Sankofa literally means “to go back and get it” in Twi, a language spoken by the Akan people of Ghana. The symbol that bears its name is of a mythical bird with its feet facing forward and its head looking backwards. It is meant to convey the Akan belief that learning from the past leads to a strong future. It makes a lot of sense then that the sankofa symbol is the inspiration for a new line of jewelry released today by Kaiem.
Kaiem is a company looking towards the future and inspired by the strength of its heritage. Elysia Griffiths-Randolph, the founder of Kaiem, is a third-generation entrepreneur. Kaiem itself is a portmanteau of the names of her grandmother, Naakai, and her mother, Emma, whose entrepreneurship inspired the brand. In 2019, after her grandmother passed away, Griffiths-Randolph left a job at Accenture to follow in her mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps and pursue her entrepreneurial dreams.
The company’s first product was waist beads, glass beads on a cotton string worn around the waist, which are very common in West Africa. Dating back to the 15th century, this product, steeped in tradition, is also about where the wearer is going. “There are people in Ghana in our culture who have worn waist beads since they were born. It’s a way to help track how you’re growing…It really is an expression of where you are in your life and in your journey,” explained Griffiths-Randolph. At the same time, waist beads can also simply be a form of adornment, like any jewelry.
Some of the company’s products are much more firmly rooted in today. Their African-print face masks are a best seller. The pandemic which inspired this product also created challenges in getting it to market. From factory shutdowns in China where some components for Kaiem’s products are sourced to the global shipping gridlock, running a brand over the past two years has brought unique challenges. “I was experiencing delays where my products would end up in parts of the world that made no sense because they [Kaiem’s freight forwarder] was desperately trying to find shipping routes that would get the product to the United States when commercial airlines and flights were not operating.” This was an occasion where Griffiths-Randolph could turn to her mother for more than inspiration. Her mother has run a successful business importing food products from West Africa in the United States for more than two decades. When needed, Griffiths-Randolph could add her products into the container for one of her mother’s bi-weekly air freight or ocean freight shipments.
For people that want to buy made-in-Africa or African-inspired products, there is no shortage of companies from the very traditional 10,000 Villages to newer online stores like Afrikea. What makes Kaiem unique is their blending of traditional and innovative aesthetics and techniques. For example, consumers can buy R&R Luxury products on Kaiem. While shea butter in its hard or whipped form is available in markets and supermarkets around the world, R&R turning shea into an oil made it a unique offering. “What Kaiem is about is what’s modern and trending. What do people like me want to wear and see? And then how can I bring an element of our history and our heritage into it. I’m always looking for products and brands that are crossing those two paths,” explained Griffiths-Randolph. As a first-generation Ghanaian-American, she is used to living at the intersection of cultures and between countries. That perspective led Griffiths-Randolph to design and manufacture her new line of jewelry. It combines the dainty pieces that she likes to wear all day from the home-office to the evening with traditional Adinkra symbols, like the sankofa.
Unlike the waist beads, masks, and Kaiem’s other in-house manufactured products which are made-in-Ghana, the jewelry will be manufactured in the United States. “That’s really just due to issues with manufacturing and consistency, because a lot of jewelers [in Ghana] make things by hand and so every piece would not be the same. They also can’t handle the volumes that I’m trying to do,” said Griffiths-Randolph. These challenges would be very familiar to any entrepreneur trying to sell products at-scale made in countries that do not have robust manufacturing infrastructure. The gold itself may have come from Ghana though, which surpassed South Africa and became Africa’s largest gold producer in 2018, but it would not have been mined for Kaiem. Their products are gold vermeil made with recycled gold.
The company is still very young but has grown significantly over the past year. Griffiths-Randolph is an owner-operator and, without any employees, she leans on the support of friends and family. Despite the lean organization, sales have tripled over the past year. While Griffiths-Randolph is working towards a future where she is not designing the products and figuring out logistics and packing orders and working as the customer service agent, the hard work is worth it. “It bears my mother’s and grandmother’s names so I really can’t fail. It’s important to honor their legacy and what they’ve taught me,” she said.