Dempster N. Harris Hawa P. Dorley
Mahmud Johnson started off his palm kernel oil business and is now the face and go to person for young Liberian entrepreneurs. His business has scaled up and now employed 32 persons. Johnson, who started with a skeleton staff in 2013, has racked up many accolades and recently worked with Johnson and Johnson, one of the largest consumer health companies in the world which is in operation for over a century now.
He disclosed that his partnership with the health conglomerate has helped his business weathered the earlier financial storm. However, Johnson said the biggest asset in the partnership is the access to the professional staff of Johnson and Johnson. “We work with their staff to develop our lotion because they have the scientists and researchers to analyze and advise us on what to do. We are also working with them on how to strengthen the business internally because it is difficult to manage human, so they help us set up the right structure, processes and procedures for the business to make sure it run smoothly” said Johnson.
He revealed that through the Johnson and Johnson, his company, J Palm has been exposed to other organizations, networks that are helping his business grow. “It has been a great experience” he revealed.
J Palm also has 200 sale agents who are paid by commission.
Johnson disclosed that the business started based on the desire to work with farmers who produce palm oil in the rural area of Liberia. “Most of the palm oil that we consume in Liberia is produce by very small skill farmers. It is not the big companies that are producing the palm oil that we see in the market. If you having to travel to the rural area you will get to know that some of the palm remain within the tree and get rotten because of the lack of machine”.
He said when J Palm was launched in 2013, they came across a research done by USAID. The USAID research, opined Johnson had a statistic that says about 35% of the palm nut in Liberia remain on the tree and get rotten.
Johnson said the initial idea was to start J-Palm to work with rural farmers providing access to machines for farmer that enable them make more palm oil to meet the huge national demand. He said while operating, he realized that he could also tap into the palm kernel oil from the palm kernel as this particular part of kernel was going to waste, save for few people who were making palm kernel oil manually.
“We took advantage of that because we noticed most farmers weren’t involved into processing kernel due to the lack of its importance”.
“Before we started buying palm kernel, people were throwing the palm kernel away. There was no use for it but now people are able to double their income just from something that was going to waste. We go back to the village to talk to some people and they say this is helping send our children to school and to get them to hospital when sick. It’s an amazing business”.
He said eking a living out of palm kernel and providing steady stream of job opportunities to his fellow compatriots make him proud. “It should serve as something that makes us reflect as Liberians and think about the country in general. If we can be able to build a strong business from the palm kernel, we’ll have a lot more valuable resources that we can tap into by adding value to all the resources we have in this country, which will eventually create employment and spur economy growth” Mr. Johnson admitted.
He said going to an Ivy league school; Dartmouth University helped him greatly. “When I was a University student, I was fortunate to work on a consultant project within the business school. We were working with an NGO helping to expand their program. It made me realized that you can use business skills and tools to address social challenges such as employment, poverty and etc” he averred.
Johnson said the private sector is under-explored, adding the private sector drives not just economy growth but do also create employment and help reduce poverty.
He said the current challenge for business is the fact that the exchange rate is not stable which reduces the value of the business especially for small and medium size businesses.
Enumerating challenges faced when starting his business, he said finance was the greatest challenge.
“financial challenge was my greatest challenge as you know, you cannot start a business without investing cash in to it. When you have invested into the business you will need customers and that is a challenge because business is competition. When you get the customers, you have a challenge of producing enough products that will be able to serve your customers and providing services that will be able to satisfy them” he said.
Johnson said lack of skilled workforce in the country is a problem. Most time, he said people are hired but it turns out they do not have the requisite skill sets to get the work done. He said the appetite for natural products is huge.
“There is such a hunger people have for natural products. If you look out and see all of the products that are coming from Ivory coast and other countries, they have too much chemical in them. A lot of time people contact us and complain of how they used imported lotion, which burned their skin”.
He said the success of his business is impact the business is having in the life of the people within the country. “It is not just about making money but to implement the goals, vision and mission of the business and to create the environment for job opportunity” said Johnson.
Johnson urged that the best way to build and transform a society is by investing in the next generation through the adequate provision of jobs, health care and education