Start-Up Stories: Heel The World

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.

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Yagazie Emezi: A proud Aba girl

By Edem Torkornoo

First published in Ayiba Magazine (December 2013)

Yagazie Emezi is a popular blogger, artist, and all around creative with a passion for African preservation. This self-proclaimed bush girl is known for her opinionated, and sometimes controversial, YouTube videos, her hilarious personal cartoons, and her well-curated tumblr. The Hungry Aba Gal is an inspiration to the many who follow her online, be it for her gorgeous natural hair, quirky style, or unwavering sense of self. Edem Torkornoo of Ayiba spoke with Yagazie about her life, heritage and passions. 

Yagazie, an Igbo name meaning “May all be well with you” or “It is well.”

 You have mixed heritage. Your dad is Nigerian and your mum is Malaysian. Where did your parents meet?

My father is a gynecologist and my mum is a nurse and they were both working in London at the time. They ran into each other, started dating, and got married. It’s really not that grand of a story.

Where did you live growing up and where have you lived?

I was born and raised in Abia State in Nigeria. In Aba to be exact. I lived there till I moved to New Mexico in 2005 and I’ve been here since then. I lived in New York for about eight months this year. New York life really hit me so I moved back to New Mexico.

How was it watching your mum assimilate into the Nigerian culture whilst growing up?

It was something that was very normal to me because my father was an expatriate living in the UK for a while. A lot of the older generation of doctors and lawyers studied overseas. So even though it was Aba, we had a lot of Nigerian men married to foreign women and that was mainly the group we interacted with. I don’t think I actually hung out with friends that had only Nigerians as parents. I just thought it was normal and I didn’t see it as out of the ordinary.

Maybe when we went out, you would hear people say “white woman” and I would know that the way she was being treated was because she was not Nigerian. But I did the same thing because I was a bush girl [Laughs]. So in our school, we will have an Indian student and I will be that bush girl trying to make friends with her because she is a foreigner.  I can’t even be mad at other Nigerians when I do the same thing.

Where would you describe as home now?

Nigeria is home. The sad realism is that I’ve been away from home for so long. I went home for the first time in seven years last year. Nigeria is always going to be home, but America is home as well.

What is your fondest memory from growing up?

[Laughs] There are too many. A lot of my memories range from small things such as break time at school and hanging out with my friends to weird memories which I know I didn’t enjoy at the time such as doing homework with a candle after school and having the wax stain my work. Many of my fond memories tie in with childhood and being young and innocent and having no responsibilities and all of that is just attached to Nigeria.

How would you say that the time spent in Aba shaped your personality?

It definitely made me a very harsh person [Laughs] as far as my personality stands. Believe it or not, I am a quiet person but I’m loud when I talk so I sound like I’m arguing with someone. I’ll be shouting at someone in a normal conversation. Aba is no man’s land, it’s a really rough place and everyone is rough there. I’m working on it now but I know it made me a bit insensitive and you know people here are sensitive.

It definitely shaped me in terms of making me a strong individual and that’s what I feel like is the downside of America. I find it too easy here and I feel like my strength is ebbing away. I’m just becoming a softer person but maybe that is part of adulthood but I don’t know [Chuckles]. I’m happy about the things I’ve been exposed to as far as not being so insensitive or just ignorant about other people’s feelings or situations.

How was the transition from Aba to New Mexico?

It was hard. I was just an Aba girl. I was so ready! I wasn’t nervous on the first day of school, I came in with a straight face. I had a hard time making friends. At that time, I honestly didn’t care because all of it [America] was so new so I was just taking in everything. I even ate lunch by myself but I never ate in the cafeteria. That was the sad thing because that was one thing I was nervous about. I ate by myself in the art room. It was only in college that I properly started to assimilate with the culture of New Mexico.

What aspects of Igbo culture are you most proud about?

Our weddings. That’s one thing I think about and I can’t wait for my traditional wedding. It’s just so beautiful. Even as the wedding attire changes, there are things that are still customary. Like, handing palm wine to your husband, the dances that take place, the lessons that take place. It’s one of the things I witnessed growing up and I thought was so cultural.

I also love our New Yam Festival, which is another memory that sticks with me. If you think about it, you’ve read about the New Yam Festival where everyone is eating fried yam, boiled yam, and roasted yam in Things Fall Apart. It’s such a good experience because you get to witness people who are not close, even if they are not family, come together to celebrate because it’s a cultural, traditional festival.

Before we started our interview you mentioned wanting to start an online magazine. Can you talk more about that?

I’m planning on starting an online magazine that gives unknown African photographers a platform to showcase their work.

Why photography? Why an online photography magazine?

I have a BA in cultural anthropology and Africana Studies and I’ve always been into other African cultures and learning about them. Even though I grew up in Nigeria, in my school at least we didn’t learn about other African cultures. We learned about countries but not their cultures. With anthropology, I really started looking into that and with me being an Internet addict, a lot of what I saw in relation to other cultures were images.

My blog right now is just about putting up these images that you usually don’t see. There are so many blogs like that now but I started mine in 2010. I put up a lot of images of tribal Africa because I believe in cultural preservation and also believe that they are dying out. I also believe in the power of visual art to teach you something about a culture. People are more likely to read a short paragraph that is attached to a picture than read twenty pages with no pictures at all.

Ok, we’re going to change topics. Will you consider yourself a feminist?

Honestly no.  I have been called that but I wouldn’t consider myself as one. And I know so many Nigerians have scattered me on the Internet saying that “this nonsense girl, she’s a feminist, she doesn’t want children, and she doesn’t want to cook for a man, blah, blah, blah.” It’s just that I am opinionated and I’m not going to be insulted by being called a feminist but I’m not going to claim it because I’m still old school in some ways.

I wouldn’t mind sitting at home whilst my husband brings back the money. I wouldn’t mind. I’m very much my own individual but that does not instantly make me a feminist. God forbid that women have their own opinions; we’re now all feminists.

So what will you define a feminist as?

A woman for equality. It’s been a while since I’ve actually thought about the definition of feminist but when I think about it I think about equality between men and women, especially within social structures both men and women are qualified to do anything and everything. I believe that, but then there are little things like the fact that I believe that a man should open my car door for me or pay for dinner. I will still march in a feminist protest but don’t ask me to give a speech because the women will really get upset with me.

Now let’s talk about your hair. How do you feel about people recognizing you as a natural hair icon when you don’t consider yourself as one?

I hate it so much. To me people say “you have your afro in all your pictures.” And I think, what am I supposed to have? That’s my hair. People are like “Oh my God, that’s so cute,” and I’m like “no, it’s me just take it and move on.” Just because I have 200 pictures of an Afro does not mean I’m a naturalista because if my hairstyle was a weave, I will have 200 pictures of a weave.

Honestly, I absolutely hate this whole natural hair thing because its not just hair but at the same time I want it to be just hair. Black women are perceived in certain ways based on their hair so I can’t just say, “oh it’s just hair” but at the same time among black women, I feel like it should be just hair.

How long have you been drawing the cartoons you share via your Instagram?

I actually started doing them in February or March this year. Normally I enjoy doing portraits and more formal drawings and I got really lazy so I decided to try doing a cartoon. I did it, put it on Instagram, and it got a good response. It was a way for me to cheer myself up. I usually have a dialogue that expresses the way I think. I call them “Yaga life facts” because they share facts about my life or a thought process or something that happened in my life. I’m working on a book right now so hopefully it will grow from one thing to another. I don’t think about what I could do with it. I just let the flow happen.

You often talk about wanting to go on adventures on your blog. If you could go on an adventure right now, where will you go and what will you be doing?

You’re going to hate me for this but my idea of an adventure right now is to pack everything and move to Nigeria. No job, no credentials, nothing. Just move to Lagos and see what the hell happens. Maybe meet the right people and get into the entertainment industry. If I was to go to any other part of the world right now, I’m going to be putting out my desire to go back to Nigeria. It’s going to be like that New York story where people move to New York, work as a waiter or something and wait to see what happens.

I was in Lagos for the first time last year. I’m not a city girl so it was just a completely different lifestyle for me. I was living with one of my sister’s friends and she’s really well off and has her own driver. This was big for me because I take public transportation in Aba so to have my own driver and be going to all these fancy hotels and functions was nice. I mean, who doesn’t want the glitz and glam?

While I was there people recognized me for my blog and because I’m mixed, there’s this stupid, ignorant thing where people think that I live this well-off lifestyle. They don’t realize how bush I am. People get thrown off by my bushness. I like that. I feel like that can be used to my advantage in Lagos. People will look at me and expect something that they are familiar with but the second I open my mouth they will be surprised.

What are your future goals and aspirations?

In a perfect world, I will be running a successful online magazine that showcases African photographers. I also want to be able to carry physical exhibitions of their work in different cities and expand my YouTube channel to the point where I have enough of a following to take to Nigeria.

In Nigeria, I want a women’s talk show that discusses issues that we as African women, especially in Nigeria, don’t openly talk about. Things like sex, sex-education, and body image disorders. I want it to be a companion show where women talk about issues. That’s why I want to go back to Nigeria because I cannot talk about issues Nigerian women face when there’s no connection with women living in Nigeria. I can’t speak for them. I want to be able to definitely speak for my age demographic and also have candid conversations like I do on my YouTube channel. One minute I’m joking and talking about how I don’t want to cook for someone and the next minute I’m talking about eating disorders. I definitely want a show that challenges set standards that have been placed on Nigerian women by the male society.

I want to be able to show the diversity that we have. For example not all of us want to have children. Some of us are weird and it’s not because we’re overseas. It’s because we have interesting characters. It’s not because of a foreign influence. It’s just our individual nature.

Pushing past passion: Sharms hair & Makeup

By Edem Torkornoo

First published in Ayiba Magazine (December 2013)

Sharmaine Oddoye is the Founder of Sharms Hair & Makeup, a makeup and beauty start-up that provides women with practical and useful beautify tips for everyday use. What started out as the blog Things I Love – Hair, Nails & Makeup by Sharms has now evolved into the brand Sharms Hair & Makeup. Sharmaine graduated from Franklin and Marshall College in 2012 where she majored in business with a concentration in marketing. She moved to Ghana after graduation and now works as the social media manager for Multichoice-DSTV. She runs her beauty business on the weekends. Edem Torkornoo of Ayiba spoke with her about her interest in the beauty industry.

What piqued your interest in the beauty industry?

I can’t pinpoint the exact time I got interested in makeup. As a little girl, I used to go through my mother’s stuff and make up my face. But in the summer of my sophomore year, I wasn’t going to go home to Ghana until almost at the end of the break. I had nothing to do and I watched a lot of YouTube videos and thought people’s makeup videos were fun. So I started a blog. I hadn’t even started doing videos then. I just put up posts with pictures and looks I liked.

Were people receptive to your posts and looks?

Yes, they were. In fact much more than I thought. And at that time nobody in Ghana had really started doing any of those things so it was like, wow, this is interesting.

Who were your first readers?

In the beginning, it was friends and then it became known and I started a Facebook page and then it became friends of friends. And now there are complete strangers that I don’t even know.

When did you realize that your work had become really big?

When I started making clip-in extensions for sale, people I didn’t know started ordering them. People who wanted me to do their makeup also approached me. That’s when I realized that this thing had really picked up. This was a year and a bit after I had started.

Do you do the clip-in yourself or do you get someone to make them?

I make them myself. I have people who help me at home. I saw hair clips-in a beauty store and decided to make one for myself. My cousin had also bought clip-ins at that time and so we looked at how it was done and decided that we could also make them ourselves. I didn’t mean to start selling it but people kept noticing it and thinking that it was a weave and so I thought that this would be a quick hairstyle change for women. That’s when I started to do it for sale. The main idea is to make it affordable for people like me who don’t like spending a lot of money on things. I didn’t want it to be so expensive that people will have to think twice before they buy it.

(They start at 40 Ghana Cedis which is about $20 and the most expensive is 80 Ghana Cedis.)

How long does it take to make one?

About thirty minutes.

Do you remember the first person you made-up?

They were a bunch of girls going to the Tema International School prom. I made them up and put pictures on Facebook and those were well received. Now, I have packages for different looks and occasions. I even have a bridal package that comes with a consultation and testing of the makeup to know what works. I also do the makeup for photo shoots.

What are two lessons you have learned from doing this?

One thing I have learned is that not everybody is going to like what you will do or be satisfied with it. I have had an experience where someone bought clip-ins for someone else and started complaining before giving it to the person. Just keep pushing with what you’re doing and something good will come out of it.

What do you read/ watch for inspiration and growth lessons?

Oh dear. I watch a lot of YouTube videos. I won’t lie and say I read books like “How to evolve from a tree and blossom.” I watch YouTube videos of makeup artistes who started like me and have now moved on up. I guess that inspires me to do better and push harder.

Who’s your inspiration/make up (s)hero? 

My biggest makeup inspiration is Leina (yes another YouTuber, I’m obsessed); she’s in California I believe. In Ghana I like Renee Q’s work & Sacha Okoh as well.

What’s the biggest makeup mistake that a lot of women make and don’t realize they are making?

Oops! The biggest is not blending foundation in properly or using a lighter foundation. This is a mistake I’ve made on myself as well as on a client. I had to wash everything off and then start again. I usually take photos after I do makeup to see how it looks with the flash and it was so horrible! I couldn’t let her walk out the door like that. I guess a lot of people do not take photos after their makeup is done, or when they go out to buy their makeup the lighting in the store is different so they can’t really pick out the right shade.

Do you have future plans to produce your own beauty/ makeup products?

I have a million and one plans. I want a makeup line, more clip-in extensions, wigs, weaves, eventually a beauty parlour – hair, nails, makeup, and then a beauty school!

Why did you decide to go back home right away? Why didn’t you work in the US?

I actually did an internship for about six months, but my heart wasn’t in it. I knew there were more opportunities waiting for me in Ghana, especially since I had been testing the waters since my sophomore year. I still haven’t gone into my hair and makeup full time, but I will very soon.

Where can people easily find you to buy or book a make-up session?

WhatsApp – 0268934066. Usually I can’t take calls because I’m at work but WhatsApp is a great way to get me. I can send pictures to people and then direct them to where they can buy the hair – my mum’s office in Osu.

Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the business? 

You need to have a lot of patience. You need to not be in for the money because you need to build a portfolio before you can start asking for payment. Who will hire you if you don’t have a portfolio to show them? And you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone.

Follow Things I Love – Hair, Nails and Makeup by Sharms on Facebook and check out the website here for different beauty and makeup tips!