Pictured: Fatimaty Ly
Fatimaty Ly, Faty for short, cherishes two valuable pieces of advice as she navigates her way past setbacks and grows her Senegalese cook- and homeware business that aims to tell the story of African heritage through porcelain and ceramics. The first was from her late grandmother who constantly reminded “to always finish what you start as those things remain the best lifelong learning experiences”. The second was a pep talk Faty often gave herself when times were tough, “focus on the task at hand … take one step at a time”.
Her current venture is not Faty’s first time founding a business. On each occasion, she has followed her motto of ‘learning by doing’, going slow, and remembering her grandmother’s words to persevere. With each failure, she only became more determined. Today she celebrates each little step forward she makes in the business: “As long as I sustain the curiosity to question, explore, and envision new ways of doing things, I will be successful.”
Born in Dakar in 1970, Faty is the oldest of four children. From an early age, she was surrounded by people who loved art. Her mother had a gift for crafts, sewing, crocheting, and dyeing fabrics inspired by the Malian artisanal process. Her grandmother was an art collector whose stylish clothing was its own form of art thanks to her choice of harmonious colours and accessories. “She used to design her own gowns and boubous. I believe I absorbed these influences to design my creative journey and also to learn to value crafts and craftsmanship.”
As an empathic person, Faty wanted to be a doctor and eventually studied biology and biochemistry at the University of Bourgogne thanks to her father who was a scientist and strongly believed in that path as the only valuable one for a secure future. She went on to study molecular biology in the United States, but her father’s dreams for a career in science hit a major roadblock after she signed up for a pottery class. “That class was the first step that started a journey in clay and ceramics while a class in African American art sparked my interested in African history and cultural heritage. Although I have never worked in the field of biology, today it comes in handy for my ceramic work but also in my passion for cooking, both of which can be very similar to laboratory work.”
Reinvigorated by her new found love for the arts, Faty moved to France and then the UK where she did freelance ceramic projects but returned regularly to West Africa to get inspiration for a gallery she wanted to open in Dakar. While still living in London, Faty launched Terang’ Art in a trendy Dakar neighbourhood where she designed utilitarian and decorative objects inspired by museum pieces and had them made by artisans in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal. Rising costs forced her to close the gallery after five years. But it was not a moment of failure as much as a transition to the next phase in her career.
“During those years, my collaboration with a potter named Diénébou Zon from Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso allowed me not only to discover culinary and decorative forms but also taught me the principles of working with clay using rudimentary processes. Eventually, the Burkinabe experience lead to the ceramic design path, and I decided to leave the gallery and enrol in Central Saint Martins design school in London to study ceramics design for three years.”
The degree enabled Faty to mesh technical knowledge of industrial ceramics with her rich Senegalese cultural heritage. The newly minted ceramics designer embarked on the world of gastronomy and created tasting vessels for chocolatiers in London and Brighton as well as a tableware set for a cocoa chocolate expert from Paris, marking her formal entry into the industry.
After 12 years living in London, Faty decided to return to Senegal as her marriage and business were struggling. The city of Dakar presented new cultural experiences she had never expected and plenty of opportunities to showcase her work.
But Dakar created also moments of introspection that resulted in illness. In the midst of a divorce, the then 43-year-old suffered two strokes as a result of an autoimmune condition.
““The only thing that alleviated my pain was drawing, so I set about creating what evolved into my 96 Nguka plates. As Confucius said, ‘Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall’.”“
At a low point in her personal life, those Nguka plates were a tremendous achievement for Faty. The 96 plates depicting Senegalese women in traditional dress were exhibited in a guesthouse in Dakar and met with acclaim. “It was then I realized there was something worth exploring so I founded Fatylabs and launched the Fatyly brand in 2015 to develop the Nguka design into a whole tableware service,” the designer explains.
Those first Nguka plates were self-funded and the sales allowed Faty to invest in the tableware service. The first plates were produced in bone China in the United Kingdom. Today Faty collaborates with a factory based in Limoges, France. Within the next five years, her plan is to be retailed in at least ten big cities across the globe, five of which will be on the African continent. She currently retails in Dakar, Lagos, and Abidjan.
“My vision is to use strong visual accents on table services to tell the contemporary story of an African heritage. My goal is to hire young designers and female ceramicists to create cook- and homewares and various lifestyle products in Senegal. The creations are not produced in Dakar yet because the technique of the ceramic is not advanced enough. But I am working with the local clay to develop production in Senegal.
“As someone who learns by doing, I think working with clay has taught me humility and resilience. It has mostly helped me to shape my dreams but also to accept life’s stages. Clay is an interesting medium as one can design the most beautiful piece and have it ruined after firing. Therefore it helps to treat successes and failures with detachment.”
With this kind of fabulous designs, Faty looks to be encountering much more success than failure on the road ahead.
Allocate financial resources
to value-creation to help
you reach out to target
audiences and excite customers through social media and retailers
Getting a first-class design degree does not prepare you for business. To sell products you need financial and entrepreneurial skills to enhance productivity and avoid pitfalls.
Innovation, unlike creativity, is a matter of management. It is also about the continuous improvements of products and services that make little changes. Innovation should be open so that collaborative exchanges can happen and produce outstanding products or services.
Fatimaty Ly’s story first appeared in Women Creating Wealth, A Collection of Stories of Women Entrepreneurs from across Africa. You order or download a copy here.