How do you rent a shop in a sleepy coastal surfer town in Morocco? You don’t, as Yodit Eklund recently discovered, enlist the help of your high-powered lawyer friends to draw up a water-tight contract. When the landlord doesn’t read or write, it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Opening a small chain of surf shops around the coast of Africa was never going to be easy – particularly if it is your first job. But Eklund, 30, has spent the past year doing just that.
Her initial challenge was how to get a shipping container on to Virage Beach in Dakar, Senegal, for the first retail outpost of her made-in-Africa surf brand Bantu Wax. Sometimes, she discovered, it is best not to overcomplicate things. For her second shop in Taghazout, near Agadir, she simply went to a kiosk and bought a ready-made contract. The Moroccan landlord signed with his thumbprint. “You don’t go in with the mentality of the corporation, you go in with the mentality of how are you going to make this work,” she says.
Bantu Wax is a rare thing: a global youth brand made by Africans for Africans. Despite the fact that the continent has the world’s youngest population, and a growing middle class, there isn’t a brand designed with them specifically in mind. Bantu Wax aims to fill that gap. Its founder spent her childhood growing up between Ghana, Sudan, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt and Ethiopia. Her American father was a diplomat and her mother is Ethiopian. Eklund herself still spends a lot of time travelling. She is on a mission.
We met in a Chinese teahouse in Paris during Fashion Week in October. “Our goal is to be the next Patagonia or Quiksilver,” she tells me while enjoying a seaweed salad. Eklund wraps a shawl around her shoulders, giving her the look of a new age desert nomad. “I want to build a big surf brand that happens to be from Africa. There is an amazing opportunity – 150 million people under the age of 30 are entering the middle class. And there is nothing that represents them.” Bantu Wax will, she hopes, represent a generation of young, urban, creative, affluent Africans who, like her, grew up close to the empty waves around the coast of Africa. “Namibia, Liberia, Angola, Sierra Leone, Nigeria…” Eklund’s list goes on. “There’s killer surf.”
Eklund is very well connected. Her board of advisors is stellar and includes Julie Gilhart, former fashion director at Barneys, and Jenke Ahmed-Tailly, Beyoncé’s creative director.
She is also impressive. It was important to Eklund that her brand was made in Africa and available to buy in Africa. “We’re not making it if it can’t be made in Africa. It’s really cool to make things in Zion,” she says, referring to Addis Ababa, where she employs a small team who cut and sew her wax-print swimsuits and print the distinctively bold Bantu logo with its + sign in place of a “t” on to T-shirts. “Yodit wants to show the world business can be created in Africa – that is fashion, vibrant and cool,” Gilhart told me.
This is a learning curve. Eklund also manufactures in Kenya and South Africa. “We aren’t making Bantu phone cases, because you can’t make them in Africa yet. But we’re making laptop cases out of neoprene, passport holders, luggage tags, a strap for the Apple watch.”
Eklund knows her market. Mobile subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa are set to rise at twice the global rate – to about 930m by late 2019. “Africa is really digitally connected. A lot of brands were looking at Africa and thinking: we will sell something to you that we can’t sell to the rest of the world – we’ll offload it on you. But it’s not whether African kids can keep up with these brands, it is: can these brands keep up with Africa? You look at how quickly things are changing – Ethiopia in 2020 is going to be a carbon-neutral country. We’re going to have 120 million people and be carbon neutral – not many places in the developed world can say that. In Rwanda plastic bags are illegal. Who is backwards in the situation?
” She also has geography on her side. Africa has 26,000km of coastline. It boasts two of the world’s seven longest waves – at Skeleton Bay in the Namibian desert (not exactly a package holiday hotspot) and Jeffreys Bay on the eastern cape of South Africa, where it is possible to surf for 1km without interruption. It is becoming a major surf destination, and Eklund is keen to capitalise on both the tourist and home-grown markets. The surf industry is worth $10bn per year, and in a short time Eklund has staked her claim.
For her first shop which opened in Dakar in July, Eklund worked with the Ivory Coast architect Issa Diabaté. It’s in an old shipping container, and it is raw, urban and rootsy. There’s a juice bar on the roof. The store manager is a big surfer and as well as continuing teaching, he is doing a course in accountancy to help run the store. Everyone who works for Bantu is learning a skill as they go. Eklund says the board shorts and T-shirts are selling well. Her logo is already gaining currency.
Eklund hopes the Taghazout shop will be open by the end of this month. Certainly it will be open before the $120m Four Seasons resort opens there next year, primarily aimed at the surf market. “Most surfers are kind of luxury [travellers],” says Eklund. “It’s expensive to live in Venice Beach, you know? Quiksilver and Rip Curl have a presence in Taghazout, but not much else,” she says. She is also about to open a third shop in gentrified Woodstock in Cape Town.
She’d also like to open in Casablanca, with its cosmopolitan surf scene, as well as Lagos, but both places are expensive. “We are in Senegal, Morocco and South Africa, so no one can say we are a black brand or a white brand or an Arab brand or this brand or that,” Eklund says confidently. “We are an African surf brand.”
As well as board shorts and T-shirts, there are other products in development, including beanies and sweatshirts for the colder months in South Africa. But essentially there are just two seasons – what Eklund calls “Summer 1” and “Summer 2”.
There are “surf candles” on sale in each of the stores. “Dakar smells like coconut – it smells like a desert beach; the Moroccan smells like orange blossom, neroli and mint tea, and for South Africa the water is so cold you always go and grab a cup of coffee after surfing. So it’s the smell of coffee and bonfire.” When you burn through to the bottom of each candle there’s the longitude and latitude of a secret surf spot.
They are also commissioning their own surf boards for the luxury end of the market, beautifully shaped by hand in Cape Town, with the urban Bantu designs printed on them. “African surfers say this represents them,” she says. “I have friends who are French, but grew up in Africa, and they say: ‘This is me.’” These people weren’t represented before in a cool way.”
For all Eklund’s belief in what she is doing, Bantu came about by accident. The day after she graduated from Berkeley with a degree in environmental economics, Eklund moved back to the Ivory Coast. California was where she went to school, she says, but it never felt like home. In 2009 she started a line of swimwear made in Ethiopia from African wax prints. She sent an email to Barneys in New York to see if they would like to sell it, and the email ended up in the inbox of fashion director Julie Gilhart, who invited Eklund for a meeting which ended up in an argument because Eklund refused to give Barneys exclusivity on the collection. “I said: ‘It’s not about that. I’m trying to give people jobs.’ I didn’t care because I didn’t know who Julie was. I told her I’d rather be in a small store that gives me a window than some big store that gives me a back shelf. So the first season she gave me a window. Upstairs they had a huge display.”
The collection of African swimwear proved popular and she also sold it to some of the world’s best stores, including Browns in London, J Crew and Opening Ceremony. At the time, the only place it wasn’t available was Africa. “Kids in Tokyo, London and New York were able to buy the brand, but kids in Africa weren’t,” she says. “We needed to be closer to where the inspiration was coming from with what we were trying to create.” So last year Eklund regrouped and decided to close her successful wholesale business in order to concentrate her efforts closer to home, to build a website and shops where local surfers could buy Bantu products. It was a gamble, but one that Gilhart backed. “Going from a start up swimwear brand to a vertical business opening small stores in Africa is very smart,” she said.
There are other youth and fashion brands bubbling away in Africa. But Eklund’s connections and vision are unique.
“Bantu Wax is completely multiracial, multicultural,” she says. “Surf brands haven’t ever been like that – it’s been very blonde hair and blue eyes. Africa is the youngest continent, kids are surfing in and out of the water, surfing the waves, surfing the internet.” She pauses and smiles. “Given the amount of coastline, the next Kelly Slater may well be from Africa.” And with that she’s off, another day, another country; another wave to surf.