Interview with Labi Akapo, a Nigerian master craftsman who grew up in Britain where he honed his craft. He then decided to utilise his skills to establish a business that would benefit his continent. After a stint in the deep rural areas of Ghana prospecting for gold, he ended up in South Africa where he has been lecturing and transfering his skills to marginalised Africans. He is now the CEO of Akapo Jewellers, based in Johannesburg. He says for Africa to own its resources, there is an urgent need for beneficiation on the continent. Pusch Commey went to interview him at his plush offices in Hyde Park, Johannesburg.
Q | You sound British from your accent?
Actually I was born in Lagos, Nigeria. I left at the age of 10 months old when my parents decided to further their studies in Geneva. From there we moved to London where I grew up and received my education. Long story. The name Akapo is a Yoruba name which means treasurer.
I developed an interest in the jewellery industry by luck and by chance. I was very good at handcraft and hand skills, where I was winning awards. I studied mechanical engineering at university. But my chance came in the jewellery industry when I purchased an expensive beautifully-crafted watch from a friend who worked in a jewellery shop in Knightsbridge, London. I didn’t have enough money to buy the watch outright so I made arrangements with my friend through his employer to pay in installments.
On making the final payment, my friend was no longer in their employment. The directors of the jewellery shop, Mr and Mrs Peera, then asked me to help them in the shop. That was the beginning of my entry into the jewellery industry 38 years ago, in 1976. I specialise in bespoke and handmade jewellery, made to order.
Q | Can you tell us a bit about your trajectory in this field?
It wasn’t easy coming up through the ranks in London. In the 80s, I was able to do a tour of the workshops where I got to meet many elders with years of experience, in order to gain expertise. On some occasions I had to take a pay cut in order to acquire new skills.
Q | You then decided to return to your continent?
Yes. To give back, and also to explore opportunities. About 16 years ago I was in the deep rural areas of Ghana with my wife and two-year-old daughter prospecting for gold. It was a great opportunity to share knowledge and skills.
Q | You then moved to South Africa?
Yes. A colleague of mine who I was teaching in London went to South Africa first, and then asked if I would be interested in coming down too, to look at the prospects of doing business together. We spent three months here, but during the last two weeks of my stay I invited my wife down to have a look at opening a business. That was in 2002. I then returned alone in November 2002 to set up this business. My wife joined me with our children in December 2002.
Q | And so far?
So far, very good. I lecture, on a part-time basis, in the manufacture of platinum jewellery at the University of Johannesburg and the Central University of Technology in the province of Free State. My students are from around the globe.
Q | How do you think African resources, especially metals and stones, can be used to catalyse African development?
These resources are in abundance on the continent as a whole. I am a goldsmith so I work with gold, platinum, silver, diamonds and all precious and semi-precious stones. Africa has truly been blessed. All the stones from the rubies, emerald, sapphires, tanzanite, etc, are spread throughout the whole continent. What Africans are missing is in the value chain. There is an urgent need for beneficiation. The real benefit does not go to Africans.
Q | What is the current state of beneficiation?
Organisation is key. There are various small ineffective associations spread around the continent. Right now, I believe South Africa is leading as it has an annual jewellery exhibition. It also has a Jewellery Council, a jewellery manufacturing association, a union for jewellers, and an organisation called ADJO (African Designers and Jewellery Organisation) all in place to assist the retail industry as well as the manufacturing industry.
Q | Who runs the show?
At the high-end of the jewellery industry, namely the handmade and what is internationally acceptable, it is without a doubt the whites. They have had a long head start, as black Africans could not enter the industry and were not taught skills at the high-end of jewellery design and manufacture in the old apartheid dispensation.
Q | So where does the benefit go?
Foreign capital and investment. They see the value in our raw materials more than we do at this moment in time.
Q | Why is it like that?
Wow! That’s a big question. Most of us on the continent don’t know that jewellery manufacture started thousands of years ago here in Africa, because we have had our progress interrupted and halted. We seem to have forgotten our greatness as goldsmiths.
Recently I made a presentation at the National Jewellery Forum here in South Africa where I also presented a slide show of jewellery that was manufactured here on the continent of Africa, dating back more than 4,500 years. Not to mention Tutankhamun’s gold death mask and coffin which dates back 3,500 years, all made by African goldsmiths. And by the way, the death mask weighs 11 kilos of fine gold while the coffin weighs 110 kilos of fine gold. Both are inlayed with semi-precious stones, all made in Africa.
Some time after my presentation, a white colleague approached me and said I had got it all wrong and that jewellery-making started in Mesopotamia (current-day Iran, Iraq) and they brought goldsmithing to Africa. I asked him why he believed that. He then went on to tell me he had studied the history of goldsmithing when he was an apprentice.
Yet when I asked him which gold artefacts in Mesopotamia could predate the gold artefacts in Africa, he didn’t have an answer. If we have been misled, we should then research why we have been misled. Now why should anyone leave Africa to go to another country to learn to be a goldsmith?
At this point I feel it is very relevant to go back in our history on the continent to describe one of our great kings of Mali, Mansa Musa (1280-1331), who manufactured and stored so much gold that the West are now calling him the richest person in all of history. It was 168 years after his birth when Christopher Columbus set sail for the Americas and yet most of us in Africa know next to nothing about Mansa Musa. They go on to describe his net worth as $400 billion. Number two on the list is the Rothschild family at $350 billion, and the Rockefellers at $340 billion. 12th is Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft) at $136 billion.
Q | Until recently, you were the only black person on South Africa’s Jewellery Manufacturers Association?
Yes, I have been since 2010. I am not sure of the procedure on how you become a member of the executive board. I was invited by the late former chairman, Alan Mair, to become a member of the executive committee of the Jewellery Manufacturers’ Association of South Africa, a branch of the Jewellery Council.
I became a member not long after I made a very detailed butterfly in platinum which was auctioned at a charity event. The proceeds went to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The butterfly was set with diamonds, rubies and sapphires. I called the butterfly Ibhabhathane. Last year, another black African was invited to join. There is another black African who sits on the board of directors of the Jewellery Council.
Q | You managed to set up a top shop in a plush suburb of Johannesburg, were there any difficulties?
Apart from capital, I wouldn’t say we had any serious difficulties as such, setting up our company here in Hyde Park, because we cater for private clients as well as teaching and training. We run a college with full accreditation. Skills transfer is vital for African development.
Q | And what are some of the challenges you have generally faced in the industry?
Being one of the few black goldsmiths in the industry comes with its own challenges. There have been challenges from as far back as I can remember, when I first started training to become a goldsmith in London. The challenges here in South Africa are very similar to those in London.
The beneficiation industry is small and can be very secretive. When we set up our company here, initially we were warmly welcomed. But when we got involved in transferring skills, we began to notice a change in attitude towards us.
One time a white colleague approached me and asked what I was teaching. I went through a list of different projects to express where we need to take the young people to become good goldsmiths. I was shocked to hear him say that some of the programmes I was teaching were a bit too advanced for black Africans. “Aren’t they?”, he asked.
What he wasn’t aware of was that I had been teaching a “rainbow nation” in my workshop and at the universities from the day I began teaching here in South Africa, and I always told my students that I was teaching them to be better than me, and to be free of me, not the same as me, otherwise there would be no progress. I do not discriminate. Limitations in terms of skills cut across race, even though in South Africa blacks were deliberately excluded and need to be given more exposure. The important thing is the opportunity to learn and train. This is why education is extremely important.
Q | Your parting words?
The South African government is already on the right path of beneficiation. Of course there will be resistance from those who have something to lose, but African governments should be resolute in filling spaces in the value chain because beneficiation brings massive amounts of money. Merely exporting raw materials will keep the continent poor. We need to believe in ourselves and also create our own markets.
There should be government intervention in supporting capital markets for beneficiation and skills development among Africans, through access, bursaries and scholarships. The students should be fast-tracked to catch up. Africans are extremely creative and innovative. Our artistic capital is appropriated and used everywhere. Look at Picasso. Once we tap into this with the right support, we will grow the continent and rise to the top of the world. We have to look back into the past to realise what we can achieve as Africans. Look at what Mansa Musa achieved. Look at the goldsmithing skills of the Akans in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and the cultural inspiration. We can do it again. And we must do it.
Source: New African|| Advocate James Pusch Commey
This article originally appeared in the New African Magazine. Read the original article here.