"You see that cool thing? That's Ghanaian."
Fred Mawuli Deegbe Jr., an ex banker turned shoemaker, is the son of a preacher man and a teacher. With quite a few twists, Fred has heralded Ghanaian and African fashion to an international scale despite numerous difficulties. Fred along with his friend Vijay Manu started Heel The World, a premium shoe making co. which has become a movement more than just a fashion label and continues to inspire a new generation of young entrepreneurs, makers and dreamers in Ghana and across Africa. We speak to him about everything from his ubiquitous empowerment beads to customers from far away lands.
Tell us something about yourself.
My name is Fred Mawuli Deegbe, I was born in the US in 1984 to two Ghanaian parents. Flying back and forth between US and Ghana, I have always had a global view and I'm aware that I’am from two very different worlds.
I had been an underdog for a while, never topped my classes, never became school president or anything like that so I have always been underrated on a personal level. But from a national level being a Ghanaian and on a global scale, being an African, we are also used to being underrated. A lot of people think Africa is a war-torn country and that’s the first battle right there.
There have been various times I’ve been proud of my Ghanaian roots not because of stuff that I have done but, because of what others and the country has done on a global level. The UN Sec. General Kofi Annan is from here, we won the U-17 worldcup against Brazil when I was younger and we did well in 2006 too. However, these stories are too far apart and I always felt the need to do more to change the perception of Ghana and Africa as a whole. So I’m just a regular kid from 2 different worlds who has always been looking for a cool way to show, “See that cool thing, that’s Ghanaian!”
How did Heel The World come about?
I was working in a bank and I had a couple of hours to kill before a graduation I was attending so I went over to my friends place to play video games (FIFA by the way, go Chelsea!). My friend saw my shoes which I had taken from under my dad’s bed and started laughing at them. It was funny for the first few minutes but it wasn’t after half an hour. So that became the first time I really paid attention to my shoes and decided to buy a nice pair on the high end streets of Osu in Accra.
I asked a shoe shiner if he could make the shoes that I had bought from Pierre Cardin and I swear I have never seen someone so perplexed! That was discouraging but what really bugged me was that when I asked others around me, my aunties, colleagues and friends, they all had the same reaction. So I thought "If we can’t make shoes in Ghana when are we gonna make airplanes?" I mean it’s a pair of shoes, it can’t be that hard! I did a little research and sat down to see how we can make the kind of shoes that were selling in the US and the UK here with matching quality and be a global brand. Not just to make money but also have people look up to us as a Ghanaian success.
We also didn’t want to limit ourselves to shoes, so from the outset we knew we wanted to be a dual company, one that made high end shoes and leather accessories and one that provided resources for others to start their own extraordinary journeys. That is how Heel the World started and that is how the name came about because Heel stood for the shoes and “the World” because it was global. That was a little over three years ago when I was doing it part time while at the bank. The business and the brand was growing, but it was only gonna grow as far as I could take it, so I knew then I had to resign and have been doing it full time ever since.
"HTW is a statement that world class unorthodox things can come from young Africans."
How would you define HTW in a few sentences?
HTW is here to knock Louis Vuitton and Hermes off their perch. We believe that some of the best things in the world can come from young Africans. That’s our belief system and that’s what we are vying for.
HTW is basically a statement...a statement that world class unorthodox things can come from young Africans.
Who are the people you started working with?
I actually started this with my business partner Vijay Manu. Vijay was an IT student here in Ghana and even though we didn’t have the background between the two of us to start a company like this, we thought it would just make for an even cooler story!
You guys are quite famous for your Empowerment Beads, what are they and why did you decide to make them?
We had been making shoes for some time but this is a high end product, which made it very difficult to sell them at the events we attended. So when we went for one of our first events we realised that most people would not be carrying that much cash to pick up one of the shoes. As a replacement we considered many things they could buy easily, from t-shirts to cupcakes and even dog-tags.
Eventually we settled on beads. Vijay suggested the beads and I suggested the colour. We were discussing this at 1 or 2 AM when we got a power cut and there was a total blackout and I said “the beads are gonna be black”. It was a weird conversation because nobody challenged us to go against Louis Vitton, but we realised that it would be an incredible achievement when we do it and that is where we came up with the concept that black is for the hard work and gold is for the reward. That was in April 2012 and we had no idea that it would have a life of its own. Everybody needs empowerment. It was a god sent idea for us and we’ve had people buy it from here and take it to Malaysia and all other parts of the world.
It has even become a conversation starter/ice breaker when a lot of people go to meetings all around the world and they see people wearing the beads--a way to identify that they might share similar ideals.
"Black is for the hard work and gold is for the reward"
On that note how many countries has the HTW products reached?
On a formal level we are in a total of 7 countries. On an informal level I am not even sure.
What are the most far flung countries you have got orders from?
Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Hong Kong and even from North Korea. They now have something awesome that was proudly made in Ghana!
What would you say was the one moment when you realised you had a big break?
There has been a lot of things from the very beginning when we did our first photo shoot and launched online--there was so much excitement and support from social media.
But what really stood out was that we were honoured by the President of Ghana. The funny thing is that a year before we got the award, we were asked to speak at a masters class in entrepreneurship where they asked us what our goal for next year was and we said “to be the best shoe company in Ghana.” Exactly one year later we were being honoured as the best Fashion company in Ghana and not just the best shoe company by the President. This showed us how powerful words can be and someone has way bigger plans for us than we can even dream of. I mean, we hardly believed it ourselves and many others were doubtful of us being just the best shoe company let alone the best fashion company!
We were at the event sitting around all the famous fashion designers and here were two guys who knew nothing about nothing and they chose us! Since then our world has been flipped upside down and it’s been wonderful. I was specially selected to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos and we were even called to participate in the African Leadership Network. These things have been very encouraging and I wouldn’t say we have made it yet, but we know that we are on to something and the world is telling us to keep at it! (The cherry on top was that two weeks ago CNN came to do an interview with us for African startups.)
This is something I have been dreaming of for a while because back when we first started a few celebrities came up to me and asked if I would pay them to wear my shoes and accessories and I said, “You must be trippin’ man!” I am young guy just trying to make it and I am definitely not gonna be giving stuff for free. I am a businessman!
In fact one guy got so mad at me when I told him to support my business by buying some instead of getting freebies that I just got pissed and said “I don’t even want you to wear my stuff, I’m waiting on CNN!” and few years later when CNN came I was like, “I TOLD YOU!”
So the point I’m getting to is… don’t let people belittle your ambitions because they don’t really know where you are going. You should know and you should believe. Sometimes it takes a 100 years and sometimes it takes 18 months like Instagram
"Don't let people belittle your ambitions because they don't really know where you are going. You should know and you should believe."
We can see that HTW is more than just a shoe brand, what do you think it means to Ghanaians and African as a whole?
It just goes to show that when you work hard and work together it can move to a next level. The beads really embody that for us. It started out just being an accessory and today it’s more than just a fashion statement, it’s a movement. I think that’s what it means to us as Ghanaians and Africans
Do you think your model of success with HTW can be repeated? What advice would you give to others?
Aim ridiculously high. The strength of which is you exceed average expectations and that requires more of you but it definitely pays off. If we had said we just wanted to be the best shoe company in Ghana we would have retired 2 years ago. But fighting against the top brands in the world really drives us. The other thing is to balance innovation and creativity with solid business principles. The trick is to balance the product and the brand, but to really concentrate on finding a successful business model right from the beginning. Look at football, it’s 11 people kicking around the ball and a trillion dollar industry is built around that.
What are the stereotypes you have faced and how have you dealt with them?
I was looking at the newspaper last week and there was no good news. There is hardly anything positive about Africa, even with the whole Africa Rising movement, the negative always wins. A lot of things are outside my control or our control. You can sit around and defend every single negative comment or you can build a brand and that will bring the right kind of attention.
No matter wherever in the world you are from people will say stupid, ignorant stuff about you. If you are Chinese, you are “Made in China,” if you are American you are a capitalist, if you are Australian you are fake British, and a whole lot of other stupid things people say. There is so much more that we don’t know than we do know..it’s easy for people to say negative things.
But all I can do is, make something great and let it transcend to all this external and intrinsic shit like the colour of my skin or the president...or well not yet haha! I can make some awesome shoes in my garage and if it has a doppler effect in a positive way then I am contributing to humanity...as I should be.
In fact my dad is a pastor. He is very interesting man and he told me this at a funeral last week--“We are not supposed to defend the gospel, but instead we are supposed to DEMONSTRATE IT.’’ ‘’Less talk more action,’’-my friend and fellow Global Shaper Ato Ulzen Appiah likes to say.
We are glad that you brought up your father because we want to understand your family and background and what makes you, you. So what can you tell us about that?
Seriously when you just asked that I got goosebumps. As you get older you start respecting them a lot more as well. My dad is a lawyer turned pastor and my mom is a teacher turning lawyer. The interesting thing about that is that they both work and are really into development and evolution of others and themselves.
I mean how do you study law for so many years and then become a pastor. What you do is what you do is how you get paid or whatever but how exemplary you are in your field is what really matters. So what you do is what sets you apart and not who you are.
I am just a shoemaker and I have shared spaces with some incredible people like Kofi Annan. So again, what you do is important but how you do it matters a lot more and my parents taught me that. I have observed my mom who is a teacher and I learnt management styles from her and leadership skills from my father. When I was young I thought he led from the front because he is a great public speaker but now that I am closer to him I see he has deep technical knowledge across many fields and supports others so they can be leaders too. I realise how useful those car rides with mum who had me do my times (multiplication) table or had me playing the Piano! They did an incredible job parenting. I might not have been the best son but they score a lot of points.
They taught me that leadership is all around and not just running a business and hey man I could go on for days about my parents haha!
Now to the last question, what does success mean to you?
Success to me is saying you are gonna do something and doing it. It’s that basic...it’s just absolute delivery. In any field and in any sense you may look at it.