In this fast-paced, digitized world where we’re all hyperconnected, it is easy to assume that the privilege technology has afforded us is equally shared by everyone. That the information it provides in milliseconds is enough to put us ‘in-the-know’.
We’re all privy to the phrases: “Let me Google that.” or “I learned it from Google.”
But what do we search for?
As we are inundated with information, it sometimes becomes easier to just ‘generalize’ – getting the breadth instead of the depth. In this process, we may overlook the essence of what makes communities and countries unique. You may glean some written-based information but it is hard, nay, near impossible, to truly learn about certain people and cultures simply by reading about them.
That is where ASHEPA Lifestyle comes in.
ASHEPA works with artisans from different parts of Africa to enhance the quality of life of these local communities. Being a lifestyle brand, ASHEPA gives you a deeper understanding of their African partners through handmade products and life stories. The brand uses ethically and sustainably sourced materials where highly-skilled artisan hands carve them into premium products.
“Nowadays, consumers are taking the initiative to be more conscious. Small business owners like me are more hands-on so we can stay true to the essence of sustainability. And this trend in the design space starts to shape the things we do.”
How did you come up with a lifestyle brand like ASHEPA?
Founded five years ago by Chetna Bhatt, the idea started to form because of the questions she received from people around her new community. Having moved to Singapore because of her husband’s work, she slowly realized how removed the understanding of Africa was from what it truly is.
“I was born and raised in Kenya. But people were confused with how I look because it’s not typically what they see on TV.”
Additionally, Chetna expresses a distinct love and passion for soulful crafts and the rich artistry of African culture. Naturally gravitating towards these unique, handmade pieces, her shopping escapades always sparked the interest and curiosity of friends. Therefore, combining her creative personality with a newfound realization, Chetna saw an opportunity to bridge her country, culture and heritage to this part of Asia.
“ASHEPA is a lifestyle brand because it’s a culmination of all my favorite things. It’s creating a lifestyle for yourself, not just one thing. The brand was built around the way I shopped and the way I show creativity in different ways.”
How was the process of creating the ASHEPA community?
Building from that vision, Chetna went in search of who she can work with. Starting with Kenya, her serendipitous encounters with organizations that work with the slums in the city led to the creation of ASHEPA’s community of artisans.
“Kenya has the second biggest slum in Africa, it’s a core part of the city. But despite this, our cushier lifestyles disconnect us from these communities. At the beginning, I had to find the courage to enter the slums in my own country.”
While these artisans were already making pieces to sell around in the slums, they weren’t making those of high-quality. With Chetna’s entry and her interactive and experiential approach with the community and the production process, she was able to build strong rapport with the local artisans. Consequently, the communities came together with trust and started making true premium pieces.
“Because we didn’t know each other, we had to spend time together. It’s me sitting there and familiarizing myself with the entire process. I know what’s going on and I had to make them understand the vision I have, and similarly, for them to be conscious of what they are making. It was a beautiful realization once we understood each other.”
Jewelry was the first product category by ASHEPA, homeware was the immediate second – making these two lines the brand’s constant offerings. The intricate hands-on approach of jewelry-making made it the perfect training ground for quality control and knowledge on how to handle all their ethically-sourced, sustainable raw materials.
While they have independent artisans and suppliers, ASHEPA first collaborated with the women from the Maasai tribe – a cultural heritage that is rich in traditional beadwork. Then, they started working with Kazuri – an organization that employs women who hand-paint ceramic jewelry made in Kenya. The latest move is working with Ethiopian cotton and silk to make tableware, towels and shawls.
Today, ASHEPA works with various artisan communities across Africa – from Kenya, Madagascar, Ethiopia, South Africa and Ghana – each one with their own specialty. The brand’s products are practical and eye-catching, all original designs that showcase their unique stories and heritage while inspiring sustainable lifestyles.
Working with all these artisans across Africa, what can you say is the core essence of ASHEPA?
‘ASHEPA’ – a word from the Maasai dialect – means happiness, or feeling good. Similarly, the Maasai tribe express themselves with color. With their approach to design, you can tell there is a notion of ‘excess’. This vibrancy and energy is what the brand hopes to carry forward to its clients.
“As a lifestyle brand, ASHEPA hopes to connect with its clients by being more than just an accessory to their outfits or home. We wish to connect on an emotional level. Some of our clients shared that they feel like our accessories are good luck charms – they feel good when wearing and seeing them.”
Fitting to say, the ASHEPA lifestyle brand offers the intangibles.
There are three core areas that encompass the core essence of the brand.
One, it stems from the founder’s innate love for unique crafts and interesting creations. Second, it comes from a vision to educate the world – one small community at a time – about the diversity and beauty of African culture. From these two points, you can evidently feel a very strong passion surrounding the brand’s initial idea and growing story.
And third, it follows an important practice that is slowly permeating the lifestyle and values of the world – sustainability. ASHEPA’s raw materials are all locally sourced within the country of origin of those artisan communities. Quality is assured in every piece that lasts a very long time. Additionally, while connecting Africa to Asia, working with these poor slum communities gives people a chance to rebuild their lives.
In this third area, ASHEPA is a very human-centric business that also offers hope – to its own people and to where the world is headed.
Image of four generations of artisans in one family
Having formed such an inspiring lifestyle brand, can you also share the uniqueness of your products?
Right at the onset, Chetna wanted handmade products that show beauty in its imperfections. Combining sustainable materials and one-of-a-kind designs allow ASHEPA to provide all its clients a unique experience and piece.
Linking back to the founder’s love for soulful crafts and rich artistry, ASHEPA’s products show a distinctly strong presence with its chucky and textured finishes, with brass as a core element of its designs. It is a versatile material, with an eye-catching ‘color’ that can be easily sourced in different areas of Africa.
You will see a lot in the Ankole Collection of their home decor line. Similarly, brass is also highly applicable in jewelry design. On the whole, ASHEPA aims to be different from others through their way of expression – each product has a story and would feel different from one client to the next.
“Everything is about expression. It’s chunky, there’s a lot of hammered texture. We like to stack and play, they’re different but can also go together. You can make a collection with products. Despite this, they’re still timeless and can be used on diverse occasions.”
Five years in, the brand continues to expand its product line. Recently, it started offering textiles to add to their home decor line. These are made from Ethiopian cotton and silk to make things like napkins, table runners, towels and shawls.
Seeing that the brand is a reflection of who you are and what you love, how do you give your home the ASHEPA touch too?
When you take a visit around Chetna’s home, you’ll see she follows a minimalist approach. Not that she particularly likes this simple style but only because this barely-there palette gives her a lot of room to play with and express her creativity. A monochrome color tone also makes it easier for her to shift things around now that she has a cute baby boy playing at home.
However, far from looking too simple, there is a balanced mix of textures and color punches seen in different spaces of her home and on the walls.
“My home is designed in safari tones, as I call it. Lots of beiges, whites and blacks with lots of textured elements. I love pockets of earthy tones in the house. There are hand beaded wall hangings from Nigeria that we recently made, and Tonga baskets that are handmade in Zimbabwe and have them displayed on the wall in different patterns.”
Similar to the brand’s core product elements, brass can also be seen in Chetna’s home. And of course, a mix of other versatile things that express her creativity and the craftsmanship native to the country she loves.
“I have a lot of brass accents to accentuate a chic and metallic look. I get bored easily so the home decor we design changes every few months, so pieces like our Ankole Vessel can be a dry flower vase to a wine bottle holder.”
Overall, ASHEPA’s brand story boils down to providing an emotional connection beyond design.