Our entrepreneurs are heroes and heroines  Let’s identify and acknowledge their role for private sector dev’t

Abdul-Fatahi Abdulai Kambala (PhD)

A lesson from the life of a young entrepreneur in the Tamale Metropolis

Entrepreneurs in our communities play a significant role in the employment of our idle youth, value and job creation and largely contribute to our gross domestic product (GDP). Moreover, due to their problem-solving capabilities a lot of lessons can be drawn from their lives, because they present the concept of entrepreneurship in both context and content. They also make it easy for the youth to learn and emulate their examples.

As a matter of fact, a narrative of their lives from their own perspective helps to facilitate the appreciation of the concept of entrepreneurship given the environmental and cultural challenges we face as a people. As a result, this article is intended to present a practical guide to the youth on entrepreneurship and also serve as an inspiration for people who are still in dilemma to get into self-employment. Indeed, this gives the realities, challenges and motivations behind business development and entrepreneurship in Ghana.

More importantly, it highlights how entrepreneurs behave and handle some of the most difficult challenges in business and keep fighting as problems show up unexpectedly. Without doubt, the significance here is that, issues discussed in case studies of this nature are not covered in business schools’ lecture and no university examination captures them to prepare or hint students about life after school.

Undeniably, despite the current status of this example is not what was planned for, the life of Mr Sumaila Lasisi as an entrepreneur at the centre of it still represents the most inspiring case worth drawing several lessons from. For readers’ information, he graduated from Tamale Technical University in 2004, did his national service in 2005, applied for salary jobs in 2006 and 2007 but got none, and decided to take the bull by the horns with the least opportunity when it availed itself. It is also significant to note that entrepreneurs create opportunities and do not wait for them. In reality, the graduate kicked off plunging himself into self-employment in 2008 with Dahinsheli Microfinance Limited and did not wait for jobs like most graduates would do up to this time.

Liquidation of microfinance institutions

Notably, the microfinance world woke up on the 31st May 2019 to the news that the Banks of Ghana had liquidated 347 microfinance institutions (MFIs) in the country with immediate effect. Following that devastating news, I decided to take a look at the story of a young entrepreneur, whose microfinance company was eventually listed among the lot after surviving quite a few panic withdrawals for several years. As an academic entrepreneur, I quickly noticed that a contextual look at his story will add colour and flavour to the news for the benefit of graduates like him who have sat for whatever number of years. I think it is worth an effort also because the adversity he has gone through and resilience he put up to keep the company and continue to serve his society per his primary objective has left a lot for national consumption and posterity.

Financial crisis

In retrospect, the great depression of the 1930s and economic crisis of the 1980s marked major turning points in the history of the world’s economic development. Each did not just only give us a depression in the development timeline of the globe but also highlighted significant milestones in the history books for our reference. In fact, the two painted a lot of stories including how businesses and businessmen and women fell to the ground and crushed into history. Despite the grim history of the two, we are also privy to the rise of nations and the emergence of industrial revolutions that hitherto continue change the world all the time. Surely, these put the civilisation of Planet Earth onto a modern day economic growth and development trajectory. Not just that, businesses and big entrepreneurs of all time have since made it bigger than ever and left legacy behind again in the same history book for our records. Then, the recent credit crunch of 2008 in the Western world also saw both deposit-taking and high street banks collapsed, crushing businesses and leaving their owners on their knees giving us a gist of what may have happened in the earlier depressions.

The Ghana version

Within the last 12 months, the Ghana version of credit crunch struck with venom, similarly sending banks, businesses and individuals who have saved their monies for one reason or the other to their knees as well. As usual, the central bank of Ghana acted swiftly and accordingly to arrest the situation by consolidating struggling banks and now is the turn of microfinance institutions which have since let to the liquidation of 347 of them. Interestingly, among the lot, I think the story of a gallant fighter who has equally been given notice of a takeover by the bank deserve a glance. A notice that has relieved him of the mantle of leaderpreneurship and temporarily halted him in what he does best. To him, and like others, it is an opportunity to assess his strategies and come back once again, this time more intelligently and wisely. In a discussion with the owner of Dahinsheli Microfinance Limited in the Tamale Metropolis, I gathered a compelling story worth narrating.

The story

The story of Dahinsheli Microfinance Limited in the Tamale Metropolis begun with identification of a social problem, a business opportunity and therefore a gap in the market, which is common with entrepreneurs in general. To emphasise, the problem of the lack of opportunity for a more formal system of saving in the metropolis was found to exacerbate poverty and led to increase in school dropout rate in the region.

To Mr Lasisi, a young HND graduate of 2004 from Tamale Technical University with a marketing background, it was time to create value and wealth, thus; by solving a big social problem. As he put it, “to fuel my interest in forging forward to solve this problem, my mother became a victim of the problem”.

The young entrepreneur explained how the mother became a victim to a fraudster together with her colleagues in a group. Then, he realised it was time to strike. Fortunately, he quickly noticed susu collection was a viable service in the area given that so many people were willing to save their money but had no access to formal banking services for various reasons like the mother and her colleagues. First and foremost, with customers, product and place of business assured, his next issue was the price and how to get his business to the customers. To do this successfully, he thought specialised knowledge and training in the areas of microfinance was the ideal thing to go for, which found him attending workshops, seminars and training programmes around the country in preparation for the capitalisation of the opportunity identified.

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My family background

Certainly, environmental factors play significant roles in entrepreneurship of which family background is crucially one. Coincidentally, growing up as a son of a businessman, Mr Lasisi fortunately saw it all and that also contributed to his foresight and leap. The father, the late Alhaji Lasisi Tijani, known in the business as Fatawu Bicycle was the first to make a bi and tricycle in Ghana stationed in Tamale in the early 1980s, he claimed proudly. As a prolific businessman, the father also imported bicycles from China and India in those days and whilst Mr. Lasisi was still in school he kept watching how business went. Nonetheless, he did not inherit any physical properties to put him in business by the time he graduated in 2004 but the entrepreneurs’ mindset he developed would come to be the most valuable asset he ever had from the father.

Starting capital

Mr Lasisi started his company with capital he raised in a more intelligent and innovative way as I have explained in my previous article (April 3, 2019, Issue 2828). After attempting and failing to borrow money from an individual and also knowing he had no collateral security to approach any high street bank, he thought it wise to first look for knowledge and skills required for microfinance industry to consolidate his knowledge capital with his time, energy and little financial resources. Also, through his social and network capitals he acquired for himself an office space, furniture and a computer for free. Unquestionably, he had a big dream but started small to actually work on how to achieve his vision. Following that, the wife gained confidence in his knowledge of the industry and did not only offer her savings as her financial contribution to the start-up but also became one of the first three dedicated mobile bankers of the company, which started in 2008. With these, readers can appreciate the use of other forms of capital including human capital to acquire financial capital to start a business.

Tellers served their own localities

The marketing strategy of the company reflected the objective of the owner for setting it up, thus; to serve his community. Verily, every mobile banker employed served their own communities and always achieved results in a win-win situations, and customers new their bankers right to their houses and families. This strategy built some form of trust and confidence in all their dealings.

Employment

Dahinsheli microfinance ltd did not only serve the local community but as well employed young people from the local areas who got a lot of opportunities in the company to do what they could not done after completing senor high schools. For instance, among all SHS graduates who have built their future through the company, the soft spoken entrepreneur related that “three of them always come to mind; the first is one who is doing his PhD at the moment in his second year in Canada, another one in the US and the third in the United Kingdom”. More so, over the years, a lot more of young SHS graduates who joined the company have had the opportunity to improve their grades, had admissions to tertiary institutions in Ghana and also able to pay their fees all through. Importantly, at the time of collapse, the company had a total of twenty seven employees; including 18 agents, 2 tellers, a manager, an accountant, a credit officer, a security man, a cleaner and labour turnover was superb. Moreover, to his credit, the company paid salaries before end of each month, paid all taxes to government and also paid employees’ SSNIT contributions without missing anything. Externally, the company recruited women into self-help groups for support in the suburbs of the metropolis and that also helped a lot of families, thereby increasing women welfare and participation in many aspects of social lives in the region.

Solid team work

Mr Lasisi did not only equip himself with knowledge from workshops and seminars, he also built a very strong and solid team as a mastermind to carry the big dream through. In principle, there is no successful entrepreneur who does it all by themselves but with the help of a mastermind where knowledge, expertise and experiences of other people are always used. In his case too, he set up a team made of himself, an experienced retired banker, another with HND accounting background and someone with a bachelors’ degree in Integrated Development Studies from the University for Development Studies in the Tamale Metropolis, all working with a common goal towards the vision set for the company. From this, one can conclude that the company succeeded for eleven years because it was a system dependent and not an owner depend company.

Customer base

At the time of liquidation, Dahinsheli had a total of 15,300 customers in a around the metropolis for various products and given the nature of service required to deliver the community from poverty, the company worked in close collaboration with all customers, organising a lot of meetings and training to support their business growth and sustainability. Women groups were also targeted as well and apart from referrals they got for their innovative products and services, they also took time to search and identify other women groups and gave them some of the facilities that were good for their business expansion and profit. At large, a lot of successes were gained with the women, most of whom were farmers.

Challenges

The challenges of the company were just like any other company in a developing economy but some were so basic that the entrepreneur could not wait but to find ways out to keep the company buoyant. The shocking challenge was when they realised that there was the need to innovate, to look for new knowledge in the field of microfinance and needed new thinking and technical expertise but there was no one to help. Sadly, intellectuals available were helpless, even institutions of higher learning in close proximity could not get a single person to do the exercise for them. Other people he though could help did not want to associated with such “risk” they said. Some, he invited to join as partners did not even listen, then MCEs and MPs also failed him each time we tried to solicit support with proposals. He recounted that he ever sat in an MPs house up to 22.00hrs and still was not allowed to see him. Another challenge was from the regulatory body, which insisted on them to increase their minimum capital, something he could not immediately achieve. Then, the formation of a board of directors was a big mental dispute and he admitted that it has been one of the major issues he will always not forget to attribute to the problem faced by the company today. He also said his bankers failed him at the critical period and said he could understand they knew what was going on in the microfinance industry and did not want to lend again to them until they requested for their fixed deposit which actually did not help at that particular moment.

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Panic withdrawal

Put it bluntly, “Withdrawals and closures of bank accounts are normal but not when it is about an average of ninety a day” was his lamentation looking back. This was what the entrepreneur told me and said although they survived a lot before the last one that broke the horse’s back. Looking straight into my face, he stated that at the start of regulation in 2011, there were about 23 MFIs in the metropolis and only 10 of them finally had the licence from the Bank of Ghana to operate. However, with systematic panic withdrawals, thus, in 2011, 2014 and 2017 only three of them survived up to June 2018. Again, one of the three companies also suffered the casualty by November 2018 and the final straw came on the 31st of May 2019, when Dahinsheli was listed among the 347 liquidated companies. Looking confidently, he compared their current situation to those of similar companies that earlier on went bust before them and said the owners could not stand the pressure and had to move out of town and away from their stranded customers. Even with that, Mr Lasisi did not go anywhere but stood and faced the reality, his own initiative and creativity because real entrepreneurs do not succumb to defeat easily assuring his colleagues that every failure brings with it the seed of its equivalent success eventually.

Achievements

No successful entrepreneur attributes their success to their own abilities and skills but to that of their teams and as usual Mr Lasisi said it was the team that did every bit of the work and succeeded for the eleven years. However, personally he said the business had led him to places he would not have been to, met people he never imagined he would have met and also gained a lot of knowledge and experience in business and in life. Primarily, the number of people that got employment with Dahinsheli represents a major achievement for the young entrepreneur knowing the personal problems they have been able to solve. The numbers of SHS graduates that have improved on their grades and proceeded to tertiary institutions have been counted as part of their achievements in the region. Many of their customers have built their houses through the company, set up businesses and paid their children school fees through the help and existence of the company in the region. Adding to that, he said he is a better leader with self-belief, patience and ability to handle crisis with tack and humility. Lastly, he concluded that the opportunity to mingle with UN consultants and other staff also gave him the hope to aim higher in life.

Lessons learnt

Mr Lasisi said in all, he has learnt some leadership skills and solved problems that were never envisaged or talked about during lectures at school. He also acknowledged the fact that one needs personal development to manage the system therefore, knowledge acquisition will always be a priority all his life. Besides, he reckoned mentorship is a necessity in business success, referring to the late father’s role in nurturing his entrepreneurial mindset down to other people who were in the industry and offered him such valuable service to this level. Furthermore, he admitted  that he now knows himself better than before and has more confidence than ever, judging that creativity and imagination are the new directions for the 21st Century business success. For successful business, Mr Lasisi confessed also that a business built on one person is a failed one and that it must rather be system dependant operations with a purpose, vision and with a strategic plan to achieve the vision set. On risk and fear of failure he said there are only mirages and no entrepreneur is ever defeated until they accept defeat as a reality.

Conclusion

As has been noted, it does not matter who or where they are. It does not matter how big or small they have been and done either. What matters are the energy, the resilience, the adversity, the faith and persistence, the confidence and above all the creativity and innovation exhibited over the years to sustain their operations in the face of all the difficulties. This is the life of a graduate who has made this impact on lives, what are you planning to do with your life, time, energy and knowledge? When are you going to start looking for what it takes to take off and end unemployment, poverty and frustrations? The nation is look forward to your output as nature is also waiting for your request to throw at you whatever you planned and envisioned for yourself.

To say the least, a nation that does not honour its heroes and heroines worth not dying for. What have we got for people like this as a nation given their contribution to job creation and the significant life changes? Do we sit down, let them rote and get wasted when we know they can do more when we identify and acknowledge them? Does Mr Lasisi deserve this after all the effort? What about the others? Certainly NO, hence, we cannot continue to overlook this because not all are willing to sacrifice up to this level. If they are defeated temporally, they need the right support to come back again, with more experience and vim to help once again.

The author is a consultant in entrepreneurship and business development, and an expert in university-industry interaction and knowledge transfer for innovation. He is also a co-author for two textbooks: Financial Entrepreneurship for Economic Growth in Emerging Nations, and Innovation and Social Capital in Organisational Ecosystems. Email: fatahi507@yahoo.com

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