Braima Dama James is an entrepreneur in Sierra Leone. His business, Salone Foods, sells bottled water and food to the people of Freetown. Though the economy crashed during the Ebola epidemic, he sees a bright future for entrepreneurship. “We need to get our product to the people”, he says.
Braima Dama James and his son Hinga, who will soon follow him up as CEO of the Aqua Clean water factory in Freetown, call in on Skype. It’s Friday afternoon and they sound cheerful: “Hello from Sierra Leone!” No wonder perhaps, now their business is slowly picking up speed after the Ebola crisis of the past year and a half.
“Ebola hit everybody,” Mr. James explains. “And water business in particular. The area where we source the water was severely hit, so we had to shut down our factory for some time. Nobody could touch our products anymore.”
But that’s all past. “We are now in the post-recovery stage. If we go by government figures, the Sierra Leonean economy is picking up already. Some investments were lost, that’s right – but you cannot blame that all on Ebola. Maybe people were just doing bad business.”
SME business training
Himself, he has learned a lot about doing business the right way, as he followed a half-year business development training course provided by Cordaid. Cordaid selects Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) that have a proven growth potential and which add value and social and/ or economic impact. Through the trainings, SMEs can build their capacities and become investment-ready.
“Next to the usual courses, we were connected to consultants for financial issues and a marketing expert for business strategy,” Braima tells. “It was about understanding the business environment; what we need to do better than we were doing before.”
Simple business advice
Simple business advice can be very helpful. For example: “The marketing expert advised us to make a website and a Facebook page. It’s nice to make some good noise about your products.” Making their business better known among the general public, not just in Freetown but also outside, is now one of the key aims for the upcoming months. “We are going to do radio ads and hand out leaflets to the customers.”
One of the other issues identified was record-keeping. “Of sales coming in and expenditures, doing cost accounting and putting some financial tools in place. And what we discussed with Cordaid was that we need to stock a two months’ supply of raw materials. People tend to buy on credit and not pay within the month. So if we would be buying the raw materials like we used to, one month liquidity is not going to help us at all.”
He concludes: “I think in general, the business development training was very useful. Everybody talked to us in terms of doing business properly, when given the opportunity, not just doing ad hoc business like we used to.”
Not just about quality of produce
It’s not only the quality of produce that matters, says Braima James. “We handle that very well. What makes the difference is your distribution network. You see, our vehicles were all battered and broken. We need to review that aspect!” He laughs.
They’re hoping to use a loan through Cordaid’s Stability Impact Fund to replace the vehicles. “We want to get the bottles to the people. No longer just focusing on the Freetown market, where every consumer already has their favorite brand of water, but working on our plants in the provinces. And therefore we have to carry the products to them.”
Access to finance
One of the major issues for entrepreneurs in post-conflict and post-ebola Sierra Leone is access to finance. It’s hard getting a long-term investment from the banks. “Local banks are not really the best place to go. They give you a loan, but at the end of the month you have to pay back. You can’t accomplish anything in one month. For example, if you ask for overdraft, they keep on putting all kinds of stumbling blocks in your way.”
“On the other hand, the microfinance institutions (MFIs) only give out small amounts of money. So you really cannot rely on them if you want to do business and compete with the so-called big boys in water business.”
Cordaid’s Stability Impact Fund offers an alternative to the banks and MFIs. Braima is happy with it: “What is good about Cordaid, is that it’s spread out over a long time, like five to seven years. They also give you a grace period of one year and a half, in which you just pay the interest and not the actual loan. This way, you have time to build up capital.”
Ambition: expanding markets
Though being an entrepreneur in Sierra Leone is tough at times – with lack of electricity, broken cars, high fuel prices, and customers always demanding a lower price – Braima and Hinga James look forward to expanding their business.
“I believe that the future is bright for us. Because it’s mostly quality issues that we have to deal with. Even as it is now, we manage to be competitive. For SMEs, what we really require in addition to finance is looking where the markets are. For example the food products we are dealing in, all SMEs look at consumer food products. Sierra Leone itself cannot absorb all of it. We are looking at markets that would be available outside; maybe Europe or the US... That would really be the game changer for most of us in the food business.”