MONCTON – Jabbar Lawani and Alfred Bessawa met as international students at Collège Communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick in Dieppe. In late 2015, both started direct-sales of African clothing. But as winter neared, their conversation of creating warmer clothing intertwined with a desire to spread friendship.
“Jabbar was talking and saying, ‘well there is too much hate.’ Like seeing people getting shot in the U.S., having some bombs in Europe. So we started to think about how we can create something that can bring everybody together,” Bessawa said. “It was September, so we started with sweaters. We customize in matching the sweaters with the African fabric.”
Design From Africa now sells hoodies, t-shirts, polo shirts and tank tops with splashes of African patterns for adults and children. The clothing is from Canada, but the African fabric is from Benin, where Lawani is from. The pair designs the apparel and works with local tailors to bring it to life. They sell the clothes through the company’s website and Facebook page, as well as at events and the Moncton market.
“Bringing something from Africa and bringing something from here, and the people we work with – the tailors – are also from different places, so that’s how we see diversity,” Bessawa said.
The company also wants to start conversations between people of different cultural backgrounds through its products.
“If somebody here sees [our clothes] and starts asking questions, starting to know more about the product, where it’s coming from and how it’s made, they’ll start knowing more about Africa. That’s how we start talking with people. What we like to create is to just break the walls between any culture,” Bessawa said.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re a business or a person, we’re facing a part of history where we need immigration. If people are not ready for it, that’s fine, but that’s the reality. We need to embrace it instead of fighting it,” Bessawa said.
Bessawa, originally from Cameroon, has been named among 30-under-30 Francophones to watch in New Brunswick by Acadie Nouvelle. Design From Africa was also recently honoured by The Hive, Greater Moncton’s business immigrant mentorship program.
“To us it’s just unbelievable, you know? Because coming from Cameroon and Benin, we didn’t know at first that we were going to have a company here. We just started because we had that vision of living together, building a better community,” Bessawa said.
Bessawa and Lawani work full-time while running their business. So the pair find support from their workplaces and others in the community to be very helpful.
“You need to work hard, but people welcomed us here and we were surrounded with such a good group of people who believe in us, and were supportive to us. Now, we’re just trying to give back to the community,” Bessawa said. “If we didn’t have such support, I don’t think we will still be doing what we do.”
For the holiday season, the pair donated 30 per cent of sales per item until December 22 to House of Nazareth, an emergency shelter for the needy in Moncton.
In the future, Design From Africa’s founders want to engage more youth.
“It’s not about what we’re going to make, but it’s going to be about people we’re going to work with. We believe in other young people like us. We believe that we can give them opportunities to experiment [with their passion],” Bessawa said.