Two of the biggest problems African producers face is access to the international market, and value addition to local produce.
If more producers in Africa – like farmers, craftspeople, and manufacturers – had open access to foreign markets, they could get fairer prices for their products.
And if we could add more value to our raw materials, rather than just export them as they are, Africa’s local producers of cocoa, coffee, rubber and leather would not be the poorest players in the value chain.
In this article, we meet an entrepreneur who is opening the doors of international trade to local African producers. Her company works with local farmers in Liberia, and recently partnered with a producer of smoked fish in Nigeria.
She shares her experience and challenges with exporting locally-made products in Africa, and her plans to expand the continent’s footprint in international trade.
Let’s meet her.
1) Tell us about yourself. How did you end up in the business of international import and export?
My name is Lena Thomas-Marshall and I live in the UK with my maternal heritage being Liberian.
My career started as a food microbiologist which involved testing food and water samples. So I am a scientist at heart which makes me a curious person.
During one of my travels, I saw the need for exporting locally-made products from Liberia, West Africa. I guess you can say that was my lightbulb moment.
2) What exactly does your company do, and what products do you specialise in?
My company, WenLen, acts as a sourcing and supply agent. We source a variety of products for our clients. Our suppliers are mainly in India, Bangladesh, South Africa, Nigeria, Liberia, the USA, and the UK.
At the moment, we specialise in rice, sugar, cement, flour and supply to the hospitality industry. We also have a sister company based in Liberia, West Africa. This was established with a local partner in Liberia, Mr Wendell Nimene, to work with the local farmers to help bring their goods out to an international market.
As a company we also support a local children’s health organisation in Liberia – Healthpage Liberia Inc and a school – Educational Promoters. For me it is important not only to be able to provide employment but also to be in the position to help by supporting projects locally.
3) Who are your typical partners and clients?
They range from companies, individuals, shops and other sourcing agents. We have even sourced products for labs and humanitarian organisations.
4) You recently partnered with a Nigerian supplier of smoked fish. Tell us about that.
Yes, this is an exciting partnership with Mr Tunde Sanni. It came at a time when I was receiving a lot of request for African smoked fish. This market is such a huge and demanding one.
However, there are a lot of restrictions on exporting this product. Within the EU we cannot import smoked fish on a commercial basis only up to 20kg at any one time. So this made it an ideal market to sell to individuals for personal use.
On the other hand, because Mr Sanni’s products are approved by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the USA market looked very appealing. This is a new partnership and I am looking for sale agents within the USA to buy on a commercial basis.
Having FDA approval is added value to the product. It is also great as a UK-based company to partner with our African counterpart on an international level.
I encourage more businesses to partner with companies on the continent. Africa has so much to offer and this is the best way of showing what we can produce especially as a branded package finished product.
5) How did you know the market would be receptive to a company like yours, where several already exist?
I did a mini research and started the company as a “trial” business. After a month we became inundated with requests. My focus was mainly Liberia, West Africa and then other countries requested our service.
There are others but I think it boils down to the service that is provided. I have a great team here in the UK and Liberia and we make sure that efficiency and quality remains our top priority.
6) What are the main challenges you’re facing as a business owner?
Because my focus is mainly on the African continent, finding suppliers with products which are up to an international standard can be an issue. Products have to be of EU standard or should have FDA approval.
Achieving these standards cannot be done by individual companies. This is where our government comes in and it is my hope that our governments work towards gaining these approvals.
We urgently need to grow or local economy within Africa which in turn will provide employment for all.
7) What do you love most about the work that you do?
I have always been a globetrotter. So now I get to travel more and work while I do that. I love that every market is different so I am learning the way business is done in Nigeria to how it is done in Bangladesh. Learning the culture is also an interesting experience.
8) Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
I would love to go into manufacturing. We have to add value to our products and this can be done within our continent. It is time that we stop taking out our rich resources and start adding value to them.
At the end of the day we would like to create employment for all. So in 10 years’ time perhaps a manufacturing plant in Liberia putting our people into gainful employment.
9) It’s common belief that entrepreneurs are restless people. What is the next big idea in your pipeline?
You are so right on that question. I started this interview by saying that I am a scientist and I am always curious about new things. So my next big idea is around the corner and I look forward to another interview to discus it with you.
10) What’s your single most important advice to entrepreneurs who are looking to start a business?
Perseverance with a lot of determination added to it. My motto is “Determination is the whip that drives us to success.”
I have always loved this quote from my high school days on the Island of Grenada in the Caribbean and I still keep that as my motto today.
11) How can potential partners or clients reach you?
We also have our social media pages: Facebook: @wenlenexport Twitter: @wenleninc
This article is sponsored by WenLen Export for publication on Smallstarter Africa.