Updated: Monday, 09 June 2014 00:48 | By Agence France-Presse

Ghanaian garage start-up targets world's well-shod

When Michael Agyeman-Boaten needed some shoes to match one of his custom-made suits, he turned not to a fancy Italian shoemaker but to a group of craftsmen working out of a garage in Accra.


Ghanaian garage start-up targets world's well-shod

Heel the World's shoes are pictured in the company's workshop on June 5, 2014 in Accra, Ghana - by Chris Stein

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 of the sprawling capital 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 it consumes.

High demand for imports has sent the local currency plunging. The cedi shed about a quarter of its value last year and has lost another 23 percent 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 percent in 2012 to an estimated 7.1 percent in 2013.

In an attempt to wean the economy off imports, President John Dramani Mahama announced in February that the government would help local producers of rice, poultry, fish and other foodstuffs.

But Deegbe thinks Ghana is capable of making more than just its own food.

- Branson and the A-Team -

After an abortive attempt at making T-shirts, Deegbe said he was inspired to take a stab at leatherwork when he went out to buy a pair of 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 that it wasn't possible.

That spurred him into action.

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

Along with a business partner, Deegbe launched Heel the World in 2011, later quitting his job at a bank to manage the company full-time.

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

The five shoemakers he employs labour under pictures of exuberant entrepreneur 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" is emblazoned 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 managed to venture beyond Ghana's marketplaces and go 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 diaspora or returnees came down, they looked for us."

- Made in Ghana -

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

He now owns 13 pairs, 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 $140 (100 euros), Agyeman-Boaten got some purple leather shoes made to his exact specifications.

"It was 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.

"This custom shoe for me, in the US, that would cost a huge amount of money."

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