My first 20 years as a social entrepreneur in Ghana

Written by Comfort Aku Adjahoe-Jennings, mentee with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Wome

Why did I start my business? To meet a demand, satisfy a need, make a living and create jobs.

Over 20 years ago, I started out as an assistant to a bead designer, from whom I developed the interest in designing and producing beaded jewellery. I began to work independently by repairing necklaces for people. This enabled me to raise my start-up capital. I used the small fees I collected to buy the basic tools and materials to start making necklaces to supply the local craft shops in Accra. I reinvested any sales into raw materials to produce more necklaces and started to exhibit at bazaars for greater exposure.

This experience helped me to get a job in one of the largest art galleries in Accra as their bead designer. My creativity shot up and I used my first salary to register my company, Ele Agbe (Ele Agbe means “God is alive”). Registering Ele Agbe provided me with my drive to overcome challenges. After two years and the priceless experience I gained at the art gallery, I resigned and rented a shop to focus on my own business full time.

I became more and more passionate about helping rural women to promote their products, get a fair price and keep busy so they can have continual or sustainable income to support their families

After focusing on beads and handicrafts, I used my last $400 to launch a range of Shea butter products. I saw this as an opportunity to promote and support women who gather the Shea nuts and process it into butter. Women in Ghana harvest the Shea nut by foraging for fallen fruit from trees and boiling, drying, grinding and processing it. This provides an important source of income for women and their families, but it is very hard work and some women don’t get a fair price.

My work with Shea-gatherers led to a relationship with the West African Trade Hub (a USAID project). They provided me with technical support and a market link with fair trade buyers. One of these companies, Ten Thousand Villages, worked with me to develop a Shea product for them which they continue to buy from me to date. I was also able to expand to other retailers in the US, Ghana, Japan and the UK.

I worked to build my company and create profit-sharing rural and urban communities of production and marketing. I have always reinvested my profits back into the business and I have a dream to grow my business so it is among the top businesses in Ghana and to make a name that will stand out.

Unfortunately, my main challenge is that the local banks are not interested in supporting small, growing businesses. Apart from the lack of support from the banks, the interest rate is high. Even if you were to get a loan, you would not be able to work with it. I’ve also faced challenges with finding equipment for quality production, packaging, the costs of certifications, promoting our products and finding an enabling environment.

Mentoring is very important in every entrepreneur’s life and helps to work around challenges like these. I’ve had a few mentors along the way. I started with a mentor who is an accountant who helped me to organise my yearly accounts. My second mentor helped me to master product development and the value chain. They both contributed to the growth of my business.

Through my involvement with the US Department of State’s African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, I was invited to become a Cherie Blair Foundation Mentee in 2012. I saw this as an opportunity to work on raising the profile of Shea products and increasing awareness of my brand.

In June 2012, I started working with Sally, a director in a communications business and a PR consultant from the UK. When you have someone to chat with every two weeks it provides a challenge to get something done to talk about. Having a mentor is like a spotlight on you, so I keep working hard to give positive results!

I gained an understanding of how to build my brand from Sally. I was able to re-brand my products so they have international appeal, create a new logo and open up my new shop, The Shea Shop. This past March, I finished building a new factory to produce my products. To mark the company’s 18 years, I’m working on developing new labels, more products and my business plan.

This very programme is like a big family beyond two people, unlimited sharing of ideas and challenges and rich experiences. The online community helped me build my networks and make contacts. One monthly webinar on branding really opened my eyes and inspired me to make sure my new factory was well-branded. I chose outdoor colours, the Ele Agbe logo and the name for the factory and everyone loves it!

During my time in the programme, I was able to achieve my business goals, work on my brand and website, expand my product line, increase my sales and make investments in my business. Setting goals helped me to work harder, kept me focused and gave me the perseverance to complete it.

Today, Ele Agbe is working with over 300 producers across the country, including women-led Shea processing cooperatives and over 5,000 Shea nut pickers. At Ele Agbe, artisans pass on their skills to the younger generations. We conduct workshops for schools and groups and accept apprentices from the whole of Ghana. The company’s bead producers use high-level skills and materials to produce one-of-a-kind beads. Seeing this all come together, I was so excited like a mother seeing her child in school the first time among other children getting an exposure to social life.

In five years, I want Ele Agbe to be a brand leader in Ghana and to be marketing under our brand name in international markets. I also want us to move to our permanent property with a spa and a range of products. As the population grows, so the demands and needs increase. Employment is a big issue as the educated youths are waiting to gain employment rather than creating one for themselves to employ others. It is about time for us to tell our stories and still be around to encourage and lead them to take over from us.