I first met Samantha White in 2014 when we started discussing a partnership between Sapelle and Anansi, the brand which she founded. Samantha describes Anansi as an African-inspired luxury handbags brand for chic woman who yearn for colour and print.
The name Anansi originated in Ghana where oral stories of wisdom are part of the extensive oral tradition. These tales are represented by a clever spider named Anansi, and they spread across the Caribbean, South America and North America. Much like the Anansi stories, Samantha has drawn inspiration for her handbag line from her varied heritage and travels—born to Jamaican parents, raised in Canada, and now splitting her time between Ghana and the UK, her life is a mixture of the many homes of the African Diaspora.
I caught up with Samantha again recently, and heard about her recent relocation to Ghana, her experiences there and how a Canadian of Jamaican descent has found settling in to life in West Africa. Here’s what she had to say.
In many ways my current trajectory is an ode to my father
I was born in Oakville, Ontario Canada to Jamaican parents. I grew up the youngest of three girls in a small suburban town called Mississauga. My creative flair as well as my interests in entrepreneurship, travel, and the African diaspora, began early. In many ways my current trajectory is an ode to my father, who encouraged us to explore and to appreciate all that was around us. He has a natural flair for life and he passed it on to his children.
As a child, I would spend hours doing crafts and creating new items and my favourite Christmas and birthday gifts were always craft sets. My dad would also buy a special gift if I got top grades at school so I would look forward to our trips to Toys R Us to buy the biggest craft set I could find.
My father runs a small chemical maintenance company so I was lucky enough to go to work with him during my holidays. I loved the variety in our days at work, the thrill of meeting customers and the pride over growing the business. I also learned about the inevitable highs and lows of running a company. Although I initially pursued a traditional career path, I always knew that I would eventually start a business of my own. As I became more established in my career, I moved from larger organisations to smaller start ups until I finally made the jump and became an entrepreneur myself.
Both my parents actively encouraged me to understand more about our rich heritage. My father took me to numerous events and symposia as a child, which ignited my interest in both modern and historical aspects of African and Caribbean culture.
I developed the travel bug at an early age as well. As a child, I would travel either to the US or Jamaica during the holidays and I began travelling on my own at the tender age of 15. Canada also has a diverse population so I grew up exploring and engaging with other cultures.
Although I achieved early success in my career, I still felt largely unfulfilled as I wasn’t truly passionate about the work I was doing
My 20’s was about conformity and doing what I thought I was supposed to do whereas my 30’s have been about doing what I want to do. I left Canada in 2003 and completed an exchange between the Ivey School of Business in London, Ontario, Canada and ESADE in Barcelona. After completing my studies in Spain, I moved to Paris for 6 months before settling in the UK in 2004.
I started a career in Pharmaceuticals, first in Sales and then progressing to Pharmaceutical Market Research. I quickly climbed the corporate ladder and became a Business Development Director at the age of 29. Although I achieved early success in my career, I still felt largely unfulfilled as I wasn’t truly passionate about the work I was doing. So I began to explore the possibility of starting my own business.
Many of the foods and stories from Jamaica actually originate from West Africa
Initially, I travelled to Ghana in March of 2012 to visit my then boyfriend’s (now husband) family and to explore his homeland. I instantly fell in love with the country. Although I had never been to Ghana before, it felt like home. I marvelled at the people—they closely resembled my own family members and I was in awe of the strong connection between many of the Ghanaian traditions and those which I know as a person of Jamaican descent. I found it amazing that many of the foods and stories known in Jamaica actually originate from West Africa, like waakye, ackee, and Anansi stories. My initial trip gave me a certain sense of pride as it showed the strength and resilience of my ancestors who have maintained some of our traditions despite the atrocities of slavery.
The opportunity to succeed in business in Ghana is immense
There wasn’t a specific point when I decided to relocate to Ghana. My husband had returned there from the UK to run his family business and eventually he also started his own company. As his business began to grow, we continued to talk about where it was best/most practical for us to live. The opportunity to succeed in business in Ghana is immense and as I wanted to create a business with a strong online component, I had more flexibility to move. Initially, I started my business while working in market research and when the opportunity arose I left my job to work full-time at Anansi (then called Mefie). After leaving my job, I spent 3 months in Ghana and then continued to increase my time there.
I think the biggest adjustment has been the differences in gender roles
I am still transitioning to fully living in Ghana but I officially became a resident in 2015. I still return to the UK regularly, and I operate Anansi within both countries. For me, I think the biggest adjustment has been the differences in gender roles between the UK/Canada and Ghana. I would say in Ghana, there is still a relatively traditional view of a woman’s role in business and society as being secondary to that of men.
Globalisation, social media and the internet has contributed to a change in buying patterns and consumption
My favourite aspect of living in Ghana is the opportunity. Ghana is a developing economy and in many ways it is easier to establish a traditional business and flourish in Ghana compared to the West. Globalisation, social media and the internet has contributed to a change in buying patterns and consumption. People are now exposed to new ideas and concepts more quickly, which leads to greater acceptance of new concepts and further development ie. the first shopping malls, parks, recreational centres etc are now under development and it is amazing to see people engage.
I wake up each day ready to conquer the world and to truly affect change
Some may ask —how, do you affect change with a handbag? Yet, in starting a business, regardless of the type, there is always room for growth. Not only do we look to celebrate the beauty and craftsmanship in traditional textiles, but as the business grows, there is the opportunity to incorporate many of the crafts done across the continent, thus working with a greater number of artisans. Additionally, at the core of the company is a commitment to training and development in business. Hence, we will also give back through exceptional development of new employees. The lessons learned, having worked in large conglomerates and having trained in the best schools and under some of the most powerful managers in their respective businesses, has put me in good stead to pass on key learnings to those who may not otherwise have the opportunity.
Why do I make high end bags? Why should Africans buy from Anansi and not the established European brands?
…what can I say other than I love handbags! Anansi was established with the vision of bringing luxury leather handbags to those who love colour and print. When I entered into the corporate world, I felt that there was a lack of vibrancy in both clothing and accessories. I found myself adding scarves, keychains etc to my bags in order to give them a more interesting look that reflected my personality. As a businesswoman, I had begun investing in leather bags, as I needed to have accessories that worked within my corporate wardrobe. Hence, I wanted to create a leather handbags that not only celebrate traditional African craftsmanship but those that are also versatile enough to take you from day to night and through work and play.
…And as to why someone should buy an Anansi handbag instead of a more established European brand — buy our bags because they are beautiful, durable and functional. Most businesses flourish because they meet the needs of a new or neglected customer group. We designed the Anansi bag for the cosmopolitan man or woman who craves luxury, colour and print. There are enough plain bags on the market, so for those who have always wanted something different with the quality they would expect of a luxury leather handbag, the wait is over! We have worked hard to create these bags using the finest lambs leathers and suedes mixed with textiles and print.
Although we are a new brand, we have already made some great strides
The intention is to grow Anansi to be a recognisable global brand. The time is now to make our mark and I have all of the faith in the world that we will be able to achieve our goal. We’ve already made some great strides. We are now sold in select stores in London and we’re in talks with other boutiques around the world. We were also selected as a signature handbag brand for the second season of “An African City”. The show received over 1 millions views during its first season and the second season is scheduled to air on select French and English television stations worldwide.
2015 also marked our first year at the prestigious trade show Premiere Classe Who’s Next in Paris and Ghana Fashion and Design Week. Finally, we are gearing up to increase our online presence as we launch our new collection. So watch this space as it is exciting times for the Anansi brand as we grow from strength to strength!