Malika Benson fell in love with African wax prints, also known as Ankara, when some of her Gabonese friends introduced it to her back in high school. The fabric is produced using an ancient art form called batik, a wax-resistant dyeing technique where designs are printed onto 100% cotton cloth using melted wax before two or three coloured dyes are applied. These prints are essential to West African culture, says Benson. Historically, “these prints told a story about your social class, the tribe or the village where you came from, or the event that you were attending,” she says.

Ankara is traditionally worn for special occasions like weddings and funerals, but Benson is creating everyday pieces from crop tops and bodycon dresses to shoulder bags and cushion covers. Her goal is to adapt Ankara for Canadian life. “People want to have that piece of identity, but sometimes they don’t know how to wear it. With my designs, I’m suggesting a couple of different ways to use the fabric.” Benson designs all of the pieces for Akani Designs herself, and works with suppliers in Nigeria, Ghana and Benin. That means every purchase helps to support small businesses in West Africa.

A few years ago, Benson began experimenting with sewing and started selling skirts and necklaces here and there. In the spring of 2020, a family member suggested Benson try making some face masks to sell — which is how Akani Designs was born. She opened an Etsy shop and approached a few local stores about carrying her line. “The masks sold really well,” she says. “So, I started making kimonos, skirts, scarves and all types of accessories and clothing items.”

Her approach to business inspired the name Akani, which means “to build or to bring together” in Xitsonga (one of the official languages of South Africa). “It aligns perfectly with what my designs are attempting to do: Bringing two cultures together and merging African tradition with modernity.”

Since Akani Designs is Benson’s first venture as an entrepreneur, she began looking for programs where she could get advice on launching, marketing and growing the business. That’s how she came across Digital Main Street’s ShopHERE powered by Google. Over the course of the next three months, Benson learned crucial skills that helped her build and run a website with a Shopify store. ShopHERE advisors also helped her with everything from small details, such as writing product descriptions to big-picture details, such as how to use Instagram and Facebook groups to grow brand awareness.

“I got a lot of knowledge from them — all sorts of things that were really helpful in creating a good experience for the customer,” says Benson.

She also received valuable advice on how to market herself to grow her personal brand. Her Etsy store is still operating, but she’s hoping her customers will migrate to her Shopify store.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Akani Designs (@akani.designs)

Benson recommends other small business owners look into Shopify for their own online stores. “The platform has a lot of benefits to it,” says Benson, who’s currently familiarizing herself with different templates to start doing email marketing. “I like the themes that are available. And one of the biggest benefits is the training,” she says. She especially appreciates Shopify’s free library of training videos where she can learn from other small business owners. “You can watch them at your own pace and you gain a lot of knowledge. I’ve learned many lessons that I’m able to apply to my own business.” Videos that focus on photography, for instance, helped her pick up tips on how to present your items against a white backdrop and experiment with different styles of photography.

The website and official store launched in May. “I’m slowly building the clientele on the Shopify store — the kimonos and the robes are really popular pieces,” says Benson. She emphasizes that her designs are for everybody. “It’s a celebration of the print and the fabric. It’s cultural appreciation.”

This article is sponsored by Shopify. Learn more about Digital Main Street’s ShopHERE powered by Google and get the help needed to create a beautiful online store for free.