Bold, Creative and carefree are some of the words we can use to describe Maria Thundu. Born in Malawi and raised in Ethiopia, the famous photographer, who has lived on three continents, has also gained recognition for her design of beautiful leather and chitenje (African print) accessories through her line, SweetLife Accessories.
After being featured on CNN’s African Start up and in South Africa’s Destiny Magazine, Maria is a creative entrepreneur who chooses to fight limitations set by society of what women can do by achieving great things.
In this interview she talks about her passion, her dreams and what she thinks young African creative can do to help build the continent.
What does Africa mean to you?
Africa the place is uncharted, resource full, abundance. Africa the people are strong, determined and ambitious. They find opportunity where it is lacking and have a drive to make something of themselves. Africa means strength and prosperity in unity.
How did you become a leader in the creative space and industry in which you operate?
I arrived in Malawi at a time when photography was still following the traditional form: all shots were formal and it was quantity over quality, posed shots were de riguer. There were no up and coming female photographers that were standing out from the crowd, no professional female photographers to speak of. It was a compact, male dominated industry. My style was candid, in the moment, journalistic, even. My appearance didn’t fit the mold.
For a very long time, the majority of people appreciating my work thought that I was a man. In a wedding, I followed the events of the day my way and Malawi fell in love with the impromptu and natural photos they received. I had to establish myself quite quickly as word got around. A few features in national press pushed my name to household standard. Fast forward to 3 years and there is fierce competition in the Malawi photography industry, photographers are realising their worth and they are producing fantastic, well thought out images. Though it is still a small scene, the interest has peaked dramatically and I am proud to say I played a major part in revolutionizing this industry locally.
I discovered a niche in the African print accessories area. Not to say that people were not producing beautiful local crafts, but those items were limited to curios and souvenirs. The fashion aspect was lacking and I made a point to deliver on well-finished local goods that would be marketable globally. I had already been producing accessories – handbags and some jewelry — in another country [Ethiopia] with the help of established industry experts. Building a business in Malawi required starting from scratch as there were no renowned artisans who worked on the types of accessories that I was interested in producing. It was challenging to find tailors who were willing to change their mindset and be satisfied working under someone. Again, there were very few people exclusively producing handbags using African prints combined with other materials as recently as four years ago in Malawi. The market was there, as the popularity of my products instantly showed We provide high quality, attractive and practical accessories that you can dress up or down. I have to keep evolving, so we try different things and keep ahead of the trend wheel. Some predictions are just right.
The last few years have seen a popularity in the phrases : Africa Rising and Africa Needs Aid. Which one is it for you?
Africa has risen. We are the most popular girl in school right now. We have reached a peak where more and more people are viewing Africa in a positive light both locally/regionally and internationally; development is at an all time high; travel to and from Africa has become less about status and wealth and more about being curious about bringing the world to Africa and sharing and presenting ourselves in an optimistic and enlightening way. Africa is becoming more and more self-sufficient, we are depending less on imports and finding that we can actually provide for ourselves and we want to. Soon we will be competing with and/or will become just as competitive as the countries that were “assisting”.
As someone who has stayed in the diaspora, what do you think is the role of Africa’s diaspora?
Essentially, we are the ambassadors of our countries, of our continent. Anywhere you go in the world, you will encounter people, situations, or events that will require you to speak of who you are or where you are from and to do so in a way that breeds interest, curiosity and positivity. Being and/or living in the diaspora, you are constantly engaged in what you do not have exposure to in your own country: learning, feeling, networking, attempting. Returning from the diaspora, you are bringing back those skills and experiences and hopefully teaching, building on, and sharing lessons learned. You are investing in your country either way.
What would you say to those young Africans who are hungry to make a difference but have no idea how to go about it?
If you already have an area of interest that you are keen on, find someone who is working in that field and ask questions. Ask how they got started, what challenges they met, how they got where they are today. There are a plethora of people in any venture you may be interested who are already established and can always answer questions and assist as they are able. Find a mentor. Be enthusiastic and take initiative. Be sure to do your research and not to enter anything blindly. Use the people and the opportunities around you.