Liberian entrepreneurs build South African networks

Business ties between South Africa and Liberia received a boost after the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship brought in and trained 15 businesspeople from the West African country in May this year. (Image: Virgin Tribe South Africa)

• Gavin Meiring
Marketing and communications manager
Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship
+27 11 403 0622

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When the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, ran a course for 15 Liberian businesspeople, the most valuable thing they gained was not the knowledge imparted by the facilitators, but the connections they made with one another.

This was according to the centre’s chief executive, Jane Rankin, who had overseen the programme when it ran in May this year. It was the first time the centre had accepted entrepreneurs from another country in Africa. And for the organisers, this decision has boosted business ties between South Africa and Liberia.

The entrepreneurs were put through the foundation course, which covered fundamentals such as accounting and business planning. Though these sound like subjects out of a university curriculum, which goes against Sir Richard Branson’s eccentric way of doing business, the centre’s spokesperson, Gavin Meiring, says the approach is “truly Virgin”. “Entrepreneurs are taught the art and science of breaking the rules to capture the imagination of customers and investors alike.”

Participants were encouraged to be sociable and network with one another. “They now collaborate a lot to deliver on their projects. And since some of them don’t have cash, they barter their skills with one another.”

The foundation course usually takes up to six weeks, with students attending class once a week. But it was crammed into five days for the Liberian to attend in a single week. Apart from the course work, guest speakers such as entrepreneur Paul Smith; former chief operating officer of Accenture South Africa, Clive Butkow; and executive director of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s African Leadership Initiative, Tracey Webster, gave tips and spoke of their life experiences.

Preparing for global marketplace

In September 2013, at the annual Liberia Foundations Meeting held in New York, Branson and the founder of American charity Humanity United, Pam Omidyar, announced that they would partner in an initiative that would prepare Liberian entrepreneurs for success in the international marketplace. The centre in Johannesburg was immediately put forward as the place where they would be tutored, and Omidyar’s organisation agreed to fund the course.

Humanity United is dedicated to building peace and advancing human freedom. It also, according to Rankin, is instrumental in helping entrepreneurs in post-conflict countries. Liberia had been through two civil wars between 1989 and 2003 with an estimated 520 000 killed.

Along with Virgin Unite, a charitable arm of the Virgin group, officials from the centre went to Liberia to recruit a facilitator on the ground to select 15 entrepreneurs who would participate in the course. The programme manager from the University of Liberia in Monrovia, Wilson Idahor, says the entrepreneurs were identified by means of a print media campaign. “Approximately 250 applications were received. After interviewing the shortlist of 25 applicants, 15 were chosen.”

These included agricultural supply chain management company Agro, paper product manufacturer Elohim Printers Incorporated, and food caterers Big Treat Enterprise.

Those chosen already had established businesses, which presented a problem for the centre. Rankin believes the course might not have as huge an impact on the entrepreneurs as she had hoped it would. “We were not directly involved in the selection and that was the problem. I think the chances of us impacting these businesses are not great. I think it opened their minds to be here, but we were dealing with established entrepreneurs. I would have preferred entrepreneurs at a much earlier stage.”

After finishing the foundation course, the entrepreneurs returned to Liberia where they have to draw up a business plan. “They have to complete a business plan to enter the advanced course. We have to also see some change in their business since they did the foundation course to enter the advanced course. So they should have grown revenue or grown in terms of employees.”

Those who accepted for the advanced course will return to the centre in October.

Entrepreneurship addressing social challenges

“Although Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world,” says Rankin, “its entrepreneurs are finding solutions that have the capacity to grow the economy and improve peoples’ lives in the future.”

These entrepreneurs have had to overcome the challenges of running formal businesses in Liberia. Rankin says that many of them have had to deal with things as they happen, without planning or preparation.

Geneva Garr, owner of clothing manufacturer Approved Wear Fashion House, started her business in 2005, soon after she graduated as a fashion designer from an academy in Ghana. But because of the conflict in her home country, she was unable to return home. She started putting her designs together on her front porch, which later grew into a shop. When the war ended in Liberia, she took her vision home and now employs up to 15 people.

Elfreda Mayson started Jola House, a textile company, in 2012 as a way to address social challenges facing post-war Liberia. Through her company, she looked to create a sustainable source of income for war-affected Liberian women. Today, a portion of the profits made are invested into the communities from where their employees come. One way of doing this is by recruiting and training women and girls from vulnerable communities.

Teaching entrepreneurship

In recent years, numerous business leaders in South Africa have been calling on schools to teach entrepreneurship. And though Rankin thinks it is a good idea to an extent, she is tentative when it comes to involving the Branson Centre. “I think you can open young people’s minds to the possibilities and the option of being an entrepreneur. You can show them how to look at opportunities and how to create solutions to social problems that in the end can turn into businesses.”

However, she says not enough is being done in schools to prepare pupils for life after school, whether for tertiary education or running their own businesses. Rankin adds that many South Africans are turning to entrepreneurship not because they want to but because they have to. Getting into tertiary institutions or finding a job is getting harder and out of desperation, they look to entrepreneurship as an alternative to making a living.

The problem with this, she says, is that these businesspeople are not getting the years of experience within a chosen industry, which is crucial to succeeding on their own. “They are basically opening a business in an industry they know nothing about. They have no network and no real understanding of that industry. It’s a huge barrier to making a success of their business.”

She suggests getting some work experience within an industry before venturing out because as running one’s own business is difficult without know-how. “It’s just going to be easier when you move into your own business. Your understanding of the industry and what it needs is going to be that much better rather going in and learning the hard way while trying to get a business off the ground.”

An additional problem is that entrepreneurs may have an idea and immediately think people will gravitate towards it. However, Rankin says these businesspeople are not doing the market assessment needed to find out whether their product or service is viable. “That kind of research is not happening. They start their business and don’t really know who they want to sell to.”

She acknowledges that there is no sure route to success as most entrepreneurs do not follow a conventional path, much like Branson did when he started his first student magazine at the age of 16 when he dropped out of school.

Expansion into Africa

With the success of the Liberian project, the centre realises it can have a huge impact on entrepreneurs in other African countries. “We are looking to expand into Africa. But for us to work with other countries we would need a partner. We would either have a similar model as the one with Liberia or we would go and train facilitators in that country to operate an organisation like ours.”

In addition, having been around for more than nine years, the Branson Centre is now looking to spread through South Africa. At present, it only accepts Gauteng residents because students have to attend the course every week.

The centre started out as the Branson School in 2005 when it was affiliated to Cida City Campus. Three years ago it became independent and moved to Braamfontein. Operating as a non-profit organisation, the centre recruits informal and formal businesspeople from previously disadvantaged backgrounds with the aim of helping them to run their businesses and access funds and international opportunities.

“Our focus isn’t turning everyone into the next Richard Branson, but our focus is to help them run the business more effectively. Really just giving the entrepreneurs the exposure they need.”