More and more African women are venturing into entrepreneurship by embracing sectors that are wrongfully considered to be reserved for men. And that’s exactly what Bénédicte Mendy – a committed entrepreneur and explorer of aromas and flavours – decided to do. The founder of Okana Bar Nomade, she specialises in making African spirits and liqueurs via her African Mixology approach: this is the art of creating high-quality artisanal cocktails & mocktails (non-alcoholic cocktails) steeped in history, with a customised professional service, an inclusive social approach vis-à-vis her suppliers and staff and innovation thanks to modern techniques that are environmentally friendly.
Her mission is to connect people by taking them on a journey through the African terroir via unique bar experiences.Based in Abidjan for the last few years, she has now established herself as one of the region’s top bartenders and has won many awards. But her choice of career wasn’t to everyone’s taste. “I’m a pioneer and, like all pioneers, at first people thought I was a crazy woman. But I wasn’t worried by all the sexist comments I received back then”, she states.
This passionate, inquisitive and generous woman in her early thirties agrees with Seneca the Younger when he said that we are not on this earth to filter drinks and cook food, but to help perfect our soul.
Born in Normandy, France, in a modest 7-child family from Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, Bénédicte Mendy, the daughter of immigrants, was fortunate to grow up with two cultures: Manjak (her mother tongue) and French.
It was great. In the morning, my mother would wake me up (i.e. threaten me - LOL) in Manjak, then I’d go to school where we learnt about French history. During recess I’d share Chebakia pasties with my Moroccan friend, after school we’d talk about US pop stars’ latest videos, and in the evening I’d watch Japanese manga
BENEDICTE MENDY, AMBASSADOR OF AFRICAN MIXOLOGY
This cultural diversity has been a real asset in Bénédicte’s career and no doubt moulded her personality: a hard-working student who was often top of her class, she was inquisitive, an avid reader, a fan of documentaries and bombarded adults with questions. “At a very young age, I wanted to see and understand the world. Books and school were a window onto the world and other people through learning”. So a very happy and multicultural childhood, but one during which she came face to face with inequality… “Sensitive, stubborn and not afraid to say what I thought. If I saw injustice, I said so loudly, even to adults”, she adds. She got that from her father, who’s a real source of inspiration for her. “My father: a gourmet, community leader and extraordinary human being. His life, his story was wonderful. It’s a familiar one for many people, and that’s what inspired me because my father is a constant reminder of who I am, my destiny and more importantly the destiny of all those I invest myself in every day”, she says.
After successful studies at the prestigious ESSEC business school in Paris, she began her career in a sector she is passionate about: agri-food. She then spent a few years working in business development and marketing for large groups and major brands before specialising in the wine and spirits industry, having obtained a diploma in oenology from the Ecole du Vin. She continued her career and then moved to production and distillation. “I discovered bartending when I was living in Singapore a decade ago. I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to be able to live, travel and work on four continents. For a long time I was in this very privileged life of a corporate executive, before my mission became clear to me during a trip in 2013: celebrate and connect African terroirs to the world”
She decided to take the plunge in 2016 with her Okana Bar Nomade. “Okana means water of life in Manjak, my mother tongue”. Alongside her professional career, she supplemented her experience by obtaining distillation certification near Cognac in Southwest France and advanced bartending certification at the European Bartender School in Barcelona, Spain. Bénédicte grew up observing how spirits brought people together, created cultural bridges, dialogue, and were part of people’s key moments, notably during religious ceremonies, celebrations and festivities. “Since I was a small child in Normandy, people have distilled eau de vie in an artisanal manner. And there was always Okana, eau-de-vie, from our village at home because Manjaks are known for their expertise in two fields: weaving pagne (wrap skirts) and distilling palm wine”.
Today, Bénédicte carries out her Okana Bar Nomade activity in the Ivorian capital. “After a number of trips, I was attracted by Abidjan’s energy and dynamism, so I established a base there but also live elsewhere”. She provides a number of services such as cocktail workshops, team-building sessions and/or a home bar service for weddings, private receptions and corporate events. She also organises and participates in temporary pop-ups around the world, including Xperience Okana. Her reputation is notably growing thanks to Okana’s positioning, as the latter mainly uses local agri-food produce and innovative molecular mixology techniques to create unique cocktails.
“We exclusively use premium spirits. Our non-alcoholic ingredients such as cordials, fruit juices, shrubs, etc. are prepared in an artisanal way by us in our Abidjan laboratory or by our partner suppliers. We also like to add an element of surprise by lighting cocktails on fire with cola essence and making them smoke!”
Despite the difficulties she has experienced as a female entrepreneur, Bénédicte knows how to always keep a cool head: “These are difficulties that face pioneers when you create your own market, it takes time to find your clientele, suppliers and staff who share and can implement your corporate vision. I learnt, with my young entrepreneurial experience, that you need to make sure you have the right people around you, never compromise your values and understand how important educating and training is”.
With her Okana Bar Nomade business, Benedicte Mendy is creating jobs by hiring lots of young women and men. Thanks to her abnegation, she has built up a clientele of people who trust her and are happy to enjoy her experiences. Her biggest successes? Contributing to the promotion of the cultures and artisans she works with and watching the development of her staff. “Not forgetting the fact that we were named the Best Bartenders of Côte d’Ivoire and West Africa in 2016 at the Marie Brizard Masters international bartending event”.
Other female bartenders similar to Bénédicte Mendy exist, notably the women who work at Okana Bar Nomade and Stéphanie Polly Simbo of NGO Beyond Bar Akademia in South Africa. The latter rehabilitates former female inmates through training and professional integration in bartending professions. Okana Bar Nomade has also launched a professional integration social action for young women from poor districts of Abidjan. It’s called the Female Bartending Programme. It comprises high-level training for 10 women aged between 18 and 40 in Côte d’Ivoire who have little or no bartending experience but are eager to learn and progress in this field. The training is free, and the women are chosen after they have emailed in their application and attended an interview.
They spend five days learning – assisted by a number of people – the role, etiquette and duties of a bartender, responsible alcohol consumption, techniques for making and serving cocktails, mocktails and wine, African spirits and local drinks, female leadership and empowerment and occupational health, and do a lot of practical work, notably when visiting cocktail bars. At the end of the course, they take a written exam to validate their diploma. “The programme has been developed and is run thanks to our premium partners, who I would like to thank: Dr Kouakou from the ‘SOS Violences Sexuelles’ NGO, the Empow’her Côte d’Ivoire association, our trainers and speakers Ali and Maud. Also, our partner hotels the Tiama and the Koral Beach, the Angus restaurant, the BoResto bar & restaurant, the Beyond Bar Akademia and Train & Travel Women for Africa NGOs and all those who have contributed to this first edition. We’re eager to do better and be bigger next year”.
During the services she provides with Okana Bar Nomade, Bénédicte and her team always make a point of reminding people of this very important message: Excessive alcohol consumption is dangerous to your health. “Yes. Always. Indeed instilled water is always included in our services. Our teams are trained to address this issue and prevent customers from becoming inebriated”, she insists.
This passionate and committed African entrepreneur is already looking to the future. With Okana, she is planning to propagate these experiences around the world, with the launch of the Africa-inspired and engaged spirits brand Saraka, and to continue training and empowering women through her Female Bartending Programme.
If you’d like to write the story with her, go to the www.okanabar.com or the @okanabar & @sarakaspirits Instagram accounts.