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SWAA celebrates 10 years

SWAA founder Elaine Okeke-Martin

The Spa & Wellness Association of Africa (SWAA) recently celebrated its 10th anniversary by hosting an online webinar featuring special guests and supporters, such as Suzie Ellis, CEO of the Global Wellness Institute (GWI).

SWAA founder, Elaine Okeke-Martin, was described by panel moderator, Lisa Starr, the education consultant at Wynne Business, as a trailblazer who had worked tirelessly over the past decade to get the spa industry in Africa up to international standards.

“I can’t believe that SWAA is already 10 years old,” said Starr, “and I hope that everyone attending this webinar understands just how challenging it is to work in Africa. The continent comprises 54 countries, each with its own set of rules and languages. However, there are lots of opportunities in Africa. When I first started working in Africa, there were 15 countries with spas, now there are 42.

“So many people and lives have been touched by SWAA. Elaine has worked in the spa sector for over 20 years. She meets with governments, consults with tourism boards and tackles sustainability issues. Elaine founded SWAA in 2010, is a co-founder of the Africa Spa Awards and chairs the GWI’s Africa Wellness Initiative. She has a very hands-on, entrepreneurial spirit.”

An emotional Okeke-Martin fervently thanked all the panelists, saying that their support over the years had allowed SWAA to change the narrative for the spa industry in Africa. “I would also like to acknowledge our patron, former President of Mauritius, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim.

“Thinking back to how the idea for SWAA all started, it was after I’d worked in other countries for many years that I came back to Africa to find that spas were sub-standard. So, I started doing research. We had a lot of hotel spas opening at the time and there were news reports of spa treatment accidents on tourists in Egypt. That was an ‘aha moment’ for me, as therapists should be about healing, not injury.

“At that stage in the African spa sector, there was no sharing of information and no networks. I formed SWAA in 2010 and a lot of skeptics told me that it wouldn’t work. Their attitude was – how can you open a spa association in a continent where there is so much poverty, disease and war? As the SWAA vision was not mine to keep, but to share with others, I spent a long time building bridges. In 2015, I launched our annual conference, which we held in Mauritius. When we realised that therapists didn’t have a voice, we created the therapists’ platform, and also launched the student’s challenge.”

Okeke-Martin stressed that SWAA has long been focused on evolving standards for African therapies, and will release a booklet in this regard in September.

She continued: “The intention of SWAA is one of love – I love this industry. Funding for SWAA is a challenge and I always knew that we would be let down from time to time. But that’s why we needed to keep on pushing. Investing all this momentum and time has been so important. In building up SWAA, I combined my research skills with business experience and surrounded myself with experts.

“I encourage all African countries to partner with SWAA, as it is a way to produce jobs and reduce poverty. SWAA’s journey has been so incredibly exciting and I look forward to the transformation in the industry that will happen over the next decade. Africa has so much to showcase.”

Professor Ameenah Gurib-Fakim added: “It was my privilege to host the first ever SWAA conference in Mauritius. Bravo Elaine for doing such a great job with the association!”

Chair and CEO of GWI, Susie Ellis, noted that SWAA is all about taking Africa to rest of the world. She continued: “Don’t bring Swedish massages into Africa, rather let us take African therapies overseas. In her role at SWAA, Elaine is aggregating countries, local therapies and local products and that is the right thing to do.”

Denzil Phillips, a renowned botanist and senior SWAA board advisor for development, noted that SWAA’s progression and growth over the past 10 years had been a tough ride. “We faced lots of opposition and dealt with many unsupportive governments. It was challenging to get funding from private companies and the aid world made things even more difficult. SWAA is very dependent on outside sources.”

A question about what could be done to expose the wellness aspect of Africa and how to get people to come to the continent to rejuvenate was posed to the panel. Said Suki Kalirai, director of Qi Spa and senior SWAA board advisor for education and development: “Generally, Africa is associated with safaris, but if you look at Africa as different regions, then obviously it’s not all about safaris. The groundwork is already there, but the reality is to position these opportunites in such a way that they are competitive offerings. This is the challenge for Africa – countries could collaborate more, then it would create more of a push in source markets. For instance, Kenya and its elite athletes, Egypt with its culture and history – every African country has its own cultural aspects that need to be brought out and promoted to the world.”

Jasneel Dhanjal, director D’Vire Skincare, co-founder of Africa Spa Awards and chair of the Kenya SWAA Chapter, suggested highlighting some of the botanical ingredients in Africa and how they benefit health and skin.

Starr added: “Africa is an immense, rich treasure trove of natural resources. COVID-19 has been a major issue, so how can the spa industry in Africa leverage what we have to make things better?”

Phillips stressed the importance of the development side of wellness. “Certain methods of working will create more linkages with communities than others. For instance, consider the difference in creating a spa in a city hotel that uses foreign staff and products, as opposed to launching wellness facilities where you promote local products and staff. SWAA needs to be committed to finding those people and promoting them. There is a lot of work that we need to do to bring these linkages together. At the moment the spa and wellness industry lives in a vacuum in Africa.”

Starr pointed out that multinational hotel groups like Accor and Marriott are not looking to offer an authentic African experience. “So it’s up to the boutique hotels and spas in Africa to do it themselves. How can we leverage spa and wellness in Africa and create jobs? We don’t want ex-pats dong the treatments, we want Africans to do them.”

Okeke-Martin concluded the webinar by thanking the global community for its support in terms of bringing initiatives into Africa, such as Global Wellness Day, World Wellness Weekend and GWI. (Report by Joanna Sterkowicz)

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