The kente cloth of the Ashanti is one of the most recognisable African fabrics worldwide. We’ve seen kente dashikis, kente wax print and now kente graduation stoles. Rafiat Kasumu is a Nigerian-American who developed a love for kente while working with kente weavers in Kumasi, Ghana. Rafiat took this love to the next level by co-founding Kente Master which seeks to expand the international reach of Ghanaian kente weavers. Here, Rafiat schools us on international social impact and the importance of maintaining the tradition of kente weaving.
What was the spark that lead you to start Kente Master?
Kente Master started as an idea amongst a group of my peers and I who participated in University of Pennsylvania’s joint International Development Summer Institute (IDSI) with KNUST in Ghana. While I was in undergrad, I was fortunate enough to be one of 15 UPenn students selected to go. There, I was placed in a small group of students who worked directly with local kente weaving associations daily to help scale their businesses and practices. It was a life changing experience! Thanks to it, I fell in love Ghana’s culture and history.
The most profound moments of this experience were when I heard about the history of kente from the weavers themselves. I witnessed it’s traditional production from thread to final product, and got to try my hand at weaving traditional kente cloth. I was literally weaving history and this was the spark! Learning about the significance of kente –down to the meanings of colors and patterns– really opened my eyes to how important this craft is. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a part of the movement to expand this craft internationally. Not only the significant story of kente needs to be spread.
International social impact might be a new term to some, what exactly does it mean?
Sure, “social impact” is a broad term that has been used a lot over the years by different organizations and within different contexts. Because of this, the definition of social impact is continuously in flux. It is really determined by that institution in that given time.
Kente Master is a social enterprise that promotes African entrepreneurship by servicing premium Kente graduation stoles to major universities abroad. For us , “social impact” is the positive impact an action has on a community or society. At Kente Master, we create international social impact through the connections we facilitate between local Kente weaving associations in Ghana and top universities in the United States. These connections provide greater opportunities for local entrepreneurs to scale their craft and businesses. With the influx of inauthentic and over-priced kente textile merchandise coming from China and other non-traditional manufacturers, these opportunities are essential for local Ghanaian entrepreneurs.
What steps do you take towards economic self-empowerment for the weavers you work with?
As I mentioned, Kente Master is all about economic self-empowerment of the artisans and weavers we work with. As an organization, we do not change any of the current business practices of the various weaving associations we work with. Rather, we give them an online platform as well as resources to market and sell their products and goods globally.
Economic self-empowerment of the weavers is also tied to the fact that they are still able to use the traditional weaving methods of kente. These methods are passed down from generation to generation. For weavers, self-empowerment is the notion of knowing they can continue their craft the way their ancestors taught them as well as knowing that their clients value these traditions.
Share with us a brief history of kente weavers. Is the tradition as prestigious as it presumably was in the past?
Sure! To understand the history of kente weavers, you must first understand kente itself. Kente cloth is the finished product of a traditional form of weaving that originated in Ghana from the Ashanti Kingdom. It is a fabric made of interwoven silk and cotton strips that has a really unique texture. According to Ashanti legend, centuries ago the first piece of kente was sewn and was given as a gift from two weavers to an Ashanti king as a symbol of royalty and wealth. Since then, the brightly woven kente has been passed down through generations of esteemed royal families, with each symbol and colour standing for a particular meaning.
As the years went by, kente became widespread beyond royalty and was used to mark important stages of life in Ghana, such as weddings and baby naming ceremonies. Today, its significance to these important passages of life has transcended both continents and cultures. Kente stoles are now, among other things, seen as a wearable staples of a collective heritage in the United States.
In Ghana, the craft is as prestigious as it was in the past, as skilled artisans still customize kente for important ceremonies. Abroad, we found that though people may wear kente stoles at graduations, many may not know the origin or creation process of the cloth. Kente Master was created to solve this critical gap so that students at universities abroad understand this unique tradition and know that their stoles were made in Ghana.
Who are the clients that go for Kente graduation stoles?
Great question! Some of our past customers have been the black cultural centers of universities and individual student organizations that identify with the African Diaspora such as multicultural Greek organizations, Black Student Leagues, or African Student Associations. But, we’ve also had clients that fall outside of these groups. Really, kente stoles are for anyone who wishes to stand out at their graduation by wearing a customizable piece of graduation regalia!
Do you work with any universities in Ghana or other African countries?
Yes! During its early stages, Kente Master was selected to participate in the World Bank-backed Kumasi Business Incubator (KBI) at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). This program equipped us with tools we needed to turn our innovative idea into a practical, successful social enterprise. You can read more about us here and watch our World Bank Africa video feature here.
What did you learn from your partnership with UPenn and what advice would you give other Motherland Moguls looking to secure partnerships internationally?
As our first Kente Master client, the University of Pennsylvania partnership was crucial to our humble beginnings. It has taught us a lot about how to build rapport, nurture connections, and place customer satisfaction at the very top of every interaction. By communicating to University of Pennsylvania stakeholders the mission and vision of Kente Master and by driving home the impact their relationship would make, we were able to secure a partnership with the school that has been 2 years strong!
My biggest piece of advice to Motherland Moguls would be to never give up, practice pitching your story and value proposition to potential international partners, and maintain every relationship you create!
If you could meet one woman from Ghanaian history, who will she be? And why?
If I could meet any woman from Ghanaian history, I would meet Patricia Mawuli Nyekodzi because she is currently making history today and continuously reaches back so more women can follow in her footsteps!
If you don’t know Patricia, she was the first female certified civilian pilot in Ghana and the first female aircraft engineer in West Africa certified to build and maintain aircraft engines. She currently teaches young girls to fly in Ghana –talk about the sky’s the limit!
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