Charlotte Ashamu started her career as an international trade specialist at the Whitaker Group and Abt Associates in Washington, DC. A graduate of Wellesley College and the Paris Fashion Institute, she holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is a recipient of the Mo Ibrahim Leadership Fellowship awarded to young African leaders.
Ashamu, has managed a multi-country programme at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, to provide financing and capacity building to small business entrepreneurs. She also served in the Office of the President of the African Development where she led the development of strategic partnerships with foundations and philanthropists around the world.
With her wealth of experience, Charlotte Ashamu founded Dabira in 2016 to help talented African designers build their businesses. Through several programmes and events across Johannesburg, Abidjan and Accra, within a short period, Dabira is well established as a thought leader in the design industry in Africa. She tells Omenka Online about her journey so far.
What experiences have you had in your career that have prepared you for your work with Dabira?
I have spent most of my career working in the field of economic development. I’ve been involved in setting up and running programmes to support small business entrepreneurs in a wide range of industries. These programmes help entrepreneurs gain access to training, funding and information they need to effectively operate a business. At one point, I managed a programme that took African fashion and furniture designers to major trade shows and industry events across the United States. I took away many lessons from this experience about what creative entrepreneurs need to build to compete in international markets.
About six years ago, I began running a weekly programme for fashion entrepreneurs at a university in South Africa. I found that I really enjoyed working with creative people, and wanted to do more. I later enrolled in a program at the Paris Fashion Institute to study fashion and gain work experience in the industry. Initially, I wanted to develop a jewelry brand and had begun selling a collection. However, I realised that it wasn’t the right fit for me, and that I was more enthusiastic about helping entrepreneurs in creative fields gain access to resources and new markets.
What have been your challenges so far?
It is very challenging getting people with large funding resources or policy decision makers in Africa to seriously invest in the creative industries. I believe for two reasons; for one, there’s a lack of reliable data on the creative industries including their size, contribution to the GDP and the number of jobs they create. In general, I find that there is little appreciation for the economic and cultural significance of the industry. Second, there is a lack of critical business skills needed to grow the industry. In general, you find great talent in the creative industry but don’t find people working exclusively in the industry who have business skills specifically in management, accounting, legal, and so on.
You launched Dabira in Johannesburg, and have organised several programmes and events in Abidjan and now Accra. Are you thinking about a Lagos launch too?
I began this work in Johannesburg, South Africa primarily because I was based there and the city had some initiatives focused on developing it as a hub for the creative industries on the continent. I formally launched Dabira in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, after I left Johannesburg and moved there to start a new job.
Again I saw the same needs that I found in South Africa and throughout the continent. I am now based in Accra but through my portfolio of programmes, my vision is to expand Dabira to several other countries including Nigeria, over the next few years.
Would you include Nigeria because of her huge population and many creatives?
Yes, and interestingly the data that we have on the creative industries is largely from Nigeria where the creative sector is the second largest employer, with the film industry contributing to the majority. Lagos is the centre of creativity on the continent so I would be missing out on a lot if I did not focus my efforts there. And, most importantly, I want to invest in and contribute to my country’s development.
What are your success stories, so far?
2017 has been an exciting year for Dabira. We began producing a pop up marketplace called the Design Market in two cities, Abidjan and Accra. The Design Market is a curated, indoor market where the best designers, artists and emerging brands from across the continent showcase their distinctive, locally made products. We have all sorts of awesome products: apparel, jewelry, footwear, leather accessories, home gift items and more. Our markets are unique because we bring in designers and artists from other African countries and we give our guests the opportunity to interact closely with them so that they feel they are part of an experience as opposed to a more removed shopping experience online or in a mall. We are now working with a community of over 30 small business entrepreneurs. For many of our entrepreneurs, the Design Market is their first entry point into new countries or getting in front of a wider audience. Our markets help them get new customers, meet retail buyers who are interested in carrying their products in their stores, as well as gain more media exposure.
You speak passionately about helping creatives and seem to draw from a personal history. Are you a designer as well?
My interest in the creative industries began at a young age; I was exposed to several artists and the arts in Nigeria because my mother was an art teacher. The creative industry has the potential for Africa to create jobs and needs economic opportunities, which is why I have chosen to focus much of my energy in this area. I also have my own creative outlets; I design and make jewelry pieces. I love ceramic design and have taken classes over the years.
What is next on the horizon for Dabira?
We are looking at ways to expand the Design Market into other major cities across Africa and the world. Our ambition is to become the premier pop up market for Africa’s best design talent. We also plan to establish a groundbreaking co-working and events space that will provide much needed space and programmes for creative entrepreneurs.
Everything we do is about helping designers, artists and small business owners get to the next level and to succeed