I knew coming to Ghana was going to be a humbling experience. I was not wrong. My Ghanaian roommate just said this to me: “God doesn’t make mistakes.”
Two months ago, I found out I was selected as part of the Canadian delegation to Uniterra’s International Seminar of Women in Entrepreneurship. This Canadian initiative has as a mandate for youth entrepreneurs from different countries establish relationships, learn and cooperate with each other. The entire two-week programming was kept very secretive, and it wasn’t until a group of seven other Canadian business women arrived in Ghana’s capital, Accra, that we found out our mission and met 12 fellow Ghanaian female entrepreneurs.
Ghana is Africa’s largest producer of female-ran businesses. At an astounding 51%, the Ghanaian women are feisty, smart and very entrepreneurial. They go into business to create self-employment and provide for their families, however, as in many parts of the world, gender inequality and lack of venture capital is still a limiting factor in the success of their ventures.
I was paired with Margaret as my roommate – a 34-year-old mother of two who was born in Northern Ghana, known for its extreme poverty and health problems due to unsanitary conditions. She lost her father at the age 10 and, as it was customary in the North, she was taken away from her mother by her late father’s family and forced into domestic help for other family members living in the capital city of Accra. Margaret’s voice cracks every time she talks about her childhood – with a thick accent, she mentions many times “not good, not good – I suffered really bad.” Somehow, she managed to escape her confinement and went back to her mother – who as a widow, was not considered a ‘useful member of society.’ Living in poverty and not being able to provide for her daughter, Margaret lived her teen-age years homeless, hungry and education-less.
That seems a lifetime ago as she is standing in front of me practicing her business pitch we’ve been working on for the last few hours. As part of the International Seminar, the Ghanaian delegation can pitch at an investors conference at the end of the week. There are only four spots at the pitch competition. There are 12 Ghanaian delegates – only the four best cases will have the chance to compete for funding.
Margaret sighs and lets out a soft laugh as she remembers how she used to go to her local schools crying and begging the school mistresses to let her join school. “I did this for an entire year, at three different schools, every single day.” She was turned down every day as she did not have the money to pay for the costs associated with schooling. Eventually, one of the schools opened its doors to her.
Her business, Yada Company, is a social enterprise that produces household cleaning supplies. She trains and employs school dropout women in the North of Ghana, giving them skills to be self-sufficient and provide for their families. She also hopes that her cleaning supplies will help eradicate some preventable diseases in some of the poorest regions of the northern region. Her impressive sales numbers are due to her full-time taskforce of 20 at-risk youth. They travel by foot to hard-to-reach areas and make a healthy commission off their total sales. “This money helps their families. I also know they are working in a good job and out of trouble,” she says.
Her hips sway side to side and her nervousness makes her accent thicker, but she stands tall practicing her pitch in front of our room’s full-size mirror. “I get nervous and forget things,” she says apologetically.
As we were developing her pitch deck, I noticed she has trouble reading. I also noticed traces of dyslexia as she struggles to write and read numbers correctly. Despite all this, she’s adamant she wants to re-write the presentation deck in her notebook so she can remember everything. “You know, it takes me a bit longer, but I will do it,” she says determined. I can’t help to feel utter admiration.
She continues to go over her presentation, closing her eyes trying to remember her lines. As we broke down her numbers, they are quite impressive. At a net profit margin of an astounding 26%, her business is not only viable, but scalable, should she get the investment she requires to purchase a mixing machine to speed the existing hand-made process, as well as to purchase a van that would allow her sales team reach buyers during Ghana’s rainy season.
Her vision is to triple production and sales and in five-years; she wants to train 200 school dropouts and sponsor 30 “brilliant girls” to attend school. “I also want to buy them mattresses so they don’t have to sleep on the floor, under a tree like I did.”
“God doesn’t make mistakes,” she says again pointing proudly at the Power Point presentation we worked on together. “God put us in each other’s lives for a reason.”
He sure did, Margaret, and I am fortunate that he did.
*We will know later today if Margaret is one of the four selected to pitch at the big competition