The Genteel
October 24, 2020


Ma'Mitons Cameroon Forest Bag Raffia Priscilla Njankou

Priscilla Njankou was born a princess. Her father is part of the royal family in their small village of Bangoulap in western Cameroon. However, unlike in other parts of the world, being royalty in Cameroon doesn't guarantee riches or a lavish lifestyle, especially as men are allowed to have multiple wives and it is not considered strange for royal families to be comprised of hundreds of members after just a few generations. Njankou was one of those people who didn't grow up in a life of luxury. In fact, the small village of Bangoulap - home to about 15,000 residents - is one of the poorest in the region. 

The name of Njankou's label, Ma'mitons (pronounced ma-mi-tons), was Njankou's nickname when she was growing up. It was also her great grandmother's name. As a highly respected woman in the community, the centenarian was especially fond of Njankou, and taught her to weave and work the land. 

Njankou moved to America with her family when she was 17-years-old on a student visa and went on to attend the University of Maryland graduating with a business degree. Although her original plan wasn't to start a business back in Cameroon, her love for fashion and for her native land soon sparked an idea. In fact, Njankou was already known for making and selling her own designs - bags and accessories - while still living in Cameroon. It was something she did in her free time but didn't expect would take off. 

"When I came to the US, people were always complimenting what I was wearing, whether or not it was my design," she says. "That is when I decided to start a career in sustainable fashion." The idea of starting with handbags came from a desire to stay connected to her homeland. "I wanted to create a line of handbags that was environmentally friendly, handmade, and that showed my culture, but at the same time I wanted something that was fashionable too," she explains. Ma'mitons handbags are designed completely by hand, using raffia leaves obtained from palm trees growing in the forests of Njankou's native village. "Raffia was just perfect," Njankou says. Plus, raffia has always been a big part of Njankou's life. "My great grandmother used it when I was little to make wine [and] to build her hut," adding that she still has goods made out of raffia all over her family's house in Cameroon. "It just seemed natural to me to use it."

However, as my business grows, my goal is to elevate this sector and help these artisans obtain economic stability.

While the entire body of the bags are made of raffia (a soft, sandy colour), Njankou uses natural dyes to add bold touches of colour to the designs - violets and pinks mix with greens, oranges and yellows - and uses accessories such as small wood carvings, tribal prints and shells to decorate the bags and add some visual complexity. Aside from shoulder bags, Ma'mitons also offers clutches, tote bags and cross body bags (a sort of messenger bag for the chic and fashionable).

Since all of the raw material comes from western Cameroon, it made sense for Njankou to also hire artisans from the area to create the bags. "It definitely wasn't easy to set this up in Cameroon and I am still not completely done setting things up," she says. "I am always looking for better ways to do things and it is a constant work in progress for me."

Setting up an organisation is not easy to do in Cameroon because of their laws, according to Njankou. According to the World Bank, Cameroon ranks 161st out of 185 economies when it comes to difficulty doing business and 125th in "starting a business." Even worse, Cameroon ranks 172nd in terms of "enforcing contracts" and 158th in "registering property." Add to that the difficulty of dealing with construction permits, taxes and trading across borders and it becomes clear why setting up a business in Cameroon might get many discouraged. 

Njankou has used her love of Cameroon and its people to overcome these logistical challenges. "Before starting my company, the artisans I am now working with were barely meeting ends," she says. "Since we started working together, they never had to worry about it anymore because they now have a steady, fair source of income." In a country where 29 per cent of the population could not read or write and 40 per cent of residents lived under the poverty line in 2010, having a steady job can be life changing; it would mean the chance to send kids to school, feed a family every day and pay for medical care.

Priscilla Njankou ma'mitons cameroon designer bags raffia

As the company grows, Njankou says she plans to hire and train even more people. At some point, she also plans on setting up a program to help impoverished local artisans. "I am growing one day at a time," she says.

No matter the speed, any growth is good when it comes to western Cameroon. The Cameroon artisan landscape is very underdeveloped and things are not going to change overnight, Njankou explains. "However, as my business grows, my goal is to elevate this sector and help these artisans obtain economic stability."

Along with helping on an individual level through employment, Ma'mitons also donates one percent of its sales to SOS Children's Villages, the world's largest charity focusing on orphaned, abandoned and fostered children. Ma'mitons was featured in Virginia's Fashion Week in October 2012. The bags are currently only available through the company's website, although Njankou hopes to close several deals with distributors in 2013. 



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