Thank you for stopping in, particularly those of you coming here from the FInancial Times crowdsourcing article. Apologies for not updating the blog in a while. We’ve been very busy perfecting our product formulations and completing our re-branding. Next week we’ll be launching the new Harmonie website. I can only leave you with a teaser for now.
Unfortunately, because of Eid, none of the customs or shipping office were open (though they had answered my direct question of “Will they be open even though it is the day before Eid?” affirmatively).
Unfortunately 99% of formalities would amount to nothing at all, and I had visions of my packaged containers sitting forgotten in some corner of the compound for the foreseeable future.
After trying in vain to change my flight back to allow me to stay until Wednesday to sort out matter for myself, I made arrangements to have people manage the shipment in my absence.
Honestly, if I had written this post last night, it would have been more of a rant on the difficulties of working here. After taking last night to calm down, however, I’ve decided to focus on the amazing people who have helped me through this whole process, including those who offered to step in yesterday to make sure that the shipment still went through.
Since I’m the only one who currently blogs on our site, you might get the impression that it’s a one-woman show, but that is far from true. I haven’t mentioned specific names below, but you know who you are and I’m deeply in your debt.
First, my amazing family who have been so supportive of this in more ways than I can mention, ever since I first came to Chad four years ago and had the inklings of the idea for Sahara Botanicals.
My friend from grad school who was the country director of the NGO I stay at in Chad. I honestly have no idea how I would have gotten back here last year without his help.
The women in Goré whose commitment to improving their lives and the lives of their children inspires me to work as hard as I possible can.
My New Venture Weekend team from the MBA program who helped kick-start Sahara Botanicals’ transformation into a real business, instead of just an idea.
My Entrepreneurial Project MBA team who spent many hours in (often windowless) rooms working out how to make Sahara Botanicals sustainable and quite possibly went slightly crazy in the process.
My Creative Director/business partner whose knowledge of all-natural products is boundless and whose support and commitment to this endeavor has been particularly vital.
The Emerge Venture Lab team and fellows who support and criticize where necessary.
The amazing supporters of Buzzbnk who financed this proof of concept trip. Also my classmates who rallied around the idea to make sure the campaign met its target.
The staff at the NGOs in Chad. First, their willingness to help with logistics information and implementation has been particularly important (we won’t have a shipment without them). Second, the amazing company of the wonderful team who break up the monotony of work with renditions of “Wash Your Hands (to prevent Cholera)” to the tune of “Eternal Flame” by the Bangles and “Oxfam” their version of the Police’s “Roxanne.”
I’ll keep you posted on the shipment, but for now I’m signing off from Chad.
Am I the only one who thinks of Gob’s magic tricks illusions from Arrested Development whenever I hear that song? Anyway.
It’s a fitting title to this post because it feels like I’m running out of time to get everything done before I head back to the UK.
Before I came here I had four main goals:
- Register the business with the Chadian government.
Status: Not Necessary (yet)
It turns our that I didn’t need to register the business in Chad (we’re already registered in the US) in order to start exporting. Also, since the registration needs to be renewed every year (and I won’t be back until the start of next year) it makes more sense to hold off on this and wait till next time. I do now have all the contacts lined up to help me with this when I do come back, so it should be a fairly painless process when it comes time.
- Make/buy as much shea butter as possible
There was both making and buying of shea butter in Goré. Given the limited time frame and the rainy weather (which doesn’t mix well with shea processing) I worked mainly with one women’s co-op to produce the shea, but we bought smaller batches from the surrounding women’s co-ops to supplement it. This is also good, because it sets the precedent so we can continue to work with them next time. Altogether I set a target of about 100 liters of shea butter and we ended up with a little over 90. Not bad.
- Coordinate about land rights
Status: Not Necessary (yet)
This is like the Chadian business registration. Since we don’t (yet) have the funding to come back and set up the orchard, I couldn’t really get into the nitty gritty of land acquisition. I did have some good meetings with the governor and mayor about what we were looking for and they both seem on board with the project. There will probably be more hiccups in the road to getting land rights solidified, but at least the beginning steps have been taken.
- Export the shea butter
What’s with the question mark? I knew that exporting the shea was not going to be as easy as sticking it in a few boxes and slapping some stamps on it, so I wanted to leave time back in N’Djamena to sort through all the paperwork and go through all the formalities. I figured a week would be good. In 7 days I should be able to get it done, right? I leave Chad late Tuesday night, so I’ll come back to N’Djamena the Wednesday beforehand. Sounded like a good plan.
Let’s see how that actually went.
Wednesday – Leave at 5am to drive 7 hours from Goré to N’Djamena, find gas (remember there’s a shortage) to refill the fuel tank, and find an ATM that works (third time’s a charm) so that you can pay the driver. This doesn’t sound like enough to fill up an entire day, but believe me, it is.
Thursday – Morning meeting at the Embassy rescheduled for the afternoon. Try to go to the market to buy cardboard boxes and tape for the shipment, but get stopped by the police who turn you away because the market is too crowded (Eid is approaching and the market is super busy). Afternoon meeting tells you that in order to export shea butter, you need:
1. A commercial invoice: already done (handwritten counts, right?)
2. A packing slip (easy enough to create, and they gave very clear guidelines of required content)
3. A warning label (same as above)
4. A certificate of origin
Contact the Ministry of Commerce for a certificate of origin. Director tells you that the Embassy supplies these but call back tomorrow. Driver agrees to go to the market for you to buy cardboard boxes. Create packing slip and warning label.
Friday – Call the Commerce Director who doesn’t answer. Try again, and again. Starting at 7am, wait for a driver to be available. At 11:45 one shows up and we load the shea to go to the Mister of Commerce in person to obtain the elusive certificate of origin. Arrive at the Ministry at 12:02pm to find that the offices closed at 12:00 (offices are typically shut on Friday afternoons so that people can go to mosque). Realize that Tuesday might be Eid so that everything will be closed and you now only have Monday to do it in.
Saturday and Sunday – It’s the weekend and none of the offices I needed to contact were open, which gave me time to catch up on schoolwork. Thankfully, by driver bought cardboard boxes. Unfortunately they were way too big for the containers so I have to cut them and refit them. This also meant brazing the market on the weekend before Eid to find packing tape.
So here we are on Sunday night with one very difficult to obtain puzzle piece still outstanding. My plan is to go to the Ministry at 7:30 in the morning and wait there until I get the Certificate, then head directly to the airport to send it out on their freight services.
Will it work? Do I really not need an export license? Will the not-very-secure-looking tape actually hold the boxes together?
Yesterday I left Chad and took a very short trip to US territory at the Embassy here in N’Djamena. It was my second trip to a US Embassy (the first to get extra pages added to my passport in Belmopan) and this trip proved super knowledgeable and helpful. I met with a commerce attaché who helped decipher some of the finer points of exporting from Chad to the US.
First, the good news: The Africa Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) is a US government import program that reduces or eliminates import duties on (mainly) agricultural products. African countries must meet criteria to qualify for the program and individual products have individual regulations. Shea nuts and shea butter are approved as tariff-free imports at least until 2020. What I was worried about was the mountains of paper and bureaucracy that I would have to wade through to get the AGOA approval, but it turns out all I needed was a certificate of origin proving the products came from Chad. Yay! I would also need an export license which takes only 72 hours to process. Thankfully, the attaché provided me the contact information of the office that could easily provide both. Score! After calling the office, I was told that for the small quantity that I am exporting this time, I don’t need an export license. Even better!
So now the bad news: That same office told me (over the phone) that it’s the US Embassy who issues the certificate of origin. In an effort to sort it out, I’m heading to the Commerce Ministry in person. I’ll report back on progress soon.
On Saturday Abdullah, my driver; Marie, President of the women’s group in Goré; Jacqueline, Treasurer; Alexis, who organizes the groups, and myself took a 13-hour drive to Koumra.
It’s a fairly large town about four hours away, where there is a women’s group, named Koffemak, who process shea butter for local sales. It was great for us to tour their facility and get their advice. They even had a small nursery for the shea trees.
The president of Koffemak took us to a town called Kem Kea, which means literally means “shea town” in Sar, the local language. It’s aptly named because I have never seen as many shea trees growing in one place before. There we were able to buy enough shea nuts to process into our target 100 liters of shea.
Check out the video of our time there. Apologies for the horrible quality, particularly the subtitles (any other resolution and the internet here wouldn’t support uploading it). When I get back to more reliable internet, I’l upload a better version and amend this post.
If you can’t read the subtitles, she’s explaining the song that they sang. It’s about how they are glad for Koffemak because now the women can take care of the children themselves (school, health, and food) where before they had to rely on their husbands – all thanks to shea nuts. I promise I didn’t prompt or plan for her to sing or say any of that, but it’s the perfect reason for starting Sahara Botanicals.
After bargaining in the local market for some of the other materials, we left for home. During the rainy season, unpaved roads have rain barriers which block traffic during and after rain. You’ll see one of the guardians proudly posed with his barrier in the photo on the left. The waiting period seems somewhat arbitrary so it’s difficult to predict how long the trip will be.
Unfortunately for us, it had been raining most of the afternoon. There are six barriers between the last paved road and Goré and we were already late, since travel at night can be problematic. We were stopped at one of the rain barriers behind two overladen pick up trucks and all of us got out to stretch our legs.
A small car came by and tried to pass the line of cars waiting at the barrier. We figured they must be government officials. Suddenly we heard a crunch and looked over. His side mirror had taken out our rear taillight and was now lying in the road.
The governor (that’s who I later found out it was) climbed out of the car, along with four heavily-armed members of the Chadian Army. It’s the kind of situation that had the potential to escalate quickly. I had already drawn a crowd when I got out of the car so perhaps the extra witnesses helped, but more people materialized out of nowhere. I shuffled towards the back, since I’ve never gotten comfortable having AK’s pointed at me and although Abdullah was upset, he calmy negotiated with them.
In the end one of the officers took the information of both cars and assured us that they would reimburse him for the costs. Before he left, the governor approached me and asked about what I was doing there which left me to give my elevator pitch in the middle of the road with about 100 onlookers. It made for an interesting Saturday night.
Sorry I haven’t posted in a while. Internet and electricity have been unreliable recently. In truth, though I’ve written and re-written this blog post many times (mainly with pen and paper) because every day, every hour, or even every minute brings a different mood with it.
Starting a business is difficult even in the best environment. Starting a business in one of the worst countries to do business adds an extra layer of complexity. Luckily I have a great network of very helpful and experienced people who recognize what I am trying to do and hep me as they can. With them, I’ve made more progress than I ever could alone. Unfortunately, even they can’t avoid some of the problems of working here.
This week, the typical 4.5 day work week was shortened to 2.5 days to celebrate the president’s birthday and Chad’s independence day, which meant that the NGO who was helping to introduce me to some more of the women’s groups here was only available one day. I filled in the time with extra meetings with the women’s group here in town (including the president Marie, pictured here) and grant proposal writing. Today we were supposed to go to a nearby (3 hours away) where the women’s groups also produce shea, but that trip was postponed until tomorrow.
Keep your fingers cross though, if all goes well, tomorrow night we’ll have all the supplies that we need for shea production next week!