Can-do spirit shines in a garage in Ghana

Can-do spirit shines in a garage in Ghana

A former banker in west Africa dares the 'impossible', and his shoe company now targets the well-heeled all across the world

When Michael Agyeman-Boaten needed shoes to match one of his custom-made suits, he didn't turn to a fancy Italian shoemaker. Instead he went to a group of craftsmen working out of a garage in Accra, the capital of Ghana.

Ghana is west Africa's second-largest economy and is known more for its export of raw materials than for craftsmanship of luxury items.

But Heel the World, a small leather-working company based in a quiet neighbourhood, is trying to change that.

"We're competing with Louis Vuitton and Hermes from our garage," says the company's chief executive, Fred Deegbe.

"We're making shoes that can go global. But we're also making shoes that have a social imperative behind them."

Economic downturn

Ghana's economy has seen rapid growth in recent years thanks to exports of gold, cocoa and, since 2010, oil. But like many of Africa's emerging economies, it produces little of the goods that its own people consume.

High demand for imports has sent the cedi, the local currency, into a dive. The cedi lost about a quarter of its value last year and a further 23 per cent so far this year.

Ghana's rate of economic growth, which as recently as 2011 was one of the highest on the continent, slowed from 8.8 per cent in 2012 to an estimated 7.1 per cent last year.

In an attempt to reduce the amount of imported goods, President John Dramani Mahama announced in February that the government would help local producers of rice, poultry, fish and other foodstuffs.

Branson and the A-Team

But Deegbe thinks Ghana is capable of making more than just its own food. After an attempt at making T-shirts failed, Deegbe said he was inspired to try leatherwork when he went out to buy shoes to wear for socialising.

When he asked a nearby shoe shiner if he thought the foreign-made, high-end dress shoes he ended up buying could be made in Ghana, the shoe shiner replied no.

That spurred him into action. "We've always been capable as a people of doing quality," he says. "We've just never been pushed."

So Deegbe and a business partner launched Heel the World in 2011. Later he quit his job at a bank to run the company full time.

So far, Heel has sold about 1,000 shoes from his workshop in his father's house.

He hired five shoemakers, and they work under pictures of British tycoon Richard Branson and the cast of the classic US television show The A-Team, known for their get-it-done spirit.

The motto "Hard Work Never Killed Anyone" can be seen on the workshop's wall.

Shoemaking tradition

Ghana has a long tradition of shoemaking, much of it centred on the central city of Kumasi. But Deegbe has ventured beyond the marketplaces at home and gone international.

Orders come into the workshop from as far away as Finland, Canada, Morocco and the United States, said Johnson Oladele, Heel the World's production manager.

The company gets most of its leather from Italy, but has recently started purchasing from a tannery in Burkina Faso.

Beyond shoes, Heel the World has tapped both into World Cup fever and Ghanaians' love of funerals and weddings by making armbands and other leather goods emblazoned with favourite teams and names of family members.

"The local Ghanaian population gobbled up Heel the World faster than we expected," Deegbe said. "It started from here, and every time the returnees came down, they looked for us."

Made in Ghana

Entrepreneur Emmanuel Adu said Heel the World inspired him to try his hand at business in Ghana, rather than the United States, where he was schooled.

He also owns 13 pairs of the company's shoes, ranging from loafers to patent leather shoes.

"When you look at the price point, Heel the World shoes are pretty close to the other brands," Adu said. "They did it how they do it in London or Copenhagen, but they did it in Ghana."

For about US$140, Agyeman-Boaten got some purple leather shoes made to his exact measurements.

"They were right on. I loved it," said Agyeman-Boaten, who also spent several years in the United States before returning to head up a printing company in Ghana.

"These custom shoes for me, in the US, would cost a huge amount of money."

 

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Can-do spirit shines in a garage in Ghana

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