When my mother founded a shea butter manufacturing company in Ghana in 1999, she had never heard the term “double bottom line.” She did, however, know that if she was going to succeed in business, she wanted to do so in an ethical manner. By partnering with pickers from female cooperatives, paying them above-market prices, and offering organic and financial training, she was able to ensure that her community thrived along with her business. Her decades of experience inspired me to start my own finished products line last year: Eu’Genia Shea.
As I pore through her life’s work applying lessons learned and trying to avoid mistakes already made, one point shines through brightly: good intentions do not always yield good results. Hopefully, some of these points will be helpful to others who aim to make mutually beneficial business partnerships in rural developing communities.
You know yourself, you understand your motives, and without a doubt, your heart is in the right place. But even if you are native to the country/region/community, how can others be assured of this goodwill, if they do not know you? SNV is a Swiss nonprofit dedicated to to “creating effective solutions with local impact” in this case facilitating savings. They entered Damongo, Ghana with speeches and promises, but without any connections. The cooperatives with which we work were understandably wary. How many times have they encountered non-profits who raised their hopes only to disappear, or worse yet, people claiming to have their best interests in mind, only to cheat them? They sent the confused SNV away, SNV came to my mother to explain their mission, my mother spoke on their behalf, and now SNV is a valued contributor to these cooperatives. Bottom line: understand the legacy of the community and approach accordingly, whether through an intermediary or through years of proving yourself (which takes a bit longer, but Mom can confirm it works!)
There are thousands of aid organizations flooding millions of dollars into poor communities globally. Most of them have good intentions, but their money still goes to waste. For example, on one visit to our facilities in Damango, Mom occasionally saw workers without shoes. As a westerner, or a native with a westerner’s perspective, this is jarring for a number of reasons, not least of all because of the safety implications. She spoke with the women and made a point of purchasing shoes for all of the workers on her next trip to the US to ensure that no one was left unprotected. Upon her return, some women again were not wearing shoes. When she inquired about it, she discovered two things: some husbands were absconding with their wives’ shoes and some women found maneuvering difficult in the new shoes. Had my mom taken the time to dig a little deeper originally, she would have found that buying local shoes closely fitting each woman would have helped solve both problems.
Encourage them to maintain assets
Now you’re partnering with a community whose needs you understand and are able to address. You’ve suggested ideas and implemented technology where appropriate; they’ve told you why half of your bright ideas aren’t quite so bright, and everything is moving along swimmingly. It’s come time to leave them for a couple weeks, months, or years… Before you leave operations in their hands, make sure you’ve given them the tools and know-how to maintain (and how often to maintain) any machinery you’ve introduced. The once shiny, now corroded Japan Motorbike rusting by our plot is a great example of something that made life easy for a couple months before falling into disrepair.
Choose the right customers
You’re running a business not a charity. On one end you have Bill Gates circa Microsoft and on the other, Bill Gates circa the Bill & Melinda Foundation. You don’t have to be either extreme, but what you do have to do is make enough money to keep yourself afloat and to continue the work you’re doing. If social impact causes your products to be slightly more expensive than competitors, find the customers who care. And make sure your product is worth it! At Eu’Genia Shea, not only do we pay above market wages, provide training, and give 15% of our profits back to our workers, our longevity in the industry helps ensure our products are always of the highest quality. Our customers get expertly moisturized skin, our partners make a good living, and we get to keep on doing what we love — win/win!
Your aim is to do great things, so be open about it. Maybe you’re not doing quite as much as you’d like yet. For example, 15% of profits covers some of the tuition costs of our worker’s children, but not all. I’d love Eu’Genia to be able to give all the children in our communities a free education. I’d love to provide all past and future workers with a pension when they retire. I’d love to offer free daycare to workers whose children are below school age. The reality, however, is that I’m not in a position to do any of this yet. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try though. Along the way, I’m sure I’ll make mistakes. But my mistakes can be learning points for me and other entrepreneurs like me. Being transparent about our goals and processes not only allows others to give us valuable feedback, but also supports the growth of all enterprises looking to make an impact.
We live in a big and complicated world with many societal issues I’ve never heard of let alone understand. If those who are able can contribute to endeavoring to improve the landscape they know best, our actions will magnify each other’s. I’m excited to be a small part of this effort.