When Naa left Senior High School in 2017, she was immediately thrown into the labyrinth of Ghana’s unemployment sector with no certiﬁed skills to land a job or earn a living.
She recalls working menial jobs and mostly hanging out with neighbourhood friends who had also been in the system for a much longer period. The situation worsened when her then-boyfriend refused to accept responsibility for her pregnancy.
“Those were very dark times for me,” recalls Naa, who now works in Ghana’s fast-rising fashion and accessories industry as a milliner. “Despite my high school certiﬁcate, I wasn’t the ideal candidate for most jobs and an unplanned pregnancy even worsened my plight.”
Naa’s story is similar to 4.5% of Ghana’s available workforce who are currently without a decent source of income.
The hope of landing a job soon gets gloomier as the day goes by owing to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy.
According to the World Bank 2020 report on Youth Unemployment, 12% of Ghanaian Youth face unemployment with a staggering 50% underemployed.
Despite major investments by both government and private sector, Ghana’s unemployment rate was higher than overall unemployment rates in Sub-Saharan African countries; a situation which was likely to go unchanged if jobs remain limited.
Having landed a slot in Ghanaian millinery and skills/craft school, Velma’s Millinery Academy through the benevolence of a family friend, Naa undertook several courses in hat making and design which led her to establish her own business.
“I was blessed to learn a skill through the sponsorship of a benefactor at Velma’s Academy and it’s helped establish me economically which has also been of great beneﬁt to me and my son,” she said amidst a smile.
Naa isn’t the only beneﬁciary of this innovative idea, Adwoa a banker-turned-housewife said she had to quit her job in the banking sector to raise her 3 children but found her new life quite boring when they left for school.
Her routine surﬁng on the World Wide Web for hobbies and ideas to cure her boredom directed her to the Instagram page of Velma’s Academy.
There she found a new source of inspiration and brought meaning back into her rather mundane life.
“I was on the internet just searching for things I could do when I found the academy and I knew immediately that it was something I wanted to do,” Adwoa quipped
She reached out to the academy and the rest as they say is history.
A unique school with a creative vision
Principal and founder of the Academy, Velma Owusu-Bempah is a woman who has creativity and skills at the core of her being.
Born into a family of creative geniuses, Velma began her career as an administrator for her mum’s fabric business, Sarah’s Fabric shelving a Bachelor of Science degree in marketing from the University of Ghana.
With advice and encouragement from her mother who noticed her penchant for creating intricate pieces with leftover fabrics and jewellery, the award-winning milliner applied to the Central St Martins College in London and trained under the tutelage of some of fashion’s most renowned instructors.
In 2018, she started what has now become the Velma’s Academy after several years in the industry and receiving wide-acclaim including the tag as “Africa’s Queen of Hats and Accessories”.
“When I began my career back in 2004, there were close to no accessories designers in the industry and ﬁnding support, as well as mentorship in the industry, was a tough hoe to row,” she revealed
“The idea to start an academy that would not only train but revolutionise Africa’s creative space came to me in 2018 after I launched my Velma’s Garden collection and I noticed that the lack of competent craftsmanship was holding us back from achieving so much”
The academy was designed to cater for the numerous people who had reached via social media and in-person expressing interest in learning the art of millinery.
It ﬁrst began with 4 students including Naa who were trained in several courses including hat-making, bridal millinery and leather craftsmanship.
From the beginning, Velma and her team had plans of expanding the academy’s courses to cover other ﬁelds including jewellery, branding and arts which would meet international standards.
“I had just returned from showcasing alongside another industry great, Ophelia Crossland in Dubai and I knew I couldn’t do it all by myself. Ghana and Africa could far if we trained more people and impacted them with relevant skills”
However, she did not just want to create a replica of any European academy but a unique institution that catered to the creative and economic needs of Africans.
“Our commitment to education and investing in the next generation is a means to an end where the socio-economic development of today’s youth is highlighted to bridge the gap in youth unemployment,” she explained.
This commitment is fuelling the next phase of the academy where entrants will be trained by experts with a well-tailored curriculum in business management, surface ornamentation, illustration, sketching, bag making and jewellery design.
Students of all backgrounds are encouraged to apply to study with the renowned academy but the principal has one rule, “You need to have the passion for creating.”
This she explains was because, without passion, it’ll be extremely difﬁcult to learn and create most of the work which was very practical and needed you to fully focus.
“In the past students have mostly included women from all walks of lives including bankers, nursing mothers, housewives, business executives, other milliners and many others from the West African sub-region but what pushed them to succeed was the innate passion,” she pointed out
An Innovative New Space for the New Normal
As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing aftereffects, businesses and institutions are also ﬁnding creative solutions to stay ahead of the curb in the new normal
Velma’s Academy is one of such institutions that are meeting the challenges of the pandemic with creative ideas including a new and improved classroom space.
“Social Distancing and Virtual are two of the terms that have come to be associated with the new normal and for us, it offers the opportunity to create an experience that ﬁts the situation hence the renovation of our classroom,” Velma tells us.
Located on the second ﬂoor of the Sarah’s Fabric Building on the Osu Oxford Street, the new space where classes will begin from the 16th August to 26th October, 2021, wooden cubicles have been constructed to enforce social distancing requirements along with an environmentally-friendly interior decor that comprises clean wall painting, potted plants, aesthetic lights, handcrafted portraits and direct access to sunlight and air.
“We wanted something that will speak to what the new curriculum is about so we redesigned our space with artefacts and ideas that have a link to what we are teaching… You have no option but to be inspired when you enter the academy,” she said.
Reinvesting in the community
In 2019, Velma’s Academy partnered with the Fair Justice Initiative to train two separate cohorts of female prison inmates in millinery and fascinator making as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility.
The goal of the initiative is to tackle the rate of recidivism in Ghana’s prison system by imparting inmates with relevant economic skills for the job market.
A plethora of the inmates have since served their sentence and started business in several of the ﬁelds they were trained including soap making, jewellery, batik-making and millinery.
Two years down the line the academy is redeﬁning this initiative by reinvesting in the community through its scholarship program. The program will see a scholarship board select an underprivileged student to take part in the academy’s courses tuition-free.
“A society that does not take care of the less privileged is not an equitable society thus we are extending a helping hand to an individual with an inspiring story who would like to learn from our academy for free,” Velma said.
After the 2019 initiative, the Academy also partnered with the Africa Foundation and other designers to train head porters popularly known as “Kayayei” in millinery and beading.
Roberta Annan, founder of the Foundation called the project a “thriving success that should be emulated by all.”
The collection was showcased at the Glitz Fashion Week and retailed at a leading fashion concept store, The Lotte in 2020.
“Philanthropy and mentorship is a key feature in our academy and we’re constantly ﬁnding sustainable means to perfect this initiative which has given us experience in providing the necessary support to each beneﬁciary,” she highlighted.
For Naa, Adwoa and Tomie Hats, a milliner from Nigeria who attended the classes in the past, the experience and skills acquired at Velma’s Academy is priceless.
“Today, I am a proud milliner because I attended the academy which changed the trajectory of my life for good, ” says Naa, who is looking forward to attending a masterclass in the new academy to update her knowledge.
For Adwoa, she is positive this is a class she’ll sign any housewife in the city for.
“If I had to do it again, I’ll do it without batting an eyelid because here I found a renewed sense of life, and a steady source of income,” she says proudly