Having worked hard to make her brand one of the fastest growing premium lingerie and undergarments brand in Africa, COVID 19 threatened to destroy everything Maame Esi Acquah Taylor has built in the last eight years. However, Maame, who heads the brand “Aha” quickly employed some strategies that has soared her brand higher in this uncertain time.
With a mission to cater for women with all body types but most especially curvaceous women, Maame Esi is reinventing the way we feel about lingerie and undergarments.
In an interview with TNB, Taylor talks about her beginnings, surviving COVID 19 as a business owner and growing her brand.
TNB: When did you realize you wanted to produce undergarments and lingerie and how did you start?
Maame: I am a busty person and so was my mum. Growing up in Cape Coast where we come from, we always had to buy lingerie and sew the size, so I had a history with it. And as a young busty woman, I suffered looking for my bra size to fit my breast. And for three years, in addition to my banking job, I was retailing and wholesaling lingerie and undergarments to lingerie shops as my side hustle. However, I realized most of the sizes didn’t fit Ghanaian women because of our curves and also because most of us are very busty. The panties will not rise to meet the waist and most of the bra cups were not right for our bra sizes. So I decided that was a big vacuum in Africa. I researched about it and decided to come up with the best lingerie in Africa, and that was how Aha was birthed.
TNB: Why the name AHA?
Maame: Aha because I had been searching for very good undergarments for a long time and after searching for a long time, when you find what you are looking for, you go “aha”. So aha means the search is over. I believe a lot of other women have the same experience and as such, will have an “aha” moment when they encounter the brand.
TNB: Did you get formal training prior to starting your own production? How has it been like?
Maame: So originally, I was a broadcast journalism, then I went into banking for 7yrs then this came up but because I am busty, I learnt a lot about bras. And the structure of bras are very complicated so I don’t think my layman’s knowledge would have done much. When I decided to do this full time, I had to sit down with manufacturers and they taught me a lot. In terms of how to design a type of bra to achieve a particular effect. So I got a lot of underground and onsite training as to how that style will affect a loo and everything about the structure and design of undergarments and lingerie. And I work with a lot of technical workers to be able to put it together. So to answer your question, I haven’t been to a fashion school to learn. However, I have had so much onsite training so much so that from looking at a breast, I can tell that this shape will work perfectly for this body. I have worked with manufacturers from 3 continents.
TNB: Is your production plant in Ghana or do you produce them outside the country?
Maame: Production is not in Ghana. When I started, I wanted so much to do production here. And I remember at the time, National Youth Employment Program was calling for ideas and that was just when I had started. So I went to them with my proposal because I was already in talks with manufacturers. So I told them about my idea and asked, should I set up a factory here, would they be able to fund it, and they said they were very ready. However, politics got in the way and I was not able to do it. I decided that my dream would not have to stop. I have to produce out there till I am able to get proper funding or make enough money to set up the plant to produce my products here because it is very capital intensive to set up a whole manufacturing plant and raw materials are not available here.
TNB: When you decided to go full time and to get a physical store and to expand, did you take any loans or was your initial investment capital saved? And if you did get a loan, how difficult or easy was it?
Maame: I had angel investors. I had family, my mum, godmother, my brothers and good friends also helping. Also, I was so lucky because my best friend, Christiana, had a non – banking financial institution, and she loaned me money from there because by then I had gotten the Accra mall shop and to be able to stock it up, I needed more money. So I had funds from everywhere. Everybody was supporting because they could tell that this dream could go high.
TNB: A lot of small businesses like yours have folded because of COVID. However, AHA is rather thriving. There is a lot of buzz about your brand. How did you survive as a brand?
Maame: First of all, I totally went off for three weeks. During that time, my major concern was that I have 30 women that I was working with and all these women, some had children who were dependents on the business. Now should I relax, it would affect these families and all that I had built would come crumbling down, so I just decided to learn a lot about other companies and the strategies they were employing because before Covid got here, it got worse at other places. So what were they doing, how was businesses surviving? I learnt a lot on my own and also, I spoke to people who encouraged me. I then came up with some strategies to use should my business survive. 1. Due to the lockdown, no one was going anywhere and as such, there was nowhere to go. A comfortable loungewear was what people were going for, and to reach them, I had to move aggressively online because that’s where the audience are. Thus, I went out to search for talent. People who are social media gurus and can help me have a strong digital presence with the right message for my target audience. 2. Strategic partnerships. Because I had my own production, I had a lot of stock in my warehouses and I became a wholesaler for other lingerie brands in Ghana who imported from Ghana. 3. Focus. I focused on what I wanted to achieve and did not look at what other brands were doing. 4. Over communication. I over communicated with my followers on all our social media platforms. I got my staff to repost, like and share every post we made to their social media accounts which helped in creating the desired visibility for the brand. 5. I focused on fast movers. I channeled all my energy towards the products that sell most. 6. In the past, I thought at a point in time if spending money on photo shoots were worth it. Covid taught me that it is important to always do a nice photo shoot but the trick is in using regular people because your audience need to identify with them. For us to be successful with these strategies, I made sure that I appealed to the conscience of my staff and let them know the reality of what was happening. Companies were sacking and if we were to survive, we had to work harder. I only had to let go of three staff who were not supportive. As such, it was a joint dream and it worked.
TNB: The importance of Customer Service is crucial to every business. How did you get your team to buy into your vision? And do you think the relationship they had with your clientele before COVID coupled with the strategies you built during this period is what helped your business?
Maame: Anybody that I employ comes to me at the final stage. I need to make sure that you buy into the “aha” dream. And if you get the opportunity to sit with us, you would realize that it’s a whole family and we all have a calling of presenting the best undergarments for curved women. So they all know that should a customer enter into the shop, they have been going round and this is the ‘aha’ moment. This is what they have been looking for – it’s the last stop. So they need to give them their best. I can easily see when somebody doesn’t buy into it. Rarely do I get that but when I get that, I coach you but when I realize that your presence would not help the business you definitely must go so any other person who want to be part of the dream must come. So yes, our excellent customer service and attention to the details and needs of our customers have helped in customer retention and support during this time.
TNB: There seem to be other brands under the “Aha” umbrella. Tell us more about it.
Maame: Yes. We have the Lawen Taylor by aha which produces premium and easily accessible undergarment for men. We have the Ahcessories which is a unique and distinct jewelry line. There is also Aha swimwear, Aha pink warriors which offers free breast screening for women every October. This campaign was initiated because my mum passed due to breast cancer. So it is a cause which is dear to my heart.
TNB: Do you have plans of expanding to other regions seeing that you have six branches in Accra?
Maame: As for going to other regions, I think it is costly because we are doing a good job online. It doesn’t take much to send something to Cape Coast or other parts of the country. Presence in other regions in terms of rental and staffing is going to be overly costly and Covid has taught us online presence is key. We have a website and people order from there. And we have consultations with them to get their correct details before making deliveries. People from other countries also buy so we ship worldwide. It will surprise you that social media works a lot and online is the way to go moving forward post Covid. Thus, the goal is to stay focused and consistent in growing the brand.