Beaded flip-flops, baskets, bags, clothing, even dog leashes — it’s all straight out of Africa at Authentic Afrika Bermuda.
Tanya Osewe, a Bermudian who spent 20 years in Kenya, started the business a year ago, wanting to showcase the beauty of African culture.
“I enjoy what I do because I honestly believe that if you are going to sell something, you need to know what you are selling,” she said. “You need to know its history and its people.”
She started Authentic Afrika Bermuda on Facebook. She decided to forgo an actual storefront to keep the cost of her products down. But last month she held her first pop-up shop under the rubber tree at the Warwick Post Office.
“People really liked it, because every item I sell has a story,” she said.
Things went so well she decided to hold a pop-up every other weekend. The next one is this Saturday in the same location.
Her customers range from teens to eightysomethings.
“There is really nothing that sells better than another thing,” she said. “I have to keep a pretty good stock.”
One of her biggest challenges is timing. She has a full-time job doing accounting work for Mailboxes Unlimited.
“I do this at night,” she said. “Sometimes I am up until 2am.”
She has an assistant in Kenya who helps her source products from across the African continent.
“It used to be that if you wanted to buy a West African product you had to go to a West African,” she said. “Or if you wanted a South African product you had to go to a South African. But things have changed. People are crossing borders and sharing each other’s ideas and culture.”
But nothing irritates her more than seeing a “made in China” or “made in the USA” label on African-like products.
“If you are not familiar with African arts and fabrics you could be conned very easily,” she said.
Ms Osewe said many unscrupulous manufacturers will take photographs of authentic prints and designs, then have them graphically reproduced with computers.
In 2013, the Masai Intellectual Property Initiative was formed by a pro bono group in the United Kingdom, to try to get the Masai brand trademarked for the tribe. The move came after several western luxury brands used Masai inspired designs without consulting or compensating the Masai.
“Lawyers got together and said this has to stop,” Ms Osewe said. “They didn’t even have a conversation with the Masai people to say can we do this. It happens all over Europe and the United States. There is a constant plagiarising of African jewellery, attire and fabrics.”
She said one simple way to find out if something is genuinely from a culture is to read the label.
“Normally, you can tell on a website if something is really authentic by the story,” she said.
She said most people who are selling authentic cultural items from African countries will have a community that they are working with.
“Their website will show you pictures of the community,” she said. For example, she sells PataPata flip-flops with beadwork done by a community of women called the Kazuri.
“Most of the women are single mothers who have struggled and they get the opportunity to make things to show their talent and earn their living,” she said.
She gained experience selling African items while designing, organising and running a series of gift shops in Kenya, when she lived there in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I was married to a Kenyan,” she said.
While she lived there she helped design, organise and run a series of gift shops across the area. At one point, she also worked for tour company Abercrombie and Kent which had clients such as actor Tom Cruise.
She returned to Bermuda to live in 1999, but still goes back at least once a year.
Her enthusiasm for Africa, and Kenya in particular, is infectious. If you’re interested in visiting she can help you plan a trip, then put you in touch with a travel agent.
• “It has been a wonderful adventure and I am honoured to showcase what they have to offer,” she said. For more information see her on Facebook under Authentic Afrika Bermuda or call 799-8215.