Anthony Dzamefe went from hawking replica watches on the streets of Accra to building his own brand of timepieces. Dzamefe spoke with James Torvaney about growing Caveman Watches and the challenges he has faced in establishing a manufacturing operation from the ground up.
You quite literally started your entrepreneurial journey ‘on the streets’. Explain how you got involved in the watch industry.
To be honest I got into watches by accident – before 2015 I had never even owned a watch. I was working for a hotel in Accra, holding up name cards for passengers arriving at the airport, earning around $80 per month. It wasn’t a good job, and I knew I needed to find another opportunity or face being stuck there for years.
There was a boutique across the road from me – I started taking photos of their watches and advertising them on social media with an added markup. When someone bought an item, I would go and buy it from the boutique, and keep a part of the sales price. This arrangement worked well at first but wasn’t very scalable, so I began talking directly to the people supplying the boutiques – the ones importing replica watches from China. I started with one watch, then two, then three. Every time I sold a watch I used the money to buy more watches.
I was selling watches in car parks and on university campuses. I got a lot of ridicule from friends and family. People said it wasn’t a respectable trade. Even my colleagues at the airport said it was better to stay there. My mother had found me a job at a bank, which I didn’t want to take. I had to promise her that if things didn’t work out after one year, I would go back and try the banking job.
As I sold more and more watches, I started looking for opportunities to add more value, and to take over more of the value chain. I researched the original manufacturers and started ordering directly from China. I studied the watch repairers on the roadside, so I could offer additional services to my existing customers. And I spent two months working as an apprentice to a cobbler, learning how to work leather as I had noticed that a lot of customers had nice watches but poor straps. All these helped me to hone my knowledge and build a reputation as an expert in watches.
At what point did you decide to move from trading and repairing watches to starting Caveman as its own brand? Was it a difficult move to make?
In 2018 I started wondering what would it be like to have my own brand.
People spend a lot of money on watches in Ghana, more so than other countries, but it is mostly on imported replicas. There weren’t any high-quality watches being made in Ghana itself.
To understand the production process, I broke down other watches into their individual components, then looked to see which local factories could make each part. I’d spent so much time working with watches over the previous three years that I knew the watches inside out, I knew which parts tended to wear out quickly and which parts needed to be stronger.
Ultimately, I didn’t see starting my own brand as being a large risk because I had spent years building up my customer database and understanding my customers and the market. So when I did start, I was confident I would hit the ground running.
I put together a business plan and started pitching for investment. I got my hopes up a number of times but eventually it all came to nothing, so I thought why not just self finance? I took everything I had earnt to that point to make an initial 50 watches, which was the smallest possible run given our suppliers’ minimum orders. This was the original Blue Volta watch, which we pitched at a low price of 250 cedis (around $40) so that I could recoup my investment quickly and invest in the next, bigger, run of watches.
Do you manufacture all your watches in Ghana? How do you manage competing with mass-produced goods coming from East Asia and other areas?
Yes, we assemble all our watches here in Accra, and we source individual components from local suppliers where we can. People can come and order bespoke details such as personalised engravings or different coloured dials, and can actually see them getting made in the workshop at the back of the shop.
Even in Accra, there is still this perception that items made locally are of inferior quality to international brands. When I started, I purposefully didn’t talk about our watches being Made in Ghana – I simply referred to us being a Ghanaian brand. It also helped that I had been in the business for a number of years and people trusted me and knew that I would deliver good quality.
Caveman has recently received a lot of media attention, including an article in the New York Times, as well as endorsements from influencers and celebrities in Ghana and Nigeria. What is the key to your branding successes?
From when I started, I was always keen to build a brand and product that could be sold globally – not just in Ghana. The last few years, there has been a huge wave of interest in African brands both domestically and globally, and we have timed things well there. I think the revolution began with Black Panther, back in 2018 – that was when Africa really began to be ‘cool’.
The core of our marketing strategy has always been reputation and word-of-mouth. We are an aspirational brand, and we want the entire customer experience to feel premium. You’ll see on our Instagram and website we have slick imagery and visuals, and we take care to package our items beautifully. We also work with a number of brand ambassadors including [music mogul] Don Jazzy, and we have made watches for the likes of Nana Akufo-Addo, Akon and Sarkodie among others. More recently we have started doing traditional PR work and strategic billboards as well.
How did you come up with the Caveman name?
When I started making watches, I would stay at home for days at a time and never see sunlight. People would joke about it. One day I caught a documentary about the pyramids, and I was fascinated by their hieroglyphics and how even today modern science can’t fully explain how they built these complex structures with such accuracy. This was where I came up with the Caveman name – I wanted something that stood for durability, originality, and quality craftsmanship.
What are your future plans for the Caveman brand?
At the moment there is demand for many more watches than we are able to produce. Importing machinery is still very expensive, so everything is being hand-made. I’d like to automate and mechanise more of our production line so that we are able to reach more customers.
In terms of sales, we still sell the majority of our watches directly to our customers, and 90% of our customers are in Ghana. We have a lot of interest from customers and distributors abroad and we are hoping to open up an international branch – either in South Africa or Nigeria – later this year.
Whilst our midmarket models [such as the Blue Volta, starting at 450 cedis ($80)] remain popular, the majority of our growth is coming from our higher-priced models priced around 1,000 cedis ($180) and above, and that is where our focus is at the moment.
James Torvaney is a business consultant and financial advisor specialising in West Africa. He has worked with clients across a number of sectors, including technology, manufacturing, consumer goods and hospitality.