The Great New App Providing #Hairspo For Black Women

Photo: Lauren Perlstein.
Just as Facebook is synonymous with connecting friends, three west African entrepreneurs want black women across the globe to think 'Tress' as soon as they think of their hair.

Be it a natural 'fro, a weave, braids or locks, Priscilla Hazel, Esther Olatunde and Cassandra Sarfo are working day and night so their app will be the first point of call when a black woman wants to try a new look, or show off the one she is already rocking.

Tress works to bring together what the three entrepreneurs call a "fragmented" industry, by getting black women to snap their latest do, upload it and tell other users how they can get the same look.

“When it comes to black women's hair, there is a lot of information that you need to know and things you need to do but it is very fragmented. Even though the industry is quite huge and there is a lot of money in it, there is no one platform that caters to their needs,” Olatunde explains.

The afro hair industry they are tapping into is worth billions of dollars. Market research firm Euromonitor International estimates that $1.1 billion of shampoos, relaxers and hair lotions were sold in South Africa, Nigeria and Cameroon alone in 2013. In the US, meanwhile, research found that sales in the afro haircare market in 2015 were an estimated $2.7 billion – and this figure didn't even include accessories like wigs, weaves and extensions.
Phito: Courtesy of @adonai_photos.
Esther Olatunde, Cassandra Sarfo, Priscilla Hazel
Sarfo, Olatunde and Hazel developed the app in Ghana, a middle-income nation of about 27 million people. Hazel, chief executive officer and Sarfo, chief product officer are both from Ghana while Olatunde, chief technology officer is from Nigeria. They met in Accra in 2014 while attending the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, which mentors aspiring technology entrepreneurs to set up globally successful companies that create wealth and jobs locally in Africa.

Tress came about after Sarfo asked the women in her class if anyone knew the name of a weave she wanted that she had seen online. The three, who were in their mid-20s, got thinking about how much time and effort they spent on their hair, looking for styles and asking strangers where they get theirs done.

“I stop people on the street sometimes to ask them where they do their hair, how much it costs or the name of the weave they use. Even my mum – who is in her 60s – she does it, she will take photos of the TV screen and ask where she can have it done. So it's something we do all the time but never thought of how we can use technology to solve it", Hazel tells Refinery29.

Together they canvassed more than 100 women from across the continent, asking them if they saw a hairstyle they liked, what were the top three questions they would want to ask about it. They narrowed this down to the name and location of the stylist or salon, the products used and the price range. This formed the base of the app.

In its first year, Tress has attracted more than 60,000 users from across Africa, as well as in the UK, US, Caribbean and Europe. It has tapped into a lucrative market with a massive consumer base, Hazel says.
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Photo: Courtesy of Tress.
“We are black women. We know how crazy we are about our hair. Hair is a big deal for us. I don't think there is a week that will go by when the topic of hair won't come up in a woman's conversation.”

Through the app, they have discovered that the relationship black women have with their hair is remarkably similar across the world, Olatunde adds. “It is interesting to see how global the idea of sharing hairstyles for black women is; the experience you have as a black woman outside Africa is almost literally the same as the experience you have with your hair in Africa.”

While it was originally created to help consumers, an added bonus which they are now exploring is getting salons and stylists more business. Using the app, Olatunde has found a salon way across from where she lives in the sprawling city of Accra, and she's not the only one: “We realised many of our users in Accra go there, the woman is really, really pleased with us – she is getting a lot of customers from us.” Other users are encouraging salons and stylists to sign up themselves, to promote their services.
Photo: Courtesy of Tress.
While the three are focused on creating an app that has worldwide appeal, they also want to prove that women can carve a space for themselves in the technology industry. Although the industry in Ghana is very male-dominated, there is an increasing number of women making their mark, Hazel says. And across the continent, young women are taking up careers as coders, IT managers and establishing tech-based start-ups, like Tress.

Hazel notes that both men and women are getting behind them: “People are doing very supportive things and are willing to help each other improve – there are a lot of WhatsApp groups and Facebook groups dedicated to helping.”

Sarfo particularly wants her experience to inspire girls to enter the technology industry. “I am always trying my best every single day. I want to enhance myself so that I encourage people and challenge people and ladies to put in their best and get into the tech space as well. It is a wonderful space to be in.”
Photo: Courtesy of Tress.
The future is looking bright for Tress. In 2016, it was selected as part of the Y Combinator Fellowship Program, which helps start-ups currently in their early stage. The program has previously worked with Airbnb, Dropbox, and Reddit.

Funds from the program have allowed the three women to work on the app full-time. Currently, they are focused on getting more users in the US and UK and, as part of that effort, are working on rolling it out for iOS. (The Android operating system is far more common across Africa.)

In five years' time, they want Tress to be as recognisable and useful as apps like Instagram and Facebook. As Olatunde puts it: “If you want to go and connect with your friends, Facebook is the place you go to. Instagram is if you want to check out nice photos. If you want to change your hair or connect with a stylist... we want Tress to be the platform you think of.”

Tress is currently only available for Android users; you can get it here.
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