African Fabric Meets Ecommerce In This UNC Student’s Startup

UNC Junior Francis Amponsah Jr. is using the $5,000 he received from UNC's Eship Scholar program and $1,000 from the Carolina Challenge Pitch Party to transform his mother's fabric business into an ecommerce site.

If the piles of Amazon boxes on doorsteps and shipping delays this holiday season were any indication, U.S. consumer spending on ecommerce exploded in 2020. Francis Amponsah Jr,. a UNC junior, is taking advantage of this trend by turning his family business into an ecommerce startup, MamaVero’s African Fabric.

With the $5,000 he received as a member of the UNC Eship Scholar cohort and another $1,000 for winning the Best Late Stage Non-social startup category in UNC’s Carolina Challenge Pitch Party, Amponsah is creating a website selling African fabrics using the ecommerce platform Shopify.

A few years ago, Amponsah’s mother, Veronica Amoah, started importing 6-yard pieces of African fabric in bulk. Word quickly spread throughout her church and the local Charlotte African community, causing a constant stream of customers in and out of the Amponsah household to buy hard-to-come-by cloth. 

Amponsah said he would help his mother sort and fold the thousands of pieces of cloth in the living room to get ready for the next batch of customers the next day. But, as is customary in African culture, Amponsah said when he saw a customer downstairs he was expected to greet them, which often resulted in him running upstairs to hide in his room. 

“It was getting a little annoying, so I just thought to myself one day, can’t we just put this online and fix this problem?” Amponsah said.

Amponsah said he does not foresee demand slowing anytime soon, thanks to the explosion of African culture in the past few years. 

Specifically, the release of Black Panther in 2018 led to a flurry of people with African heritage scrambling to the nearest African market in search of traditional cloth to wear in the theater so they could feel close to the motherland, Amponsah said. The explosion of tourism in countries like Nigeria and Ghana—which is where Amponsah was born—also speaks to the growing interest in African culture. 

However, African markets are primarily concentrated in the northern part of the U.S. and have limited variety, so most people who want authentic fabric have to wait until someone they know is going to Africa, Amponsah said. 

Even then, it’s not like asking someone to pick up milk at the grocery store. For each of the myriad of cloth types—kente, dashikis—there are countless design types to choose from.

Interest in African culture has exploded, leading to increased demand for authentic fabrics.

“A website where you can sort through all of them and get them shipped to you in one or two weeks would be really efficient,” he said, “especially for younger generations who are hesitant to ask an older family member to get cloth.”

The current online African fabric market is flooded with websites selling either flimsy imitations or authentic pieces at a sky-high price. The dutch wax fabric that Vero imports from a friend in Europe, however, is both authentic and more affordable, Amponsah said.

Two years ago, Amponsah started an Instagram page for the business, which he said not only made it more convenient for customers to place orders, but also helped gain access to younger generations. 

With the pandemic causing many people to shift towards online shopping, Amponsah has been spending his pandemic-extended winter break enhancing the Instagram page and teaching himself how to code using Shopify so he can launch a website by the end of January. 

“Something I hear that has me rushing to make the website is that every day online is like Black Friday, with ecommerce and quarantine,” Amponsah said.  

Amponsah’s plan for 2021 is to rebrand and set the mood of the company, using his background in graphic design. With the funding from the Eship Program and Carolina Pitch Party, he bought a camera to take product photos for the website, and he also plans to use the money to purchase custom wrapping, business cards, more fabric, and formalize the registration of the business.

In addition, Amponsah is brainstorming various advertising and marketing methods to get word out when the website officially launches. Shooting an advertising video and tapping into influential TikTok creators to showcase the fabric are some of his ideas.

“I want to get our name in a lot of people’s heads really quick,” Amponsah said.