How do you build an environmentally sustainable business with a production line that spans three continents and with more demand than your supply can keep pace with? The Osei brothers, responsible for the Bohten range of trendy eco-luxury eyewear might have a thing or two to share.
2013 – four months into his latest business – cofounded with his brother Nana Kwadwo Osei, Nana Boateng Osei is on the Dragon’s Den TV show in Canada, pitching to the jury, as the public watches with keen interest. The jury isn’t sold on the idea though. Perhaps they couldn’t picture Nana Boateng’s vision of a socially responsible manufacturing business, or perhaps they fear the company is too young to put in the $75,000 for the 20% stake he’d asked for. So, he doesn’t progress to the next stage of the show and the business receives no funding.
Three years on, Nana Boateng’s dragons – the venture capitalist jurors who would invest in your business for a stake if you impress them – might finally be seeing what he saw then. The business has grown over 400 percent and their eye glasses are selling in over 40 stores around the world. How’s that for a comeback? Appearing on the show brought the Boateng brothers exposure they could only have dreamt of. Nana Boateng says he is happy they’ve had the chance to grow organically and to develop a strong core; they might’ve grown too fast if money had come in quickly.
Their brand, Bôhten, riding on that exposure, has done well by selling itself on quality and
distinctiveness. Bôhtens have found a loyal following in love with the product – made from reclaimed material, largely wood. They are lightweight, water-resistant and do not fade in sunlight, have 100% UVA and UVB protection and come tastefully packed in a wooden box. Regular prescription lenses are also available. Their designs have caught many eyes, but the use of reclaimed wood from Ghana and other parts of Africa has won many hearts. In a world that is increasingly sustainability conscious, they have committed to walk a path that not many tread.
A visit home to Ghana from New York – where they have lived for the better part of their lives – in 2009 started it all. Nana Boateng had gone up to the family home in Abetifi, on the Kwahu ridge to as he puts it, “reconnect with my roots”. “As a nature lover, I felt inspired by the greens and nature around the place”. His musings during this ‘wilderness’ visit, would lead him to found the global brand with a social consciousness.
In hindsight, it’s a no-brainer that a nature lover with lingering influences from the family wood business and formal studies in sustainability and design would dream up such an idea. But the brothers readily admit their initial preparation for this line of work came from being raised in a “fashionable family” and a healthy experience travelling the world – the family had to move whenever their diplomat father was posted to a different country. This background meant that from the outset, they envisioned a business that would serve luxury to a global market.
It was Nana Kwadwo, the elder, who sparked Nana Boateng’s initial interest in sunglasses when they were younger. This interest stayed with him and grew eventually into a business. Things came full circle when Nana Boateng had to invite Nana Kwadwo to join him so they could make their brand of eyewear for the world. It was an easy ‘yes’ for him. Now, he is chief marketing officer, responsible for how people perceive the brand. He has employed his background in graphic design to good effect.
Nana Kwadwo who has moved to Ghana to oversee African expansion explains that sustainability and keeping to their roots is key to how they run the business. The reclaimed wood – from cabinets, doors, tables, cupboards and so on, is sourced from Ghana and other parts of West Africa. Last year, they opened their own zero-waste production facility in Canada, and are on course to open a similar manufacturing facility in Ghana this year, which is a big part of the end game for them. “The long term vision for Bôhten is to build an eyewear manufacturing facility that gives back by creating fair-paying jobs for creative minds seeking opportunities in Africa,” they emphasise.
In the beginning, the Bôhten eyewear were designed in Canada and manufactured in Asia. It posed its own challenges, at times putting them behind in orders as they struggled to keep up with the huge demand for their eyeglasses. It took about 2 months sometimes to make 100 frames. Today, it takes just 30 minutes to make 35 frames in their own facility. There is a lot of caution still, not to sacrifice quality to satisfy demand. “People have to wait, but many have told me that their wait was worth it,” Nana Kwadwo adds.
They are aware, not just of their customers’ needs, but also of goings-on – gradual change in labour markets, the changing fashion trends, taste for environmentally sustainable products and socially responsible ways of doing business. It is a skill that they have learned from their many attempts starting and running (failing at times) businesses in the past. They’ve always run something on the side even when they’ve had full-time jobs – Nana Boateng ran a limousine shuttle service, among other start-ups when he was younger.
As part of giving back, for every Bôhten pair of eyeglasses purchased, $5 is donated to Sightsavers, an NGO whose mission is to eliminate avoidable blindness globally, but mostly in developing countries.
As events have played out, missing out on the TV show money hasn’t changed much. They were going to make eyeglasses in the way they had set out to do with or without it. Nana Kwadwo and Nana Boateng Osei are not people to stop on a mission. They are providing a vision of change, right before our eyes.
The writer is Chairman of ENSAfrica│Ghana (previously known as Oxford & Beaumont Solicitors) and author of Kuenyehia On Entrepreneurship, considered a groundbreaking resource on Ghanaian entrepreneurship. Follow him on twitter @elikemkuenyehia.