Would you believe that some of Africa’s latest, most innovative and exciting technology businesses are based right here in Accra? Currently Accra is not a city automatically synonymous with the tech industry. However, with tech hubs and incubators such as the MEST, iSpace, Hub Accra, and others, facilitating young entrepreneurs in exploring and developing their talents, Accra is fast becoming the epicenter of technology solutions developed for Africa by young Africans.
In this, the first of our Q&A series featuring successful young Accra-based tech entrepreneurs, we chat to Priscilla Hazel, Cassandra Sarfo and Esther Olatunde, the all-female team behind Tress: a mobile app enabling black women to share hairstyles, products, and salon information in a quk, easy, and fun way.
What's your 'elevator pitch'?
Priscilla Hazel (Co-founder and CEO of Tress): We usually say that, “Tress is a social community model app for black women to find hairstyle inspiration”, but we don’t only give inspiration… We give them information about each hairstyle; you know the name and location of the salon or stylist, the products that were used on the hair, the cost, etc. So, if you ever want to get a particular hairstyle, you have all that info on your phone. You can either go to that salon, or take it to your salon and show it to them.
What inspired Tress?
Priscilla: Cassandra went online once and saw a hairstyle she thought was really cool. She was looking for the name of the product that was used on the hair and the hair piece that was used, but even until today she’s never found it. So, it made her start thinking about the fact that we have this issue all the time as black women. Like, you’ll stop people on the street and ask them, “Where did you do your hair? How much did it cost?” That’s something that happens to the three of us, to our classmates, to our mothers, everybody. So, we thought “why don’t we use technology to bring this experience on to your phone, and make it easier to find hair related information?”
What drew you each to tech?
Esther Olatunde (cofounder and CTO of Tress): I have always wanted to be a software engineer. That’s my dream. I got fascinated by computers early on. In secondary school we had a computer lab and I would usually spend my time there. I was a Maths and Science student, and - when it came to thinking about a career and deciding on subjects - I definitely didn’t want to be a doctor or an engineer, which were generally the options for Science and Maths students. I knew that computers were it, so most of the time I tried to navigate towards that in my choices, and reading and research. After school I studied computers and systems development, and later applied for the program at MEST.
Cassandra Sarfo (Cofounder and Product Lead for Tress): After senior high school,whenI had to choose a course I wanted to do at university, I wanted to do a business course, but my whole family did business in their tertiary education, so my uncle suggested I try something different. He suggested I try something in technology, because that’s the industry that’s brewing. So, I studied information technology. I learnt a lot and gained a lot of interest in it. After university I heard of MEST and applied, and I got in.
Priscilla: My story is different from theirs. I have no background in IT! When I was younger I was not interested in tech in any way. I wanted to be a diplomat. I wanted to study international relations and diplomacy and travel around the world representing my country and trying to initiate deals for my country. That’s how I imagined myself growing up, but after university I worked with someone who was very business savvy and he introduced me to the whole life of business, and what goes on – how people think. More and more I realized that I didn’t want to do diplomacy. I started a few small businesses, including one by accident. I started teaching people how to use their iPads, because they’d just come in at that point. I read a book about how to use one, and learnt all the little tricks. I first taught my boss how to use his iPad, and then his friends asked me to show them how to use theirs. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened. While I was doing that I started wondering how all the apps on the iPad were created, and how they work. So, I knew I wanted to do something in business, and that I wanted to learn about technology and understand it – understand that market. Then I heard about MEST, and that you get to start a business in software and learn about software. It sounded like everything was coming together for me. So, I applied, and got in.
How has being based in Accra influenced your business?
Priscilla: Obviously, MEST is in Accra, so that’s how we all ended up being here. But, I think Accra has been trying to build its tech scene. It’s not as developed as that of Nairobi or even Lagos, but there has been a lot of movement, like hack-a-thons, helping women in tech, etc. over here. So, I think that has helped. Being in Accra, if you go into the now, at least you have some sort of support from places like MEST, iSpace, and Accra Hub, who are trying to build up people wanting to go into tech. Those are the opportunities that Accra has afforded us.
Also, Accra is more affordable than some other cities that are already established in tech, like Lagos or Nairobi. So, for a start-up like us, who are trying to survive while starting up, learning, and testing your product, it’s easier to be here with its lower costs. If you want to move into another market, this is a nice place to test it out and get feedback before you move into a much bigger market that doesn’t have the comfort and ease that Accra offers us as software entrepreneurs.
Esther: Let me add to that; coming from Lagos, and only having been here two years. The currency in Ghana is relatively stable, compared to Nigeria where it’s quite fragile and the inflation rate is quite high right now. Secondly, there’s power here, and it’s more stable than in Lagos.
What changes would you like to see in Accra in terms of IT?
Cassandra: The adoption rate for new products is really low here, and in the whole of Ghana. I would like to see the market here adopting all IT products coming out of Ghana and Africa. They should know that IT is going to grow, and it’s not going to stay the way it was. They should know that things will be improved, and they should just be patient. We need them to give proper feedback so that we can improve what we do. That’s how some of the most popular apps in the world got there – they learned from their mistakes, but people here don’t like to give feedback.
Where are your usual hangouts in Accra?
Esther: Pinocchio’s. I love ice-cream!
Cassandra: Coco Lounge. That place is cool. When you really want to relax it’s the place to be.
Priscilla: Chez Clarisse. I like French stuff, and it’s a Francophone Ivorian restaurant. It’s very small and rustic, but the food is good.
Back to business… What's the biggest challenge you've encountered in business so far?
Priscilla: A challenge we are facing right now is because we set up with an Android app. In Africa Android is the platform that most people use, and we had the skills in Android so we set up an Android version first. But, increasingly we’re realizing that we also need to have an iOS version, especially for the US, the UK, and even the Caribbean markets. We’re getting people there downloading the app, and using it too, but most of those markets use iOS. So, we know that we need to get an iOS version out there as soon as possible so that we can capitalize on the interest people have in Tress and use it too.
Cassandra: Investment is one thing we need, and we need it now. We are a startup, and we want to grow, but before we can grow we need the money to develop, and raising funds is really difficult especially in Africa.
Priscilla: To add to that, not all startups need investment right away, but Tress is a social app. Think of it as Instagram for black women and their hair, when any black women thinks of hair they should think of Tress – that’s our vision. We’re at the point where we need to grow; we need users to download and use the app to share their hairstyles so that we can grow to serious critical mass in order to be able to monetize. So, we need investment to build our product on iOS and make it more solid, and also for marketing. Our product isn’t limited to Ghana or Nigeria or Kenya; it’s for black women everywhere. We don’t just need marketing in Africa, but also the Caribbean, Europe, UK, in fact anywhere there’s a huge population of black people. We need money to do that, and we’re not making money right now, because we’re still working towards developing the product and getting critical mass.
Tell us a bit more about your current numbers.
Priscilla: We launched Tress in the last week of February this year, and we have almost fifteen thousand people on our platform in four months. We want to increase that number though, to show investors that there is going to be a return for them long term. That’s part of the trouble with gaining investment here – people are used to buying and selling for a quick turnaround, but with us they’d need to invest for a longer period and it’s difficult to get them to do that. That’s our biggest challenge.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received in terms of business/entrepreneurship?
Esther: There’s something that came up on Twitter, “The real work comes after you ship version one. You have to listen to your user, trade better, and improve your product”. That is really really key to your growth. You can’t ship something and tell your users, “That’s it”. You have to listen to feedback, and inculcate that feedback into your product. That’s advice that we’ve used a lot with Tress, and it’s worked for us. We listen to our users. All feedback is welcome.
Cassandra: One thing we’ve been taught with social apps is that you have to focus on a feature in your app that will encourage your users to convert other people into using your app. We call it a “viral loop”. This is something we’ve tried hard to integrate into Tress, so that we can spend less to acquire more users. This makes your app sustainable.
Priscilla: We learned so much in class… business models, user acquisition, etc. It was nice to learn all these things, and it seemed so simple. I thought I could talk to a friend about my app, or do a Facebook ad, and people will just download it. I mean, I thought “Who wouldn’t want to use Tress?” But, when you actually have to roll up your sleeves and do it, you realize it’s not as easy as it seems. There’s always a difference between theory and practical. A big difference! Unless you actually roll up your sleeves, and get experience, you won’t really know how to push your product. What you learn is different from what you have to put into practice. It’s a constant loop for startups around the world, in all industries – learn about your user, create value for them, improving things, come back to the drawing board, ship the next version, and starting the cycle again. So, that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learnt; rather than just studying it, take the time to start working on something you are passionate about. You’ll learn the most from that.
What do you think are some of the biggest tech trends that will shape the next 5-10 years?
Priscilla: I think niche products will be in the mainstream. Right now mainstream products are quite general, but I think niche products that target certain groups of people and communities will be the most popular.
Cassandra: I think hair is going to be a big deal. It’s already a big deal, but I think there will be more money put towards hair in the tech industry.
Esther: I think companies will be using messaging apps to boost their retention rates. It’ll make the user experience more personal to have one on one chats with people. I think businesses will start to work towards that, and not just use their website to reach people.
What do the next 5-10 years hold for Tress?
Priscilla: We have big dreams! Right now we are targeting hairstyle inspiration with our app, but our vision is for Tress to be the platform for hair for black women. When you think of anything to do with hair and black women, you should think of Tress. And, we obviously won’t be staying an app, we see ourselves going into media: magazines, TV, radio, having a web presence, etc. We want to expand our reach and grow, but I don’t think that’ll happen in five years. I think we’ll reach that point before five years. That’s how optimistic I am about Tress.
Like Cassandra said, hair is a huge market, and black women have been under-served in different sectors and fields. So it’s nice to be able to provide this value for them to grow. If we see in future that we can expand outside of hair, and add value in other ways, we might even consider that. But, for now, we want people thinking anything hair to think of Tress.
Esther: Yes, the vision for Tress is to be the go-to platform for hair for black women; for inspiration, products, tips, conversation, looking for salons, etc. you’ll be able to find all that on our platform.
What advice would you give to your fellow youth in terms of ways they can harness their creative, quick-turnaround ways to make money (AKA the “hustle”), to become tech savvy entrepreneurs like yourselves?
Esther: I think the “hustle” spirit is perfect for tech, because if you can harness the hustle and channel it properly into the tech space there’s a lot that can be achieved, especially in Africa where there are a lot of untapped opportunities. Apart from having the hustle you also need to have a skill, because it’s the skill that will add value to your user or your employer. There’s going to be a boom here in such a way that people will need a lot of tech talent. So, they should channel that hustle spirit into learning a really valuable tech skill, and use that to get into the industry.
Cassandra: To add to what Esther said… don’t tune your mind to think that tech is only for those who are curious, or studied something related to tech in uni, or who are geeks. It’s all about you wanting to get something done, and wanting to be in the tech space. The moment you accept that, then whatever you set your mind to you can do it. People have done it before. You just have to change your perception. Don’t wait for someone to deliver something in tech; you can be that person. Have a vision and concentrate on that.
Priscilla: Having the hustle in Africa is all about survival; having enough money to survive the day or the week so that you don’t have to suffer. So, I would want the youth to see it from the point of view that it’s easier to get into tech than other businesses. You don’t need to think about renting a place, hiring staff, and all that. You just need a computer, access to internet and power; that’s how easy it is to start developing your skills in tech. You don’t need to have been to university either. There are so many places offering affordable short courses that can help you. They should take advantage of these opportunities. So, they shouldn’t see tech as something that’s too expensive to get into, or that it’s too late for them to get into. It’s never too late – you can get into it at any time, so far as you have the passion and you want to solve a problem. You can be solving problems for people hundreds of miles away from you. That’s the great thing about tech – you can reach people all over the world. And there are still plenty of opportunities for tech in Africa, so this is a good time for people here to go into tech. In ten of fifteen years’ time they’re going to be glad that they got into tech now.
Tress can be downloaded at https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.tress.tressui&hl=en.