Most lifestyle brands launch with a lot of superficial chit-chat and a stampede for the goodie bags. Not CHIWARA CO. Assetou Coulibaly launched her line of African artisan-made products on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination with a panel discussion on allyship, intersectionality and the importance of “leaning into your discomfort.”
In her day job, Coulibaly is a project manager at Accent Inns and, among her many credits, has worked with UNICEF Mali and the United Nations Office for The Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Niger. She created CHIWARA to lift up artisans in Mali, where she was born, envisioning it not as another Goop, but as a Black-female-owned business that “bridges the gap between culture, advocacy and experience.”
To do that, CHIWARA comprises four pillars: House (So), Self (Yere), Clothing (Fini) and Community (Ko). “With each pillar, I find an artisan whose values align with mine and the CHIWARA community,” she says.
For instance, the “House” collection is designed by a collective led by a man who teaches street kids usable life skills. His apprentices craft wooden planchettes (ideal for charcuterie), carve animal statues and weave pillowcases from African cotton. “They’re so timeless, and they can fit anywhere,” Coulibaly raves.
Among the other CHIWARA items are a cold-pressed shea oil Coulibaly calls “the golden drop,” Himalayan salt scrubs, pretty wraps for hair and beautiful dresses made from printed cotton.
If these sound luxurious, they are. “I really wanted to have the concept of changing the perception people have of African brands. Because a lot of African brands can be really classy,” Coulibaly says, emphasizing the importance of “voices being heard and celebrated as well — there
isn’t a sad violin behind this.”
Meanwhile, Coulibaly is also building diversity, equity and inclusion in her own community of Victoria by, for instance, working with 4VI to create an inclusive tour-operating guide. “As a company or as a leader, I always say, start where it matters. Start where you’re passionate, because that will embolden you,” she says.