“African art and music have always been a phenomenon, but no one was sharing the story of African design,” says Nana Quagraine, founder and CEO of sustainable luxury lifestyle brand 54kibo. The contemporary African design retailer launched in 2018 in Brooklyn, New York, and collaborates with over 30 inspiring African designers on everything from accent tables and pendant lighting to wall art and area rugs in an effort to make these unique designs more accessible to the world.
Originally from Ghana, Quagraine grew up in South Africa, and was always intrigued by the unique cultures and subcultures African countries offer. “Every country has different practices and techniques,” she says to TZR. “When we first started [54kibo], we had to size it down to just Zimbabwe because there was so much to choose from.” The brand, which stands for the 54 countries in Africa and the “Kibo peak” in Mount Kilimanjaro, has a goal of being an extension of contemporary African design to the world.
From her initial days as a metallurgical engineer in South Africa, Quagraine knew she wanted to start her own business and have it be tied to the multiple cultures she grew up in, but wasn’t sure yet how it would materialize. The entrepreneur wanted to ensure it was the right timing, completing essential milestones (like experience consulting, and graduating business school) that would enable her to launch her brand with some knowledge and experience under her belt.
It wasn’t until she landed a job as an investor (from 2013 to 2016) that Quagraine discovered her passion for African design. In her role, she was commuting from New York to South Africa, whilst in the process of designing her apartment in Brooklyn. The business guru was bringing back random African furnishings for her home on these frequent work visits, but there wasn’t a specific brand that could source her exact design needs. She wanted items that were in tune with her personal aesthetic; simple, muted color palettes that weren’t as bright as traditional African designs. More importantly, she wanted these pieces to focus on the intricate and skilled beading, weaving, and artisanal techniques signature to the continent.
She also recognized a market for others interested in having African design in their homes, but who (like her) didn’t have the necessary tools to source, especially those who did not have direct ties to Africa. “People want to get to know each other,” says Quagraine. “They might not know where to start, or they’re too afraid to say the wrong thing. Many people are simply unable to travel to those countries. So my hope for 54kibo is to give people the tools, new vocabulary, and new products to experience the world differently, particularly Africa.”
Interestingly enough, Quagraine decided to start 54kibo full-time after giving birth to her twins in 2017. Her time on maternity leave, specifically the around-the-clock feedings and diaper changes, made her realize it would be nearly impossible to stick with her jet-setting investor job. “I knew if I went back into corporate, there wouldn’t be another break to start 54kibo,” she explains. “It was a special time to start, but with risks attached.”
The founder notes that the wait, along with the different roles she assumed over the course of her career, gave her an advantage as a new business owner. “I’m an engineer, so I understand how operations work. I’m a consultant, so I understand how to manage projects, time them, start, and where to start. I worked in investment banking, so I understand corporate finance and how to structure deals and partnerships. Understanding how to socially interact with the designers from different cultures gave me a leg up in getting to where we are today, but it wasn’t always easy; it took time to get there.”
That said, Quagraine explains that starting a business from scratch after years of establishing a professional career was a step back, but it taught her the importance of constantly learning. “There are two difficult parts when starting a business,” she explains. “One is starting. Two is understanding what problem you’re solving and whether you can solve it or not. If you can’t solve it, you have to have the mental framework to go back to step zero and learn. And it’s humbling because you’re coming from the top, and you have to go back down and learn something new.”
And learn she did. Some four years in, 54kibo offers a variety of home decor items that are all artisanally made and sourced from Africa. And, in acknowledging and respecting the continent’s diversity, the brand’s website has a section that allows you to shop by country, filtering selections to places like Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, and the African Diaspora like the Caribbean. Some of 54kibo’s best-sellers to date include the Naka Beaded Light Fixtures from South Africa, the Porcupine Woven Decorative Wall Basket from Zimbabwe, and candles and fragrances from Morocco. Through her carefully considered sourcing process, Quagraine constantly strives to seek quality and sustainability in each item under the 54kibo umbrella.
Speaking of sustainability, the founder says the label’s approach is multifaceted, focused on environmental, social, and economic impact, and how they are essential to the brand’s identity. Her background in engineering has allowed her to see sustainability as the only way to create a healthy and prosperous foundation for a business. “I’ve never really considered sustainability a ‘nice to have,’ but a ‘must-have’ in my business,” she says. “It’s important to understand what materials the designers are using. If it’s wood, is it reclaimed wood? Are they using non-toxic, natural dyes? Are they using upcycled materials? One of our jewelry designers uses upcycled brass for her pieces.”
Quagraine also mentions how this carries over to the economic side of sustainability. She says, “We’ve got textiles made from 100% Ethiopian cotton, and that industry has been alive for thousands of years. So by using that ethically sourced material, we are also allowing that industry to continue.” She also highlights the importance of social sustainability in the brand, mentioning how the designers she works with provide a fair, stable work environment for the artisans. 54kibo ensures this work environment by visiting the spaces the artisans work at. “Our designers are very deliberate about who they hire,” says Quagraine. “They hire from within the community. They pay fair wages. They provide training. They make sure they get paid on time. These components are a basic social contract, but not everyone does it.”
Transparency is also crucial to the brand’s DNA. Each product on the 54kibo site contains a hover tooltip, telling you who the designer is and where the piece was made. “I want you to know where it comes from,” says the founder. “It’s easy to talk about Africa, but specifically, where in Africa? Because if you just look at South Africa, you see two countries, like Malawi and Burundi, and they have two completely different cultures. I want my consumers to know there’s a difference.” She also mentions how it’s essential for her to understand her customers’ limitations. “We’re trying to figure out ways to tell that story and make it easier for the consumer. Not everyone has time to read up on the specific products, how it’s from Zimbabwe, what the 10 different weaving patterns look like, etc. We want that information to be easily accessible, so why not make it part of the product experience?”
As an entrepreneur, Quagraine mentions the importance of having a clear vision and knowing what excellence looks like for your business. “You’re going to always run into challenges, but you address each and every one as it comes every day,” she says, explaining that her goal for 54kibo is to be at the forefront of storytelling and culture sharing with the rest of the world.
“If you’ve got this Djemble table from Ghana and it’s sitting in your living room, and you get visitors, and it’s sparking conversation, you’ll talk about more than just the table,” Quagraine explains. “It might make you go to a map and ask, hey, where’s Ghana? Where’s Burundi? And it opens up your whole world in different ways. And 54kibo wants to enable those conversations.”
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