How an American company sells fashion accessories made in Ghana

Della is a US-based fashion accessories brand that sells handcrafted bags and other items made by seamstresses working in the village of Hohoe, Ghana. The company also has an agreement with Apple to make MacBook cases. How we did it in Africa interviews Della founder Tina Tangalakis about the company.

Tina Tangalakis

Give us an overview of Della’s beginnings and where the company is today.

I started Della when I went to Ghana as a volunteer in September 2009. I have a background in design and was very inspired by the local textiles. Before Ghana, I had freelanced with a company that made accessories in China and distributed them all over the United States. While working with local seamstresses in Ghana, the idea came to me: why not make in Africa? The local seamstresses I met needed steady work, and I wanted to pursue a career in design on my own terms: with a conscience. Della was a way to combine the two.

In the United States, Della is a for-profit company, not an NGO. Why is it?

After much research and debate about whether I should start Della as a “non-profit” or “for-profit” company, I settled on “for-profit”. There are several reasons for this:

Technically, Della qualifies for nonprofit status because of the goodwill programs and incentives offered to our employees and the community. However, to me, these programs are just an extension of human decency and how business should be run. I wanted to take a stand and show the Western world, especially the fashion world, that business can be both responsible and profitable. Also, I feel like non-profit fashion is not taken seriously in the US. I wanted to prove that high quality, fashionable products can come from Africa and be sold in the American market.

Second, after my research, it was clear that there were two things needed to have a lasting effect on a developing community: education and commerce. Della does both.

Della bags made in Ghana.

Della bags made in Ghana.

How to manage a company spread over two continents?

Between Ghana and the United States, we have about 60 people involved with Della.

Our Ghanaian team is led by Selorm Nii Addotey, our COO and co-founder of Della. At his side, we have two American employees who manage and supervise the team in Ghana. This includes production, sourcing, product development, quality control and distribution. We currently have 35 full-time employees and between 10 and 25 part-time employees, depending on production demands. I am in constant and daily contact with the team by e-mail, Skype and phone calls.

I also travel regularly to Ghana to help manage and maintain a strong relationship with our team.

In the US, I have a modest team of three, with a dedicated group of interns working alongside us. Running a business on two continents is very difficult, but the key to success is finding strong employees who believe in your vision and are willing to work hard to make it happen.

Tell us more about the MacBook cases produced for Apple; how did the case go?

I find that every major business achievement begins as a courtship. It was basically getting in touch with the right person at Apple, introducing them to our products/history and going from there. There were several meetings and a lot of correspondence that lasted almost a year until we got our first order.

The cases we produce for Apple are suitable for 11″, 13″ and 15″ MacBook devices. We use authentic Ghanaian fabric to decorate the front and the protective inner lining is made from a high density latex foam made in Ghana.

MacBook cases produced for Apple.

MacBook cases produced for Apple.

What are the biggest challenges of running this business?

Naturally, there are always challenges behind any business, no matter where you work from. A dozen challenges can present themselves in a day and I find it useful to always be prepared and creative in order to overcome these obstacles.

Currently, we continue to face challenges working with textile suppliers who understand the requirements of the US market and can meet our deadlines on time. In addition to ensuring that the quality, design and coloring of our textiles are correct, we need our products to meet industry standards. The US retail market is stricter on product quality and specifications. We must constantly ensure that the products we manufacture comply with these standards. Our goal is to be competitive in the US market, and to do that, we must hold ourselves to high expectations.

It is not about imposing Western ideals or standards on our employees, but rather about being competitive in the global marketplace.

And your future plans for Della?

Della has big things in store for 2013. We are currently working with a major retailer to launch a clothing collection this summer. We also have private partnerships and collaborations on the horizon that will allow us to grow and raise awareness of Della. Our long-term goals include expanding our apparel line, continuing to grow with our current retail partners, such as Apple, and expanding our production in the Volta region of Ghana.

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