By Edem Torkornoo
First published in Ayiba Magazine (March 2014)
Fred Deegbe is the founder and CEO of the Ghanaian shoemaking social enterprise Heel the World (H.T.W.). Fred, who describes himself as a shoemaker, graduated from Ashesi University with a degree in Business Administration. At the end of 2011, he decided to leave his job in banking to start a high-end shoemaking company aimed at showing the world that some of the best things can come out of Africa. Today, H.T.W. is more than a business that makes bespoke shoes. It has become a brand that empowers young Africans, be it through its popular beads, shoes, or startup consulting unit. Ayiba’s Edem Torkornoo spoke with Fred via Skype about his thoughts on the concept of African Renaissance, building a business, and what he has learnt so far.
Edem: What will you define African Renaissance as?
Fred: For me renaissance is a beautiful way of tackling social issues. When I think of renaissance, I don’t think of uprising or rebellion, which are usually the things that people tend to turn to when they want to change a situation. It’s something that people can hold on to, like the “Africa rising” tag as opposed to “the youth are tired of the government” or “give us jobs.”
Edem: What will you say is the role of companies like H.T.W. in the development and renaissance of Africa?
Fred: We want to be a brand that lets people around the world know that there is something incredible happening in Africa. We are not just about fashion. You can call us anything dope or unorthodox coming out of Africa. This is what we intangibly represent. We started with fashion because it’s easier on the eyes and has a wider appeal. Tangibly, we make beautiful handmade bespoke shoes and leather accessories – for now. We’re going to expand soon. We are the real deal.
Edem: Describe the entrepreneurial/ startup climate in Ghana? Is it open to young people? Is it encouraging? What has your experience been?
Fred: I don’t know. The truth is a lot of people who want to start something in Ghana, have a lot of excuses for not starting it. They have excuses for why things aren’t good. I just have a “do what you can” mentality. Let’s put H.T.W. aside for a minute, all you can do in one day is all you can and you can continue the next day.
With regards to the Ghanaian business environment, what people expect is that you have an idea and someone is going to give you money or urge you on. No one is there to do that. You just have to do what you have to do. I’m not going to complain and say that the environment is tough. The real question is: “do Ghanaians have an affinity for success? Do they really want to make it?”
I have met many successful people with various businesses. A man in the construction business told me a long time ago that if his business failed today and he had to start selling kelewele, he will be the best kelewele seller in Ghana. That is the thing that is missing in people’s heads intrinsically. They are mentally looking for excuses. No one is going to give handouts.
I can choose to talk about light off or politics and blame the NDC and NPP or the dollar rising, but at H.T.W. we don’t make excuses we only bring solutions to the table.
I also have one more thing to say. This is in honor of my friend Dennis Dartey who has passed away. A few years ago Dennis, who was a graphic designer, was helping us out with our branding. We had just come out with two sets of beads and one set was fading. Dennis said that whenever people complained about the beads’ loss of luster, we should remind them that they had faded beads because they were the pioneers of the brand and so they got the original ones. It’s just a different way of thinking. Do what you can and it adds up.
Edem: What inspired you to start H.T.W.?
Fred: A few years ago, I had gone to visit a friend and he was laughing at my shoes because of how old they were. After I left his house, I went to buy a new pair of shoes. Whilst I was marveling at them against the window of the boutique, a shoeshine boy came to pass and I had an “aha” moment. I run outside and asked him if he thought we could make shoes similar to the Italian pair I had just bought in Ghana. He said no. I asked my friend and mum the same question and they all said no. I began to think that they were just a pair of shoes and if we could not make such shoes in Ghana then when are we going to start making airplanes.
Further research let me know that handmade, bespoke shoes in Europe cost an arm and a leg and I thought, “yo, if I can get this thing out here, I’ll make so much money. And with the money I’ll be able invest in other ‘heal the world-ers’ and other people doing crazy stuff.” So, that’s where the play on words for “Heel the World” came from. We will be able to make beautiful shoes but also invest in the next great African brand. This was in 2009. A few months after I started working on it, I spoke with my friend and now business partner Vijay Manu about the company and he came on board.
Edem: Give us an elevator of your mission?
Fred: We are here to kick Hermes and Louis Vuitton off their perch. We are here to show that some of the best things in the world can come from Africa. I know it took them 150 years but we ain’t got time for that. Let them know that we are coming. Because it’s about time. We need to be wherever the finest things in the world are. We don’t need to be in just the “Africa section.”
Edem: Who designs the shoes?
Fred: For the first two years, we designed them ourselves but we have a Creative Director who works for us full-time and does the designs now. Her name is Afua Boadu.
Edem: Have you gotten any feedback on how affordable your shoes are, especially for the average Ghanaian?
Fred: Yes, we’ve heard it. A lot of the time people ask why they are so expensive if they are made in Ghana. What they don’t know is that H.T.W. is targeting the high-end market.
Edem: Tell us about your shoemaking factory.
Fred: Initially, we had subcontracted because we didn’t know what the response for the shoes was going to be. But we got positive feedback and five to six months down the line people were still ordering shoes but the workers were disappointing us. We were also told that if we wanted to get more persistent materials, we would need to invest in it ourselves. We didn’t know where to start but one thing led to another and I “kidnapped” a shoemaker and brought him to work in my dad’s garage. I told my dad that we would be there for a couple of months and it has been two years. We have five full-time shoemakers, we have managers, an accountant. We are a full company with twelve full-time staff.
Edem: When did you decide to throw in the empowerment beads? They have become a brand ambassador on their own.
Fred: A few months after starting the company, we got invited to an event called Saturday Night Live. It was a hiplife meets live band music type of thing. We knew that people would look at the shoes and probably say, “cool,” but not buy anything because they had come for a musical event and not to buy shoes. We wanted them to leave with something that they would remember us by. We didn’t want it to be a business card because it was too boring. We thought about chocolate, cupcakes, t-shirts, and dog tags. But they were all things that could easily be forgotten or too tacky.
We decided on beads as the giveaway at 2 am in the morning when Vijay had a light bulb moment. He asked “what color should it be?” I said, “black because life is hard chale.” Then I said we should add the gold bead because when all the hard work pays off, there will be a gold reward. We decided to call them empowerment beads. That first night my mum, ex-girlfriend, and brother each bought one.
A few weeks later, we hunted Fabulous down and got it to him. He loved it! People liked them, too and about six months later, we checked our inbox and saw that people had sent about 200 pictures with their beads on. We hadn’t realized how popular they were.
We have now come out with love child bracelets, which are all about loving what you do. They are made with leather because the beads can get worn out but leather is here to last. It’s a long-term investment.
Edem: Your website says that you do consulting for startups. Where did that idea come from?
Fred: From the very beginning we knew we wanted to do something like this. In our mission we said that we wanted to reward Ghanaian artisans. A few months after we started the company, people kept asking questions about how we did things and so we started to teach them and bring some of the successful friends along.
We have done a couple of collaborations with smaller brands like Akaatasia and team Tiki. We have given talks at different high schools and universities. We have even spoken at GIMPA before. It was actually the first place to invite us to speak and they asked us a bunch of questions we didn’t have the answers for yet. They asked where we were going to be next year and what our projections and goals were. They insisted on an answer so we said “next year by this time we will be the best shoe company in Ghana.” This was in October 2011. In October 2012, we were awarded the “Best Young Company in Fashion in Ghana” for the year by President Mahama. We spoke it into existence. This shows me that words are very important.
Edem: What keeps you up at night?
Fred: I am not where I want to be yet. I have nothing else to do but make shoes. This is what I am supposed to do. I started with Vijay at a time when he was working in ICT and I was working in a bank and we said we were going to go into fashion to make shoes. We thought it would make for a much more interesting story and we got what we asked for. But we are not where we want to be yet so we are going to keep playing until you can see H.T.W. shoes amongst other high-end brands. I want to show that some of the best things in the world come from young Africans.
Edem: What are you most proud of?
Fred: I don’t know what it looks like from the outside. I am on the ground and working. I guess I can say for the most part, it’s one of the most visible brands to probably come out of Ghana and it makes people feel good. It makes them feel like they can do something. The brand is empowering for not just the product but for building a “can do movement.” We are on track to compete with brands like Prada and Hermes. I feel like this company has a “can be great” spirit. I think the company is important and I’m proud that we have built an important company.
Edem: Any lessons learned? Share your top three with us.
Fred: Okay, I will divide this into life lessons and business lessons.
Everyone should aspire to do something great before you die. It gives you a reason to wake up. If you’re cursed or blessed with long life, then you have a more fulfilling life as well because you can see it grow.
I also really believe in teamwork. I get a lot of credit because I’m the face of the company and the talkative CEO but seriously, seriously, seriously, speaking, I can’t do anything without my team. There is no great brand that was built by one person. Teamwork is crucial.
I think in general, you just have to try to be good to people because it pays off. A lot of the good things that have happened to H.T.W. has been favor from God that has come through our relationships with people. We started out with nothing but we had good relationships with people and people had the services that we needed. So form good meaningful relationships. Have a healthy respect for people because everyone has something to offer. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
If you are going to do a partnership with somebody, don’t do a 50/50 partnership. There is no such thing as 50/50. Everyone needs to know the specific value they will bring to the partnership. As much as possible, put money to the table because it’s really hard to measure sweat and tears and sleepless nights. That’s why money was created in the first place. There should be a value on the service that should be monetized and stated in the shareholders agreement. Not doing this is something that comes to bite people in the ass. This is something that should be said and done early.
Be willing to grow and evolve. I had to learn about shoes, production, customer service, accounting, and marketing. If you are not willing to go through the learning process then you are not willing to be successful. You have to want success.
You have to pray or have hope. To create is to do something that has never been done. You can’t do anything without knowing what faith is. Faith in a higher being is important. Finally, start! Stop conceptualizing and putting business plans together. All great things start. Movenpick Hotel started with one block of cement. It won’t happen if you don’t start.
Edem: What are H.T.W.’s future plans?
Fred: We are coming out with a leather accessories collection this year. Look out for it in the summer. It’s going to be a “black and gold” everything collection—belts, wallets, bracelets, briefcases, everything. Black and gold is no longer a color combination for us. It’s a mentality. It’s a way of life. We are also open to partnerships. We are trying to heal the world so holler at us from wherever you are in the world if that is what you want to do.