Stories from Africa: It’s Where You Find Opportunity

By Gregory Pings, manager of Content Marketing for Xerox

Ursula Burns and Laura Akunga
Laura Akunga (right) visited with Xerox CEO Ursula Burns (left), and other executives, courtesy of the Fortune/U.S. State Department Mentoring Partnership. This program provides young women from the developing world the opportunity to meet senior leaders at U.S. corporations, and enter into mentoring relationships.

Africa is Misunderstood. The problem, says Laura Akunga, is that not enough Africans tell their stories.

Laura Akunga is in the business of arranging affordable debt for governments, big businesses, and banks. Her mantra: Transforming Africa, one business at a time.

Approaching her 29th birthday, this Millennial has 17 years of entrepreneurial experience under her belt. Currently CEO of Benchmark Solutions in Nairobi, Kenya, Laura regularly rubs elbows with Fortune 1000 executives and heads of state. Two essential stories that she tells about herself show how she got her start.

Lessons on the Farm

Her father’s farm was well-appointed with cattle, goats and chickens. The livestock easily defined her father as a man of means – an important point in their community — but the animals did not contribute any income.

“We produced 100 liters of milk every day, but we might as well have bathed it in it,” Laura recalled. “What we didn’t drink, we gave away or threw away.”

Since her father earned a satisfactory salary, Laura’s parents did not recognize the need to make money from the livestock. Nevertheless, with her parents’ permission, 12-year old Laura Akunga learned how to make value-added dairy products – cheese, yogurt, buttermilk.

She sold these products to neighbors, then secured local markets. She learned about capital equipment (milking machines), hiring, paying and training staff (starting with her siblings) as well as price points and profit margins.

And she expanded her offerings to fertilizer.

“We had a lot of manure.” (She didn’t say it quite that way.) “I constructed a sieve, which produced a very fine grade, and packaged it in gunny bags.” Laura sold the fertilizer to her neighbors for their lawns and gardens.

“My parents joked that I put my brothers and sisters through primary school,” she recalled.

Lessons in the City

While studying finance at the U.S. International University in Nairobi, Laura found a job that paid well, but it was the same thing each day.

“I was bored. The job offered no room for creativity or innovation,” Laura recalled.

So she and a friend decided to start their own business. They had no idea what to name the business, much less what the business would do. Making up the business plan as they went along, they settled on marketing services –printing logos and messages on pens, pencils, shirts – you name it.

They had a few (ahem) minor problems: No customers, no production facilities, and no office space. A list of print shops that could fulfill their orders checked the second-most urgent need off their list.

As to their most urgent need, after months of fruitless cold calls at various companies, Laura found herself in a reception area, during the lunch hour, waiting for employees to return. The CEO happened by and asked if she was being helped. Laura made her pitch, and walked out with a proposal to print a logo on tire covers.  She knew what her customer was willing to pay and how many he would buy, but Laura had no idea how much it would cost to produce or how long it would take. But she did not admit to the latter points.

A mad dash across town, sample in hand. A conversation with a printer secured a promise to fulfill her order. Another mad dash back across town to close the deal. This vignette ends with Laura crying on the curb outside her new customer’s building – with her very first order and a $3,000 cash deposit in hand. She had gained the trust of a good customer, and her business got the boost it needed.

Laura tells many more stories about how she went to where the customers needed her, followed opportunity, learned quickly and implemented quicker. The story about her near-death experience, and long recovery, punctuates her lesson about good corporate governance and empowered employees.

More Africans should tell their stories. And more westerners should listen to them. It’s where you find opportunity – and hope.

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