From snail farming to chocolate making, meat production and healthy lunches for Monrovia’s urban population, Liberia’s youth entrepreneurs competed strongly in UNDP Liberia’s inaugural Growth Accelerator Challenge, which aims to help proven businesses to scale up their operations through technical assistance, mentorship and co-financing.
Four of the five winning businesses were established and are being run by young people aged between 26 and 35 years. Each of these secured business development grants ranging between US$36,500 and US$40,000, amounting to about 81% of the US$194,750 grant funding awarded in December 2021.
The youth entrepreneurs beat stiff competition from 197 businesses that applied for the business grants when the program began on 27 August 2021. They were among 25 that met the growth challenge criteria, which required that they have a product or service on the market generating revenue.
An Independent Investment Committee composed of representatives from the Liberian Chamber of Commerce, the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, the Central Bank of Liberia, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and an independent business development consultant scrutinized the shortlisted enterprises. This Committee selected the 10 semi-finalists that demonstrated high likelihood to grow into profitable, sustainable entities, and make great social impact by creating employment and mentoring other young and upcoming businesses.
The 10 semi-finalists undertook intensive training on various facets of business planning and management in October and November 2021. They covered topics such as knowing your customers and your competitors; product innovation, production and distribution; product value and supply chains; sales and customer care.
In December 2021, all 10 semi-finalists pitched their businesses to a high-level six-person judging panel including Ecobank Liberia’s MD/CEO George Mensah-Asante, United Bank for Africa (UBA) Liberia MD/CEO Nkechi Joyce Arizor, and Liberia Chamber of Commerce President Cllr. Natu Oswald Tweh.
More than 90% of the businesses that took part in the business Growth Accelerator challenge identified access to finance as a key bottleneck, most of them revealing that they had so far built their businesses with grant financing and business development training offered by international development partners.
Here are the stories of the four winning youth businesses.
Jared K Lankah, 30, founded Nimba Venture in 2019 to address the perennial scarcity of snails during the dry season. While snails are a popular national delicacy, consumers typically rely on snails handpicked from forests during the wet season. This seasonality of supply presented a business opportunity for Jared.
“The supply of snails on the Liberian market has been scarce. Nimba Venture was established to breed snails that will supply the Liberian market all year round. The supply of snails is abundant during the rains but dwindles in the dry season when snails become expensive,” he says.
Two years on, he has demonstrated that the business is cost-effective and profitable, and wants to expand production. With the US$40,000 Growth Accelerator grant, he plans to purchase land in Montserrado County, where the capital city – Monrovia is located, to be close to his customers. He envisions tripling his employees by hiring 10 more to strengthen management of the snail farm, and the sales.
The business also seeks to provide employment and inspire the youth to take business as the surest way to employment. Liberia has a youthful population with 79 percent below 36 years, most of them eking a living from the occasional odd jobs. Nimba Venture is involved in training and mentoring some 75 youth to set up their own businesses.
While working for the World Food Program (WFP), Paul Wungko, 34, realized how precarious Liberia’s food security was. In 2016, he decided to start chicken and pig farming to boost national food self-sufficiency. He also produces animal feeds and plantain chips.
“We are heavily dependent on imported foods, which are produced in large quantities and are preserved for long periods of time losing taste and nutritive value. Starting a farm that is heavily into food processing will help improve food security and provide jobs for others,” he says.
Liberia imports 90 percent of the meat consumed in the country, which gave Paul a good sense of the market size and the enormity of the business opportunity therein. The country has a high but untapped agricultural potential that could spur economic growth, unlock numerous employment opportunities and deliver food security.
“It is against this backdrop that we’re trying to produce both meat and animal feeds locally to avail affordable products,” he says.
With the US$40,000 grant he won, he plans to upgrade his current operations by purchasing more food processing equipment, complete a cold storage facility, and acquire a tractor. He will also expand operations from Bong and Montserrado counties, to Grand Bassa, Marghibi and Nimba counties.
“Our prices are low and affordable. The idea is to make our product as affordable as ever. Our dream is to encourage Liberians to eat more locally grown meat by producing quality products that would be even better than imported products,” he says.
Joshua Zemah, 27, established Redimere Inc. in 2018 to help Liberia’s cocoa farmers earn better prices for their produce, and to teach them how to produce higher quality cocoa beans.
“I grew up under cocoa trees but had never tasted the end product until 2018, when I was in school. After my first taste, I knew I wanted to make this into a business so that Liberians could taste, make, and enjoy their own chocolate,” he says.
He wants to stop the export of jobs and incomes alongside unprocessed cocoa beans by locally processing and producing chocolate products; chocolate bars, cocoa powder, chocolate chips, brownie mix, chocolate liquor, nibs, and cocoa butter.
Through product diversification and placement in new outlets, the business doubled sales in 2020. The business will acquire industrial machinery required for creating a full-fledged chocolate factory such as a cocoa press, a melanger machine, a roasting machine, and a tempering machine with the US$40,000 business grant.
He envisions a vibrant cocoa sector in Liberia that creates economic value through jobs, income and training to help rebuild the country.
“Looking forward, we hope to work with many cocoa farmers in Liberia educating them to produce quality cocoa beans and process cocoa beans on-farm,” says Joshua.
Christollie Ade Suah, 30, established The Lunchbox in 2019. While the food services sector is saturated, Lunchbox distinguished itself as the go to place for authentic, affordable nutritious meals that blend traditional and continental cuisines in a healthy and creative way.
“I started this business because I identified the need for clean, nutritious and affordable meals for professionals working in Montserrado. A small survey revealed that many people were trying to make better food choices during lunchtime but the options available were limited,” says Christollie.
The choice for urban workers was either cheap local restaurants where food is saturated in palm oil, or the larger expensive food chains specializing in continental cuisine. “The goal is to make healthy eating super easy with healthy affordable products for customers,” she says.
The Lunchbox prepares, packages, sells or delivers meals, and caters for weddings and other events. The business has been on a growth trajectory uncovering new opportunities for business diversification. The company has signed its first partnership agreement with a corporate organisation to manage their staff canteen, and is looking to expand this line of business.
They are working on creating a restaurant management system in order to increase such partnerships, and to help small restaurants run efficiently by keeping track of their sales and expenses.
The Lunchbox secured a grant of US$36,500 in the just concluded UNDP Growth Accelerator Challenge, which will go towards standardizing the restaurant management system, investing in a mini-food processing and packaging plant, and building a mobile meal planning and ordering app.
The Growth Accelerator Liberia challenge is in partnership with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry with funding from UNDP Livelihood and Employment Programme.
iCampus Liberia in partnership with Accountability Lab Liberia, Growth Africa and Business Startup Center-Monrovia are implementing the programme.