Meg Bartos knows Africa better than most people. In a typical year, the Hockaday and SMU alum splits her time between Africa and the U.S., visiting tradesmen and artisans that supply Kanju Interiors — her Design District showroom — with myriad treasures carefully crafted by hand. But this is more of a passion project for Bartos, born of a deep love for Africa and its people.
It’s also a very savvy business, as interest in Africa among start-ups and technology companies grows, so does the demand for people who can navigate the cultural and geographical landscape of the continent. It’s one reason that the Africa Expert Network will host “Africa House” at SXSW this weekend. And the furnishings, artwork, and decor of this technology-driven event? All of it will come from Kanju.
“The tradesmanship — this handiwork and luxury design — wouldn’t have a market without technology,” Bartos pointed out as we sat down for coffee in her showroom, which is full of incredible art and beautiful decor, each piece more intricate and well made than the last.
“Technology provides access,” Bartos noted. As the continent — a vibrant collection of 55 distinct countries — has evolved over time, the digital landscape has had quite the influence on Africa. Take for instance mobile phones. In many countries, the advent of personal communication devices caused a generational leap for many aspects of daily life. Landlines never made it to homes and dwellings, and banks never built ATMs and branches on every corner. Mobile communications allowed for individual access, which is a huge dichotomy from Western culture.
Bartos knows this from personal experience. Originally in the energy industry, focusing on hydroelectric power and sustainability, Bartos set foot on the African continent more than a decade ago. Since then, she’s seen the developing markets evolve at an increasingly fast pace — an acceleration mostly thanks to technology.
“There’s a lot of urbanization across Africa that has happened rather quickly,” she said. “Africa is actually a very young continent. I think that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that more than half of the population is under 35. East Africa is actually called ‘the Silicon Savannah.’ ”
Of course, there are a lot of challenges involved, too, which is where an organization such as the African Expert Network comes into play.
“There has been a shift in perspective in America when it comes to doing business in Africa,” Bartos said. “There’s a lot of cross-pollination.”
The difference in economics and culture between African countries can be a challenge, Bartos said. “In Zimbabwe, you have to pay cash — a challenge for a start-up. But you build a lot of very strong personal relationships, too.”
Bartos and other business owners are now leveraging those relationships to build presence in Africa, especially when it comes to technology. To capture that lightning in a bottle, be prepared to see more organizations like Africa Expert Network and Kanju Interiors showing off the rich potential and elevating the nascent artists throughout Africa.
And at Kanju, Bartos will continue to sing the praises of these talented men and women who are creating not only beautiful pieces — take for instance, the intensely intricate Yoruba Beaded Chairs in the showroom — but are elevating African culture.
“One of the things that we’ve always received a lot of feedback on is how people are happily surprised with the level of craftsmanship,” Bartos said. “What I think is really wonderful is the kind of pride these artists take in their work.”
You can see that pride and artistry up-close at Kanju Interiors (154 Glass Street, Suite 102, Dallas, Texas, 75207) and at the Dallas Museum of Art’s gift shop.