Another Day in the Life of….
Written by Balloon Ghana Fellow JJ Slater
Trying, testing and validating
The day starts (early) with Bennett.Bennett is a Biochemical Sciences student
at the University of Cape Coast and is a passionate producer (and consumer) of Tom Brown porridge; a steaming, viscous soup of ground maize, rice and other secret ingredients.
We are meeting him at the science block to conduct a 3rd round of testing – selling hot, ready-to-eat Tom Brown, with a selection of additional toppings; our attempt to modernise this very traditional Ghanaian breakfast. We call it “Ben’s Brown”.
We choose a shady spot near the reliably busy taxi rank/market area, with plenty of lecture-bound footfall. The purpose of today’s test is to prove that Bennett can sell on his own – previous tests have been positively-skewed by the team and I roaming the campus and practically force-feeding the students and staff.
We help Bennett set up his table, replete with his newly acquired 15-Litre Thermos, Tupperware trays brimming with toppings and a shiny, new sign declaring his wares and legitimising his presence.
We leave Bennett to start his two hour stretch of selling, and ensconce ourselves in one of the many outdoor “study huts”, far enough away to legitimise the premise of the test, but close enough keep a beady eye on proceedings.
Despite the consistent traffic, service starts slow and remains that way for the full two hours – Bennett is visibly dejected and steals himself away to lectures before we have a chance to debrief.
Selam and Vania remain on campus whilst I find the nearest taxi and get in, being careful to avoid all sharp edges. Taxis drivers in Cape Coast employ the obvious pricing strategy of “I saw you coming, foreigner”, so to avoid the boring haggle games I choose a car brimming with locals and an advertised terminus, this guarantees a more utilitarian “everyone pays the same” approach.
I’m heading back to see Samuel, another of our entrepreneurs who lives and works in Cape Coast town proper. We are heading into town to take some photographs of well-known landmarks and vistas. Samuel plans to use his editing and printing skills (he is a full-time graphic designer at the local printing press) to enter the Cape Coast postcard market, currently monopolised by dreadfully flaky post-war photographs and cheesy slogans.
We took photos for an hour or so, or to use my arguably more efficient unit of measurement: what percentage of my t-shirt has darkened with sweat and coagulated into my pits.
My next stop is one of comfort and consistency – a fresh fruit salad from the best fruit stall in town. I take it to a sunny spot and inhale it before the flies can get to it.
Identifying new ways of doing
I meet Vania and Selam back at the hotel and we have a Bennett debrief, concluding that his product and selling technique are not enough to draw in customers, especially when operating from a stationary position. We WhatsApp him and suggest a new tactic to try the following morning – selling in the busy taxi rank, car-to-car.
Our final meeting of the day is with Matthew, another graphic designer and close colleague of Samuel. Working with co-workers has proved challenging, owed not to any outright competitiveness between them, but due to the similarity of their aspirations and ambitions. We floated the idea of collaboration of course, but this was met with surprised confusion. It was clear that neither were comfortable entering into a partnership, perhaps the idea of starting a business with a friend or colleague is not endemic to the region.
Matthew has an accomplished portfolio of designs, commissioned-works and samples but has historically sold himself as a Jack of all trades. We thought it beneficial for him to specialise to a particular segment of what is a highly-saturated graphic design market (Cape Coast has several, very well established graphic design shops) – we landed on the idea of wedding invitations. We spent the next hour or so discussing the importance of building partnerships with churches and other wedding providers as a means to getting and retaining a steady flow of customers. We left Matthew, to get back to the hotel for the 7:00pm supper, this meal being one of the unwavering consistencies of the program; a reference point to base ones day around.
I arrived in Ghana with a collection of preconceptions and expectations about both the programme and the country itself. I naively expected to arrive to well-established businesses – businesses that we could enhance, improve and polish. The reality – as is so often the case – was the opposite; it was messy, piecemeal and incredibly frustrating. It was also very satisfying and stimulating, particularly watching the change in the entrepreneurs’ demeanours and confidence levels as the programme progressed.
My perceptions of the country also changed considerably throughout the process. Ghana is dominated by small business – the hawkers; the market traders; the neighbours selling identical sundries – and I assumed that this informal economy is formed solely out of necessity, not so, for many there is an inherent desire to work for oneself, to have link to the community; to serve it. I learned a lot from these people and it has ignited in me a passion for investing in business models that benefit low-income communities in emerging markets.