I started Cartik with less than $3 to my name

I started Cartik, an ethical fashion and social entrepreneurship brand in 2013 while studying abroad in Ghana. A significant part of my program as an International Relations major at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul, Minneapolis, was to study abroad for a semester or a year. So, I spent a semester in Paris, France on a scholarship sponsored by the US Department of State’s Bureau of educational and cultural affairs. After my time in France, I planned to go to Ghana to study the culture, the people, and their political system.

My scholarship to Ghana was declined but I was already enrolled in the program that summer. So, I worked every job I could find and saved enough money to purchase a ticket to Ghana.  My tuition covered the fees and the only issue left was my survival for the rest of the semester. Struggling to go to Ghana made me realize how much I needed to make extra income back in USA.

My Ghanaian experience

While in Ghana, my aunt in Togo paid me a visit and we travelled back to Togo to see family. It had been 15 years since I last visited and I felt like a complete stranger in my own country. My aunt and I had gone to the market in Lomé, the capital city of Togo. As we walked through the market, all I saw was beautiful African wax prints everywhere. My aunt, being the queen of prints asked me to help select them.

My interest was piqued when my aunt advised that I consider doing something with prints. In need of extra income and knowing the demand for prints in the US would be huge, I considered it. Soon, I was making inquiries in Ghana and during trips to Togo on bags and accessories with African prints.

Carmen Attikossie

Breaking through the business world

A young woman I met at the University of Ghana, Legon where I was staying, showed me some bags that I liked. Originally, I was going to just buy bags and sell them in the USA but I didn’t like some of the ones I saw. This led me to start sketching my own designs and jotting down ideas of what I’d like. Though I had no background in design and could barely draw to save my life, I was willing to try.

When my time in Ghana came to an end, I had used all the money I earned to start Cartik. With $2.85 to my name and no books for the coming semester, I returned to the USA with 30 bags and some jewelry. It was an audacious move but I told myself even if I failed, at least I tried.

Within two months, I had sold everything and even needed to get more products. I went from ordering 30 to 60, then 200 bags. I was running Cartik’s operations from my dorm on campus with the help of my aunt and cousins in Ghana and Togo.

cartik model

Growing Cartik

I started getting invited to events to showcase my products as everyone on my campus and even local colleges around the city in St. Paul and Minneapolis knew about my business.

In my last year in college, a friend invited me to her economic development class. As I listened to a professor speak about economic development in developing countries, I realized how everything spoken about came naturally to me.

I decided that very moment, what I wanted to do with my brand. I was going to grow Cartik into an ethical fashion and social entrepreneurship brand that works with artisans in Togo and Ghana. I was going to fuse my knowledge as an international relations major into my business.

Although it’s been 2 years since we started, I still consider Cartik a startup. We’ve done many local fashion shows in Minneapolis and more recently, we did something for RAW in Phoenix, Arizona. RAW is an international artist coalition group that serves as a platform for designers, musicians, etc.

I truly believe I have started a brand with the potential to make a huge impact in Africa.

The future?

In the future, I hope to expand into producing my own African textiles, provide education and development for women and children. Also, I would love to go into cosmetics, agriculture, and start a foundation to mentor young individuals wanting to start a business.

Of course, I am trying to create an altruistic brand that will stimulate economic development and prosperity. I want to create jobs and opportunities for people in Togo, Ghana and other parts of the African continent.

Carmen Attikossie: I want Cartik to contribute to a better Africa

In these days of ubiquitous African wax prints, only a few businesses stand out. One of them is Cartik, a brand started by Carmen Attikossie. Carmen used her links to her homeland of Togo, along with new networks formed while studying in Ghana to start a fashion label that uses African wax print. Here, Carmen gives us insight into Cartik, explains why she plans to venture into agriculture and schools us on the Nana Benz.

What sort of artisans does Cartik you work with?

I work with artisans from all walks of life in Ghana and Togo. In Togo, there is an artisan village in the capital city Lomé and when I started Cartik, my aunt took me there. I met artisans who were shoemakers, leather-workers, jewelry-makers, etc. I took my time, picked the artisans I wanted to work with and went from there. In Ghana, I had the opportunity to travel to Kumasi, and I met some artisans at Bonwire, Kente village.

Throughout the time I was Accra as a student, I took my time to search for individuals who were skilled in bag-making and were interested in making my designs. There was difficulty in finding these artisans and I spent weeks and months trying to find the right individuals to bring my designs to life. Most of the artisans I work with are people who have either left their countries due to conflict or lack of jobs and have settled in Ghana or Togo. They are young individuals who have graduated from university but due to lack of employment, they picked up artisan skills and are looking to have a steady income.

I like working with these young individuals because I am young myself. As a university graduate, I understand the difficulty of receiving a degree and not finding work in your field or employment in general. Today, I work with a small group of artisans in Accra and in Lomé, I still work with artisans at the artisan village.

What is the fashion scene in Togo like?

Togo is a small country and the fashion industry is slowly gaining momentum with the likes of Grace Wallace. Grace is a Togolese-Nigerian fashion designer that is well known throughout Togo and in West Africa.

Lomé, the capital city known to be a hub for African prints. Many people travel from Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and other countries just to buy prints at Assigame , the biggest market in Togo.

Model: Karima Bah Photo credit: Darlington’s photography

Tell us about your experience studying in Ghana.

I went to Ghana on a study abroad programme at my university. In Ghana, I stayed on campus at the University of Ghana and lived in the international student hostel. My experience there was phenomenal. I did not want to leave Ghana, I even asked my school if I could stay for another semester but I was not given the opportunity.

Honestly, I felt comfortable in Ghana. I grew up in the USA so when I was there everyone thought I was from the USA. Many people were shocked to know that I’m from Togo. My classmates and professors were always surprised when I spoke Ewe, one of the languages spoken in Ghana and Togo. They couldn’t believe that after 15 years in the USA I can still speak Ewe so well.

I made new friends, learned a little bit of Twi and experienced life as a student in an African country, something that I’ve always wanted to do. I also volunteered at Future Leaders, an organization that takes disadvantaged kids off the streets of Accra and provides them with the basic tools of education. I taught science to 5th and 6th graders in Teshie, Ghana. At Future Leaders, I helped initiate a plan for women and microfinance and got involved in many other aspects of the organization.

As someone who has received scholarships, do you have any advice for other young African women looking to gain a scholarship?

Google is your best friend, go to networking events if you can because you never know who might be there and what connections and networks they have. When writing scholarship essays or filling out grant applciations, start early and take your time. Also, make sure to have others look over it.

Looking for a scholarship is a like looking for employment. You want to take time to research and plan how to write your scholarship essay.

You mentioned that you want to venture into agriculture. Why agriculture?

Once Cartik is out of its startup phase and is well established and known, I want to delve into agriculture. At the moment the only steps I’ve taken is to do more research on African agriculture. I became interested in agriculture after reading Africa Unchained by George Ayittey in college. That book taught me the importance of agriculture in Africa. The rural population in many African countries hold the wealth to Africa’s prosperity and that is agriculture.

If we spend time investing and educating the rural population on better and efficient farming techniques, I believe would be on our way to alleviating some of the problems we have. From what I’ve learned in college, at times rural areas in African countries are neglected when it comes to development. If we provide rural populations with access to healthcare, education, development for women and children, the possibilities will be endless.

Cartik LogoCan you tell us a few things about Togo that other Africans don’t know?

– Togo is home to the Nana Benz women. The Nana Benz are a group of women who began their journey as textile traders during the time of French colonization. These women came from nothing and rose to fame, power, and fortune because of the wax prints. They were ambitious, hardworking entrepreneurs and leaders who contributed greatly to the economic growth of Togo.

The lives and stories of the Nana Benz women have been preserved in a book called Nanas Benz: Parcours de Vie. The English translation would be, “The lives of Nanas Benz”. The book was written by a Togolese woman name Dalé Hélène Labitey, who is also professor of Law in Senegal.

– Koutammakou, the land of the Batammariba, is a rural part of Togo located in the north of the country. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

– The international music group, Toofan that has been nominated for the BET “Best Act International Africa” award, along with many other prestigious entertainment awards in Africa is from Togo.

– Togo is one of the world’s largest phosphate producers.

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