Every time I go to Africa, I tend to leave with a sense of despair because of the many issues that need to be tackled and the few resources available. My visits are always followed by a few weeks of feelings of depression, guilt and melancholy. My most recent trips with the U.N. were purely technical, as I was implementing Oracle in all the regional and sub-regional offices. So I tried my best to just focus on the job at hand and not get too emotionally involved. When I was invited by One to represent Babble on the trip to Ghana, I jumped at the opportunity. After I said yes though, all my fears came back. Was I ever wrong! For the first time, I returned from Africa with an immense sense of real hope.
On our very first day in Ghana, we met a couple of women entrepreneurs. One was Josephine, C.E.O. of her company, Tekura. With the amazing help of UNAID, Josephine is able to compete with big vendors who provide large orders of native wood furniture, accessories and other such products to Pier1 Imports, Home Goods, Target and many other retail stores U.S. shoppers use on a regular basis. Once Tekura receives an order, it uses it to open a line of credit. Then, when the order is filled and Tekura is paid, Josephine is able to repay the loan and retain the balance as her company’s profit.
Josephine employs over 60 staff members in her primary manufacturing site. She has state-of-the-art machinery to work the wood and increase her production without sacrificing quality. Most of the staff are women who proudly support their families. Josephine buys wood from 150 self-employed women in rural areas. These women also are able to support their families because of Tekura. Imagine the impact one successful company can have!
Despite the help provided to Tekura by UNAID, nobody is handing anything free to Josephine. On the contrary, Josephine has needed to come up with ways to stand out from her competition. The keys to the success of her company, she told us, are the unique designs of her products. In fact, if you see some of the stools and bowls from her catalogue, you can’t help but want them all in your kitchen. Josephine knows of all the important trade shows, and attends those she can afford to get to. She is planning to start a marketing campaign, she is working on a five-year strategic plan, and is in the process of training more staff in order to achieve her goal next year of $3 million in sales.
As a fellow entrepreneur, I know exactly how she thinks. I feel her pain, I share her ambitions, I go through the same struggles. We are equals. I was impressed by her professionalism and her sense of pride. She belies the common perception that African businesses are disorganized and fail to deliver. When you see her entire showroom piled with boxes and boxes ready to ship to Pier1 Imports, that perception is quickly shattered.
Josephine’s success makes me feel proud, for the first time, of how my taxes are spent for foreign aid! With an almost insignificant 1% of our tax revenues, UNAID is helping to develop a new face in Africa, one that gives you hope for the future of this overall very poor continent. I was also proud of the many American businesses that are giving African companies a chance to participate in the market with a competitive edge. The bloggers with us on the trip all agreed that these companies should take full advantage in their advertising of their arrangements with these vendors from depressed Africa and use this as a marketing tool. American consumers would no doubt be attracted to buy way more from a company that has a strong social conscience and supports sustainable development than from one that only seeks profits without caring where its products come from. I’ve always loved Pier1 Imports, but now I will become its most loyal customer!