G. Kofi Annan thinks Africa has a branding problem. "It's sad, but as much as has been done throughout the continent, the brand image is still about famine, war, suffering and disease," he says. Four years ago, he created a clothing business to tackle this issue.
Through Annansi Clothing Co., Annan is trying to redefine Africa's image in U.S. mass media and popular culture. "There are a lot of companies selling products, such as beads, that reflect African heritage, but there has to be a trendier association with Africa [so consumers] get a more well-rounded view of what the culture is all about," he says.
Annan, 32, started by selling hip T-shirts depicting African symbols and heroes in the trendy SoHo neighborhood of New York City. He quickly found that people were interested in hearing the stories behind his designs, opening the door for him to educate his customers about the Africa he knows. "It's hard to believe, but some people still think everyone in Africa lives in a village and doesn't drive cars," he says. As a native of Ghana who moved to the U.S. when he was 12 years old, Annan says these are the same misconceptions he heard as a schoolboy when he first arrived in the U.S.
As his customer base and online sales grew, Annan tried to manufacture his products in Africa and import them to the U.S. but was unable to do so efficiently--which convinced him even more of the importance of his mission. "Things that were simple to do here were hard and costly in Africa," he says. "They have the resources, but they're not being maximized in a way that makes sense for a small business to use them."
He believes that by repositioning Africa's image, he can help convince companies to invest in the structures that could make Africa more appealing. "[Businesses] need to see Africa as a place where they won't lose money," says Annan, who expects sales to reach nearly $400,000 this year.
Annan says his ideas are big, and he's often asked how a small clothing company can tackle a problem as large as Africa's image. But he thinks fashion is the perfect vehicle to make a difference. "One of the main things that drives consumers in the West is pop culture," says Annan, whose goal is to make Africa a part of pop culture. "Leaders have enough access to learn about Africa, but consumers don't, and consumers can dictate where companies spend money."
JJ Ramberg is the host of MSNBC's small-business program Your Business and co-founder of GoodSearch.com.