Jeanine Zogo approaches strangers with the relative cool charm of a woman who has been through a lot and is confident in her skin. I was scheduled to meet her right before she jetted out of town for a client’s design project. The owner of Kajazoma, a much celebrated leafy oasis in the middle the increasingly polluted Abidjan, was running late that evening but had instructed her staff to serve me wine and snacks to reward me for my patience. It was around 7pm and a small gathering of patrons had begun to trickle in for sundowners. Given the French accented English I overheard over wine orders and cordial banter, I quickly recognized that here was the secret hideaway of business executives looking to impress out of town visitors. Finally Jeanine walked in like a whirlwind, air kissing her regulars, dressed elegantly in a flowy tunic and trousers, feening to light her cigarette as soon as she sat down across from me – possibly her only vice. After a few obligatory puffs, a call for more wine and some introductory chit chat, the interview began.
Born on 26 June 1950, Jeanine’s youthful laid back conversation was somewhat startling. Conducting my first interview in French, I assumed I would have to exude stuffy decorum (because the French like that sort of thing) but was quickly relieved when I heard Jeanine began speaking like a local Babi-loniain. Her story is beguiling as it is full of plot twists as is the case of most career shifters.
She studied tourism and English and began her career as Commercial Marketing Director for Meridienne Hotels in Douala, Cameroun her home country. During the period, she spent many holidays in Abidjan and fell in love with the city’s joie de vivre. Her creativity peaked from her travels and found release in a jewelry collection she developed which was sold across France for a number of years. Thereafter, she found herself wanting to resettle in Cote d’Ivoire to open an artistic space. She partnered with friend Simone Guirandou and opened a gallery in Abidjan’s business district, Plateau. The gallery, Art Pluriels, operated in much the same style as Kajazoma does today: very, very obscurely. The honorary marketing specialist speaks to me about the two ways to market anything: to the masses or to no one. She prefers the latter. A hallmark of her current property Kajazoma is its quite indistinguishable exterior with absolutely no signage of any kind. You only get to know of Kajazoma if someone who has been there brings you. This heightened sense of exclusivity as a target customer identifier was tested with her initial gallery and perfected with Kajazoma. She is a disciple of “bouche-à-l’oreille” marketing. However, during her art gallery days she found the art scene in Abidjan too nascent in the late 1990s and felt that art needed to be presented differently, that is, in a more recognizable way to excite people. This led to her return to her roots in the hospitality industry. She launched Kajazoma in 2003 in Deux Plateaux, a bustling middle class neighborhood of Abidjan as one part art gallery, one part furniture showroom, and one part restaurant and bar. It can be considered perhaps Cote d’Ivoire’s first real concept store, in that every single piece of art, furniture, lighting or décor is for sale. She moved the property to Zone 4, the residential haven of the Lebanese community and Westerners before moving it back to the eastside of the Abidjan lagoon settling into the current location in 2012.
She recounts gleefully the four months it took to refurbish the current space where Kajazoma now resides. She has wholeheartedly embraced eco-friendly and sustainable design and wanted to especially highlight green spaces, painstakingly developing the architectural designs around existing trees while landscaping involved incorporating over 100 different plants around the property. The grounds feature an al fresco 40-seat lounge space under a thatched roof or “apatam” and a small reflecting pool. Fashioned out on existing villa which actually houses the manager of the property on the second floor, the permanent structures include recycled metals and salvaged wood from artisans she found and often trained from Yopougon, the populous surburb of Abidjan. While Kajazoma was initially just a lounge and cocktail space, she more recently added restauranteur to her list of accolades. It was a choice she made at the height of the civil unrest in Cote d’Ivoire, feeling the need to expand her menu of offerings to include meals as less and less people were venturing out just for a change of scenery. While food reviews have been mixed especially given the price point, Jeanine is first to admit that cuisine was not in the original plan – she is much more about the aesthetics.
Although she is a graduate of L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, Jeanine tells all her workers “you do not need school when you have passion” and has encouraged them to hone their crafts. In fact, Kajazoma’s edge lies in the fact that it is an informal showroom – 75% of the furniture and lighting pieces in the space were designed and executed by her team of artisans. She said her value addition is usually around teaching them about functionality and finishing. She recalls receiving an order from local French furniture powerhouse Galerie Lafayette but being unable to fulfill it due to the still underdeveloped design industry in the country. The problem according to her is the local designers’ do-it-all approach. “I believe this approach really handicaps local design. The artisan is also the sales agent, engineer, manufacturer…The entire value chain from creation to distribution is missing and artisans are engaging in activities that are not their actual role and therefore executing poorly”. By this point, we are now doing a physical walk through of the grounds as she talks, introducing me to staff, and pointing out building materials that she beautifully repurposed like a set of withered patina doors now used as tables and wall hangings. Jeanine employs over 20 people at Kajazoma alone not including her artisans and so hers is truly an African entrepreneur success story in reinvention and longevity. She now has her sights on developing possible chains in other African cities such as St. Louis, Mauritius although she says she is not interested yet in formally entering the hotel space. As our interview ends, I pull out my purse to pay for the wine we had been happily guzzling over our two-hour tête-à-tête. She exclaims “no, no, no” vehemently and then insisted that her driver take me back home to atone for being late to the rendezvous. She is the ultimate host and designed her space accordingly. While she passed instructions to her driver, I bake in my discomfort from being the center of such maternal fuss now thoroughly convinced that the effervescent, cordial, curated ambiance of the Kajazoma Concept resonates directly from its owner.