoAfrika collaborates with is Namayiana, an independent cooperative group of Maasai women beaders, located in the Ngong area, just outside of Nairobi. The co-operative formed in 1990 from two women’s self-help groups and is dedicated to benefiting around 100 families in the Maasai community.
Sisi and El’s favorite design is the amulet, fashioned after the iconic Tuareg Ingall Cross.
“It epitomizes our brand. It’s simple, it’s got the clean lines, it’s got the Perspex, so it really represents the duality that we’re about. It was also one of our first designs,” El elaborated.
In terms of future products, customers can look forward to more beading. The sisters plan to incorporate beads into more products and collaborate more closely with the Maasai artisans.
“We’ll take this really recognizable and traditional form of African adornment and do something different and new with it,” she continued.
You can find them online at zikoafrika.com.