African Diaspora Entrepreneurs Forum is an interview series celebrating African abroad who’re building businesses, making moves, and making Ghana proud.
You can tell a lot from a person’s choice of eyewear. Whether they’re bright red circles or conservative black rectangles, frames signal something about how a person sees themselves and the world.
Which is why when you see someone rocking Bôhten’s distinctive silhouette, you immediately know they’re are as daring as the brand itself.
Bôhten is a luxury eyewear company founded by Ghanaian brothers Nana Boateng Osei and Nana Kwadwo Osei. Strong believers in style with substance, the Osei brothers make their frames from reclaimed wood sourced from Ghana and other African countries. Bôhten glasses can be purchased in 27 stores worldwide, and showed a 400% growth in revenue over the first 2 years.
We sat down with the two brothers to chat about their pioneering work in eco-luxury eyewear.
Thanks for joining us today, Nana B and Nana K. Kindly introduce yourself.
B: Thanks for having us. I’m Nana Boateng Osei. I currently live in Toronto, Canada. I’m passionate about entrepreneurship, African fashion, and sustainable design. I’m also the CEO of Bôhten, an eyewear company based in Canada and Ghana.
K: Hi, I’m Nana Kwadwo Osei, a professional graphic designer and brand specialist. I’m also the Chief Marketing Officer at Bôhten, where I work on how Bôhten looks and how people perceive the brand. I currently live in Ghana, from where I’m spearheading the development of Bôhten across Africa.
Could you tell us a little bit about how you grew up?
K: Our dad worked for the Foreign Ministry of Ghana as a diplomat and regularly got posted to different countries. He insisted on taking his whole family with him until we were old enough to live by ourselves. So we spent most of our childhood traveling. We lived in the U.K., the U.S., South Africa, and even Yugoslavia (before the war). However, we also spent an extended period of time growing up in Ghana.
B: We grew as part of an international community, but our parents made sure to instruct us in our heritage no matter where we moved. We spoke Twi at home and cooked Ghanaian food. Later, when we lived in NYC, there was a huge Ghanaian community next door. There’s a good reason why they call the Bronx “Ghana Town!”
With that much traveling, where is home for you?
B: We spent the majority of our lives in New York City, so that is what we considered home for a long time. However, Ghana will always be our first home.
K: The majority of our family is still in Ghana. We use our grandpa’s house in Teshie as a homebase. Even though my grandpa passed away some time ago, this is still the place where the whole family meets. We just recently had a big family reunion for my grandma’s 90th birthday there.
How did you come up with the idea for Bôhten?
B: My fascination for sunglasses goes back to our younger days when we were still in New York. In fact, my brother Nana K. got me excited about them. I remember stealing his first pair of sunglasses from his room for myself (laughs). I can tell a lot from people’s eyewear. A person’s choice of glasses says a lot about how they see themselves.
I got the idea for Bôhten during a trip to Ghana. In 2009, I went back to visit my family’s hometown in Kwahu and to reconnect with my roots. My uncle has a house on the edge of a mountain with an amazing view, and as a nature-lover, I felt really inspired by the purity of that place. My family is in the wood business, so I also care deeply about sustainability. At some point, my interests began to play off of each other and during that trip, the seed of the idea for using reclaimed wood for glasses was planted.
I moved to Ottawa and studied Sustainability and Design at Carleton University. During my final year, I pitched the idea with a fellow student at a competition and we received support to take it from there. Soon, however, my co-founder and I parted ways.
I still believed in the idea, however. I decided to give it a second try and this time, I asked my brother Nana K. to join me. We started working on Bôhten in November 2012, and officially launched in early 2013.
We were fortunate to get on TV in the early days of Bôhten. I got the chance to pitch in front of the Dragon’s Den Canada Jury as part of a student’s special. That gave us a lot of exposure and helped us gain traction. Today, our core team consists of eight people.
What makes Bôhten glasses special?
B: Bôhten produces eco-friendly luxury eyewear. We make both sunglasses and prescription glasses. The fashion industry is one of the most unsustainable ones in the world, but we are going to change that. We create our glasses from reclaimed materials sourced from West Africa, such as Redwood, Zebra wood, Ebony wood, wheat straw, Maple, Rosewood, and Bamboo, and manufacture them in our own facility in Canada.
K: For many, glasses are simply a utilitarian object, but we think they can be so much more. It’s one of the most personal items you carry around, and we believe that your glasses should be one of your most loved possessions. The people who’re drawn to Bôhten glasses believe this as well and appreciate the unique craftsmanship that goes into each one.
Because Bôhten glasses are made of wood, they’re super lightweight, easy to maintain, and full of character. Our glasses feel retro and modern at the same time. I meet a lot of people who’re self-conscious about how they look with glasses. I love it when I see those same people try a pair of Bôhtens; they radiate confidence and style.
Kindly walk us through the process of creating a pair of Bôhten glasses. How do you go from reclaimed wood to a finished product?
B: We source our materials from Ghana and other African countries like Ivory Coast, Congo, and Nigeria. In Ghana, we get the materials from traders that source the wood from the Northern Region and sell them at Tema port.
Once purchased, we ship those materials by sea to our manufacturing facilities in Japan and Canada where the glasses are beautifully handcrafted. For production, we use the latest technologies like 3D printing, laser cutting, and CNC machining. A Bôhten frame is made of three layers of wood that are cut individually and then pressed together. After that, the model-specific design is applied and finally, the frame is varnished with a protective layer of wax to make the glasses water resistant.
Once you’ve produced them, how do you get Bôhten glasses to your customers?
B: Our customers can get a pair of Bôhten glasses through our online shop and our retailers in Canada, Gabon, Ghana, the United States and the U.K. Every pair of Bôhten glasses comes with a designer microfiber pouch and cleaning cloth as well as an accessory case which is also handcrafted from reclaimed wood. It is really important to us to create a great user experience, and this includes every detail of the packaging design.
What are your favorite models?
B: I love the Barklae sunglasses. I like darker materials and those are made from sprayed bamboo. We currently sell the third generation, the Gold edition. They’re thinner then the previous generations and they’ve been the most popular model so far.
K: My favourite used to be the Barklae Zebrawood which look a lot more like natural wood. The preferences of our customers seem to change every season. Lately, the darker woods have been more prominent. Maybe because they’re more subtle?
My current favourites are the round Exstel opticals. You look more educated with those (laughs). I got my pair customized over here in Ghana. I got tint lenses put in, so that the opticals protect me from UV rays as well.
I noticed that you bring out new generations of your collections from time to time. Why is that?
K: We’re a very young brand, and we’re constantly tweaking the fundamental design and construction of our glasses. That’s why we have generations for our collections; they’re an opportunity to implement feedback we get from our customers and try new things.
I think that should be the development process for every company: keep iterating based on your learnings from your customers. We are not afraid to seek critique from our customers, because that’s what helps us improve and grow.
Are you working full-time on Bôhten?
K: We have always had our individual side ventures. I work as a freelancing graphic designer and brand developer. As a freelancer you have some flexibility, so this does not conflict with my role at Bôthen.
B: Same here. During the weekend, I work as brand lead for a company which helps Fortune 500 companies design the interaction with their customers and provide analytics to measure effectiveness. My employer knows and respects that I run a business myself, so managing both is not too hard for me either. Besides, I learnt a lot about guerilla marketing and data analytics on that job — things that come in handy when working on Bôhten.
K: Yeah, it’s actually intentional that we work on other things as well. It’s not just an additional source of income; we learn things on those jobs that we can apply at Bôhten. Likewise, our employers and clients benefit from the experience we bring to the table because we’re running our own company. We choose our side ventures strategically and make sure that our other endeavors tie in well.
To give you an example, I did my National Service in Ghana at Radford University College in the Fashion and Graphic Design Department. This has been invaluable to understanding the local fashion scene and building important relationships over here.
What has been your biggest accomplishment so far?
B: We opened our own production facility in Canada this spring. The design, lenses, and manufacturing will now all be made in Canada. Our latest Wanderlust collection was produced in that factory.
K: This is really big for us, because now we have much more control over the whole production process and no longer need to rely on someone else. It’s priceless to have the freedom to say: “We have this idea, why don’t we try this out?” It allows us to prototype and try things out. Before, this was simply not possible.
B: And it was so hard to make it happen! Once we succeeded, our point of reference completely changed. To me it proved that we ready for bigger things. I view us differently now.
K: I have to say that I really enjoy how this enterprise has changed my little brother. He has grown up so much with the amount of responsibility placed on him. He has learnt to lead and not falter when times are tough. We have been through so much and he did great.
B: How come you never told me that? (laughs)
What’re some of the challenges you faced on your journey?
K: When people express an interest in investing in your company, it’s both exciting and frustrating. I remember numerous instances when we thought a deal would go through, only to be disappointed.
But in hindsight, we’re glad some of those deals did not happen, because investment would have limited us in our freedom to develop the Bôhten brand. We bootstrapped and learned that we do not have to wait for other people if we want to move forward.
B: To add to that, my biggest frustration is when things aren’t happening as fast as I hoped. For instance, we’re often behind orders and don’t have enough glasses in stock to match the demand. That said, we’re becoming more efficient every day. It used to take us 2 months to produce 100 frames for our glasses. In our new facility in Canada, we can produce 35 frames in only 30 minutes!
Who were the most important people that helped you make Bôhten happen?
B: I would like to thank Max Fraser. He is a close friend of mine and has been with us for years. Max has an industrial design background and a lot of experience with product creation. I met him at our Fashion Week debut in Ottawa in 2013. During the early days of Bôhten, he helped us develop a plan to launch our production facility and making our first prototypes. We soon realized that our work ethic and values aligned, so he now runs our factory in Canada. That means Max is responsible for the design, prototyping and production of our glasses. In addition, he has helped us improving our supply chain process tremendously.
Additionally, our families supported us in so many ways — financially, emotionally, and whenever we needed them for anything. They didn’t really understand what we did initially, but I cannot stress enough how much they helped our growth.
K: I’d like to highlight Kenneth Baddoo and Kweku Sekyiamah. They shared their extensive business expertise with us and went above and beyond to teach us how to prepare Bôhten for the global stage.
Tell us more about your Africa expansion plans.
B: We plan to open our own factory in Ghana to produce the eyewear on the continent. This will allow us to save cost and also create jobs locally.
K: Ghana has so much potential. I’m currently working on setting up the business. Although doing things over here in Ghana is not always easy, we are committed to make this happen.
B: Next year, our production manager Max will go over to Ghana for a few months to recruit and train the people who’ll run the machines. Since we want to grow talent locally, education will be a big part of this operation. Soon, we‘ll be able to both source and produce our products in Ghana.
How has the Ghanaian diaspora community supported Bôhten’s growth?
B: We’ve received a lot of support from Ghanaians in the diaspora — they buy our products, follow what we’re doing, and give us encouragement and critique. Whenever I see a Ghanaian name on our order list, it makes me super happy. From time to time Ghanaians approach us asking: “Bôhten sounds like Boateng — are you Ghanaian?”
I’d love to hear from more Ghanaians in the diaspora from all different industries and explore how we can collaborate. We should all move forward together and show the world what African brands are doing.
K: We as Africans have to hold ourselves to the highest standards. It’s not enough to be merely good. We have to work together and collectively bring ourselves up to the next level.
What can we expect from Bôhten in the future?
K: We’re constantly on the lookout for new materials we can use for our glasses. Did you know there is a type of wood that grows under water here in Ghana? As we gain more control over the whole production process, you will see us using more materials we find on continent that no one has ever thought about using before. I cannot talk too much about this yet, but when we say reclaimed materials, we don’t just mean wood.
B: Once we have a production facility in Ghana, I want to develop a waste management initiative. I want to explore how we can incentivize people to recycle materials. Ghanaians reuse stuff and fix things when they are broken. We will push this further and build on that.
K: Another thing that is really important to me is educating ourselves here in Africa on eye health. A lot of eye diseases on the continent could easily be avoided, I see us doing more work in that regard. We have already started by partnering with the U.K. charity Sightsavers.
Sightsavers’ mission is to eliminate avoidable blindness globally, with a focus on river blindness, trachoma, and lymphatic filariasis, which mostly affects developing countries. We call the project Impact Of One. For every pair of Bôhtens purchased online, we donate $5 to Sightsavers to support their work in Ghana, Cameroon, and Senegal.
B: We’re on a mission to combine fashion and sustainability. Our vision is to help create change in Africa by promoting education and employment, and by creating social and environmental awareness. We have big plans, and we hope our successes can be an inspiration for others.
Thanks a lot, Nana B. and Nana K. We wish you all the best with your future endeavors.
Thanks for having us!
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