Playful Ant 07 – Maki Nakata(Co-Founder, Maki & Mpho LLC.)
Maki Nakata, the ‘Playful Ant’ featured in this episode, currently lives in Cape Town, one of the three capital cities of the Republic of South Africa, the country located at the southern tip of the African continent. She collaborates with African creators and entrepreneurs and works with a wide range of clients around the world offering new products, ideas and insights.
Let me pause here. How much do you know about Africa? Of course, many of you have heard of the word, you know where Africa is, and you are familiar with some countries in Africa. But still, Africa is not yet close to you physically and psychologically, right?
Personally, I had the opportunity to work with global companies that were addressing social issues in African countries such as Mozambique and Nigeria after finishing my studies in sustainability at a graduate school in the United States. As part of my studies, I did a homestay with a family living in an urban slum area in order to understand their daily life. I’ve been involved in many projects in the similar emerging country context throughout Asia. But everything I received through my five senses in Africa was definitely new and striking to me. That sensation and memories have not faded to this day.
In this episode of ‘Playful Ants’, I asked Maki what brought her to Africa and what she hopes to do in the future.
Bridging cultural differences through business
Maki：One evening when I was a high school student, a breaking news story appeared on TV. I was shocked at the sight of a plane that had crashed into a building in the middle of New York City. As I was glued to the news and repeatedly broadcasted images, another plane flew into the building during the live broadcast. I remember chatting with my friends online for the whole night and feeling that the world would no longer be the same.
Maki moved to the United States when she was 13 years old with her family because of her father’s work and spent a year in Boston. Since then, she has had a strong interest in the U.S. and other countries. After finishing her Bachelor’s in International Relations and American studies, Maki started a career at a consulting firm before switching to a multi-national corporation to gain industry experience in brand and retail.
Maki：After having worked in Thailand and China as a consultant, I joined Adidas because I wanted to see what impact I could bring to the world by leveraging the power of a global brand. At Adidas, I was able to learn a lot from the company and the brand. At the same time, I also realized that it was difficult to achieve my goals in such a huge global organization.
Maki decided to leave Adidas and to pursue entrepreneurship. But first she went back to school in Massachusetts and did her Master’s in International Business, a hybrid degree of business and international relations, at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. That’s when she started to develop more interests in Africa and how she eventually met Africans and African diasporas in Boston.
Maki： I was attending many events organized by the students from various universities in Boston, including MIT and Harvard, and I met a Nigerian engineer who wanted to start an e-commerce platform for African fashion at one of the events. As I began helping his venture, I learned about a wave of emerging African creatives led by young designers.
While in Boston, I was introduced to a South African female designer named Mpho. She is a dual South African/American citizen; She spent her childhood in the U.S. with her parents who had to leave South Africa as refugees as they were fighting against apartheid. She studied textile and fashion at a university in South Africa and returned to the U.S. to teach. When I met her, she was teaching fashion at a school in the suburb of Boston. But she also wanted to launch her own textile design brand that could tell the story of her own African roots.
After completing her Master’s in 2014, Maki and Mpho decided to launch their namesake brand Maki & Mpho.
Maki：The most important reason we decided to start our own brand together was that we shared the vision to create a brand that could change people’s perspectives on Africa. Mpho wanted to change the biased images that people might have toward Africa that are associated with poverty, conflicts, nature or something primitive and wild. She wanted to try communicating unique stories and African perspectives behind the designs as an African creator herself, in a new way – using contemporary designs. That’s what I was inspired by; I felt we can build trust and bridge cultural differences by propagating under-represented cultural perspectives and helping people to understand different perspectives.
I also saw unique business potential in her vision. Many of the African design products that I saw in the market before I met Mpho were made with the textile called Dutch Wax, which has its origin in Indonesia. The country’s batik fabric was industrialized and commercialized in Europe during the colonial period and brought to Africa. The fabric eventually became known as Dutch Wax. Currently, some of the Dutch Wax fabrics are locally designed and produced in Africa, but classic patterns are widely used by many African designers and global brands. In fact, some brands that use Dutch Wax can look quite similar; hence they lack unique value propositions. Meanwhile, Mpho could design her original textile patterns – using her cultural background as a source of inspirations and hand-drawing and digital processing as a technique. I thought Mpho’s talented ability, and her upbringing would add a unique value to our brand business.
Listening to the underrepresented voices for the future
After launching the brand in 2014 in the U.S., Maki and Mpho tried different small experiments doing pop-up stores and setting up an e-commerce platform, telling their brand stories directly to the consumers. Maki won the Japan Entrepreneurship Award (Creative Business Cup Award) in 2015, and she set up a company in Japan in the following year. Subsequently, they launched a new range of fashion and interior fabrics in collaboration with a Banshu textile manufacturer in Hyogo Prefecture; It was an unlikely mix of contemporary African design and Japanese traditional crafts. Meanwhile, Maki kept expanding her horizon to deepen her understanding about Africa and African perspectives.
Maki：While it was important to focus on Mpho’s perspective as an African, I also started to reach out to other creative entrepreneurs in Africa such as artists and designers around 2015. As I met many young Africans and had conversations with them, I began to understand the common frustrations and dissatisfactions that they shared. If we continued to ignore these sentiments, I thought it would result in a negative consequence in the future. In fact, this realization reminded me of how I felt immediately after the 9.11 incident, or the event that “threatened” the Western paradigm.
The deeper the relationship I build with African creators, the more I realize that they feel ignored and oppressed by the rest of the world. African countries share the history of colonization, and they still suffer from its legacy. It’s true that countries are now independent, but the legacy has remained in people’s mindset. In the global context, Africa is often associated with incorrect notions like “Africa is one country” and stereotypical images of safaris or genocides. In fact, young Africans are fed up with such stereotypes and ignorance, and they are trying to change this situation using the power of creative expressions such as arts and designs.
Seeing things from a different perspective to be a better global citizen
Maki：After finishing graduate school, I have been nomadic, moving around the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Japan for several years. But since February 2020, I have been based in Cape Town, South Africa, where I originally flew in for a design conference. My outbound flight was cancelled due to the spread of the coronavirus, and the entire country went into lockdown. Hence, I have been unexpectedly settled in South Africa, but I really enjoy this place. Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate. In addition, both the ocean and mountains are within walking distance. It is also relatively easy to fly to other African countries such as Kenya. So far, it’s been great.
The brand business is currently on hold due to Mpho’s personal reasons, she explained. What is her next step in Africa and her vision for the future?
Maki：I will continue to tell stories that feature African voices and perspectives using different mediums to create new values through collaboration. I regularly write about creative industries and entrepreneurship in Africa for various magazines including AXIS, Forbes Japan, Newsphere, and WIRED Japan. I am also involved in advisory work; I recently worked on a project with a Japanese anime production company for a series that takes place in a fictional African country. I took part in the creative direction of the costume design led by a Kenyan fashion designer. I also organized and conducted a four-city tour of three African countries (Ghana, Rwanda, and Kenya) for directors and architects.
I’m currently interested in exploring discourses and business ideas around the basic human needs: food, clothing, and shelter. Sustainability and ethical are the keywords in business practices nowadays, but I think the words are discussed mainly from the perspective of developed countries. For example, recycling clothes is a kind of movement among consumers in developed countries. The old clothes are sent to Africa, and the original owners can feel good about “donating” their clothes instead of disposing them. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing. However, from the perspective of African countries, it can be seen as an influx of unwanted used clothes. It might be easier to say, “let’s stop consuming for the planet’s future,” but we also need to understand that emerging countries have an aspiration for the economic development. We see inequality, injustice, and contradictions in many parts of the world; I want to contribute to creating a more equitable world through cross-cultural storytelling and collaborations, even if it’s on a small scale.
At the moment, I doubt many Japanese people are personally and professionally committed to Africa.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, I used to get involved in many projects with global companies in the U.S., Europe and Japan to help them address social issues within the low-income communities in several emerging courtiers throughout Asia and Africa. While working on these projects, I really felt ignorant; there was a huge gap between the reality and the images that people in developed countries have about the emerging countries. That is something similar to what Maki explained in the interview.
It’s true that many low-income families are often stuck in poverty and have very limited budget and limited access to the essentials: nutrition, sanitation, and education. Though numerous initiatives were implemented to address these challenges with good intentions to help underserved people, in many cases they were not what low-income families really desired because they were designed from the perspectives of the developed world.
By spending some time on the ground in emerging countries, staying with local families and experiencing life in their shoes even for a few days, I began to feel things through my five senses. What are their daily challenges? What are they desperate about? What do they really want? What makes them happy despite challenges they face? What kind of future do they want to achieve? Personally, I was often impressed by finding that those people, especially young generations, acquired practical skills such as English and programming even in the midst of economically challenged situations and designed their future dreams very creatively. The project idea realized by incorporating their hopes and aspirations was favorably accepted by them and became more sustainable as a business, too.
It is not easy to fully understand the situations people face in different cultures, but we can try to put ourselves in their shoes, think about their lives, and learn about the situation that they are in. Let’s not take our current environment for granted. Let’s get out and jump into the unfamiliar places in the world.
『The Playful Ants that change the world』
In an ant society, you can easily identify the herd of “Worker Ants”—the textbook definition of ants, the ones who continuously carry the food. If you take a closer look, you may notice that there’s a different group of ants walking about playfully in their own world. These are “Playful Ants”—ants and thanks to their curiosity, they at times stumble across an unexpected feeding ground or detect sudden threats in advance allowing them to warn the colony of danger in advance.
In this interview series, I introduce interesting lifestyles and work styles of different “Playful Ants”, in order to help incubate them into this world.
Each human being is as small as an ant. However, if each ant pursues his or her own path purposefully and playfully, that path can connect to an opportunity to explore and create something new. That can turn into the power to change the world in its own way. I’ve come to believe so after spending many years on designing and leading practical innovation projects, and working with many global and Japanese corporations as a consultant.
Yasuhiro Karakawa (Playful Ants Incubator)
With a purpose of “incubating Playful Ants both in the corporations and the society” Yasu has been leading practical innovation projects with global corporations in more than 10 countries while also serving as a strategy advisor and a guest lecturer.