West Africa: Ghanaian businessman grows skin- and hair-care company into a regional player

Moses Atobrah

The story of how Moses Atobrah started Debbies – a skin- and hair-care products business in Accra, Ghana – begins with the tale of two women in his life. For years, Atobrah watched his mother run her baking business. She worked hard to grow the company and fend for her large family. What Atobrah didn’t know at the time was that eight of the 10 siblings would become entrepreneurs and that his own kitchen would be his office for the first two years of his enterprise. When it came to naming the business, Atobrah turned to the other woman in his life, his wife Debbie.

When launching, Atobrah seized the moment and utilised the experience he gained during his time as sales manager of SoftSheen-Carson, manufacturers of the Dark & Lovely hair-care brand. He knew the beauty product industry well and understood its trends. Importantly, the networks he created at SoftSheen-Carson proved crucial when he ventured out on his own. “I didn’t simply sell hair products to hairdressers; I would educate them on how to maximise on their capital,” he explains.

Atobrah’s experience from the corporate world came in handy, too. He had worked at mobile telecoms operator Millicom and Shell Ghana. He had also served as head of retail assets at Merchant Bank for five years and as head of marketing at Star Assurance.

Atobrah and his wife used their savings and channelled their salaries into the business. As a result, they never took high-interest bank loans that would have been a strain at the outset. The business also enjoyed a lot of support and credit supplies from people who trusted Atobrah.

With initial capital of about US$12,ooo, Atobrah bought two small machines, a used mixer and Debbies began manufacturing. For his first customer, he benefited from his networks once again. When a former client heard Atobrah had started a company, he ordered herbal soap worth about US$15,000. For a company operating from a home kitchen, meeting that massive order was a test on all fronts; time, capital, space and personnel. Even so, Debbies took on the challenge. The two full-time staff worked with a machine that “broke down every hour” and the processes were slow. But after two weeks, Atobrah called the client and informed him the goods were ready for pick up. They were in business.

Debbies’ client base has grown since that first deal, but not without challenges. A year into business, a Nigerian agent stopped distributing Debbies’ products. Atobrah found out the agent had registered a trademark on the products and was manufacturing a fake version. After an expensive five-year court battle, Debbies won the case, although, the lesson wasn’t lost on Atobrah and he became selective in picking distributors. “It’s better to use several agents to represent a business to promote healthy competition. One person may not stretch themselves but two or three people will compete and make the brand grow.”

Despite that initial setback, Debbies successfully penetrated the West African market. Presently, it has distributors in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Nigeria. However, the company still grapples with tight border controls and high tariffs. Regardless of being in ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), there are regular border issues in countries such as Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire. Atobrah gets frustrated every time Debbies’ products are turned back at borders. “West Africa is our biggest market, so the hostility from our neighbours is a major hurdle,” he says. “We are all bound by the ECOWAS treaty which guarantees freedom of movement for people and goods. These are challenges us Africans create for ourselves; yet, we have so much to gain if we help each other.”

A selection of products manufactured by Debbies.

It’s not all gloom and doom on the export front though. Debbies has been shipping its products to Dubai and China. Atobrah is grateful for the support of the Ghanaian government which has helped the company showcase its products in foreign expos and exhibitions. “The world is opening up to our products,” he enthuses.

Nine years ago, Atobrah resigned from his position at Star Assurance to focus on Debbies full time. The company has enjoyed exponential growth since then. In 2021, the first month’s orders were equivalent to Debbies’ annual sales in 2018. Fourteen years since its humble beginning in that kitchen, Debbies’ product range comprises over 60 products; including black soap, shea butter, virgin coconut oil, herbal soaps, hair food, hair shampoo and hair conditioner.

Atobrah is happy about the market growth but he is convinced there’s potential to expand further through e-commerce. “Debbies still does most of its sales through traditional channels like agents and distributors but people are also selling our products on eBay and Jumia. I want the business to move towards online retail platforms because e-commerce is gaining popularity and more people are shopping online.”

On competition

Being in an industry where new brands pop up each day doesn’t bother Atobrah. To him, big multinational corporations like Unilever don’t count as competition because his focus is on other local brands that produce herbal soaps. His main concern remains the bottlenecks companies face because of the country’s unfavourable business environment. “Beauty companies that thrive here are those located in Côte d’Ivoire because of its low cost of production. In Ghana, the cost of revenue is quite prohibitive and bank loans carry a high-interest rate of about 26%.”

Next steps

Atobrah isn’t slowing down anytime soon. “This year, we plan to come up with three new lines of products. Based on feedback and research coming from the marketplace, we would like to produce face cream, a new shampoo and leave-in conditioner for natural hair.”

Feedback and research have reinforced Atobrah’s hunch that people are moving away from chemicals and embracing natural hair. “The quest for more products for natural hair is growing,” he says.

Debbies Products founder Moses Atobrah’s contact information

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