The Spa and Wellness Association
of Africa aims to make feel-good treatments an everyday lifestyle choice across the continent

“I don’t believe that wellness is a luxury. I think it should be for everyone; it doesn’t matter what level of society you come from,” says Elaine Okeke-Martin, president and founder of the Spa and Wellness Association of Africa (SWAA). It’s easy to see why affluence is associated with a sector that incorporates the highly financed hotel and hospitality arena. After all this is an industry that according to the Global Spa and Wellness Economy Monitor generated $94billion last year (up from around $60billion in 2007).  

Despite its diverse landmass and endless botanical resources, Africa hasn’t been the go-to continent for spa treatment, which says a lot about the perceptions of health and wholeness across the continent. But there are certain hot spots. Morocco is the prime destination in North Africa, conjuring up thoughts deep cleansing hammam rituals using essential oils with meditative aromas. Pampering culture is second nature here with a healthy number of luxury resorts spread throughout the country. They include the Mazagan Beach and Golf Resort in El Jadida and the nearby Oualidia-located La Sultana with its huge cathedral-style spa made from carved stone.


"I don’t believe that wellness is a luxury.
I think it should be for everyone; it doesn’t matter what level of society you come from"


Egypt’s spa favourites include the Hilton Luxor Resort and Spa on the Nile River border, the Coral Sea Sensatori at Sharm el Sheikh and the more modest Cataract Pyramid Resort on the outskirts of Giza. In both of these countries, as in other predominantly Islamic areas, gender lores and protocol have a distinct affect on the sector. Egypt has a system whereby professional male spa therapists are common, while their female equivalents are usually brought in from abroad. Meanwhile in East Africa, Kenya has a decent share of wellness options, with Nairobi’s Kaya spa inside the Tribe Hotel is always a popular choice thanks to its African meets Thai treatments and Zen-like décor.

West Africa is lesser known for its spa credentials. Traditional herbs, oils and remedies have been common for centuries here, as elsewhere across Africa, with shea butter being a must-have salve during the dry season. Nevertheless the idea of spa therapy as a regular lifestyle choice rather than a medicinal activity, is relatively rare beyond the expats and middle class communities. Spas breaking the mould include Allure Africa in Accra that manages three brands – Allure Spa In The City, Ghana’s first 5-Star Day Spa; Allure Beauty Palace, a beauty service provider and Allure Man, a professional male grooming service. The unisex focus also extends to Lagos, where the luxury ORÍKÌ range of natural skincare products and same-named spa houses a male grooming parlour and hair clinic and treatments – for all sexes – that range from prenatal, head, hand and stress massages to lavender, honey and avocado body polishes.

 
 

The ethical and entrepreneurial vision of Okeke-Martin’s SWAA organisation taps into the perceptions of wellness, the growth of its audience in Africa, as well as the existence of natural or traditional body lotions or homegrown herbs. Now in its seventh year, the organisation’s raison d'être is to be as much about education as it is about business and sustainability and the professionalisation of the industry. Through the actions of her organisation – much of which involves getting country ministers and tourist boards to promote the value of wellness – individual therapists, spas and institutions gain certification that links to the design of spa centres, management, training, quality of products and all the nuanced elements that go into building business belief and customer loyalty.

A Nigerian, Danish and Canadian national, Okeke-Martin graduated from the Niels Brock Copenhagen Business School in 2005 with a degree in international marketing and economics, and with 17 years in the industry she’s also the managing director of Spalogique Consulting, where she advises on spa design, cosmetics and PR. With wellness in Africa in development mode, she feels there’s an issue of semantics involved in SWAA’s arena. “The word spa has exploded on the continent, so you now have hair salons offering facials and calling themselves spas, which is a problem because there is a difference. SWAA has the criteria for what a spa should be.” This is bound up in how staff are trained as much as it is in the nuts and bolts of operations and venue layout. In terms of the default links to cosmetic grooming, there’s also an off-tangent link with wellbeing, which generally falls into the realm of personal happiness - job satisfaction, social status or healthy bank balances – rather than body treatments.

The happiness and luxury factors are similar but separate, and with the latter, Okeke-Martin is again keen to point out the fact that her take on wellness is not bound up with exclusivity. “Rich people always do what’s best for them and yes, people can associate luxurious treatments with having gold, caviar and chocolate rubbed all over you. But in Africa, various traditional remedies have existed for centuries. Many Africans go to the herbalist for treatments. So it’s not for the wealthy, it’s for everybody.” It’s about harnessing that existing belief in mother nature and taking it to the next level professionally.

 
 

In driving forward, the SWAA network in Nigeria launches in October this year, and has recently snagged a face-to-face with the country’s First Lady, Aisha Buhari. A kindred spirit, the President’s wife has a background in the beauty industry and has penned a book titled, The Essentials of Beauty Therapy based on extensive research into beauty and wellness. “We’ve also got Ghana, Namibia, Morocco and Ethiopia in the pipeline,” says Okeke-Martin of her plans to spread training programmes across the continent. “It’s very important that when people visit a spa they can recognise our stamp of certification and know that it is SWAA accredited.”

The “we” she refers to is her well structured board of directors that includes Pamela Olatunji, who heads up the bnatural spa group – the first medical spa in Nigeria; Renaud Azema, who has a long history of hotel and tourism development across Africa; Kenya-based Tonny Muiruri Mutungu who has national and international experience in hospitality; Dzigbordi Dosoo – a wellness coach, talk show host and founder and CEO the Allure Africa Group; and Dr Stephan Helary, a veteran of conservation projects in Africa as well as the founder of an ethical skincare brand Terres d’Afrique. His journey, which started in Madagascar, includes veterinary science and environmental wildlife before relocating to Namibia, where he discovered the power of plants. Eventually switching to botany, he worked with a local NGO that enabled women to harvest and press marula oil – a skin softening product that has caused a buzz internationally in recent years. Helary launched Terres d’Afrique in South Africa in 2013 and it’s now well stocked in five-star hotels across Africa, Asia and Europe. “The spa industry in South Africa is still very much focused on beauty but that said, it has definitely embraced the organic and socially responsible trend with more and more local organic brands becoming successful,” he says.

South Africa remains a key player in the luxury spa stakes thanks in part to the traffic the country generates among business and leisure travellers. Options range from old favourites like the Hydro at Stellenbosch to the modern Ginko spa at Steenberg farm in Cape Town. So there’s an obvious opportunity for mutual engagement to take place. “If we can get South Africa to join forces with us I’m sure we can all learn from each other so hopefully, we’ll introduce SWAA in that region soon,” says Okeke-Martin. She is also planning for the annual industry forum in Mauritius in September and to continue SWAA’s advocacy throughout the continent.