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Street vendor turns $200 into a multi-million dollar business

From Earl Nurse, CNN
updated 7:56 AM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fomba Trawally is a Liberian businessman who started his career as a street vendor
  • He recently opened Liberia's first paper and toiletry product manufacturing company
  • The factory became operational earlier this year, producing four different kinds of products
  • Unreliable electricity, high energy costs and lack of skilled labor are challenges

(CNN) -- He started his first business venture as a street vendor with capital of just $200 but two decades later Fomba Trawally has become one of Liberia's most prominent businessmen.

Like many in his country, Trawally fled Liberia in 1989 to escape the West African country's ruinous civil war. He found refuge in The Gambia but in December 1991 Trawally decided it was time to return to his native country.

Once back in the capital Monrovia, the former refugee quickly realized he could capitalize on a need for one product: rubber flip-flops.

"When the war took place people had to be displaced from another point to another point," remembers Trawally, founder of Kumba Beindu and Sons.

"So in the process of that, they don't take their shoes and they walk with their bare feet. And the $200 that I brought from Gambia, I decided to invest that into the slippers."

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That initial investment in rubber flip-flops made quick returns. Trawally's business grew steadily and by 2005 the self-made businessman owned three retail stores selling items such as paper products and cosmetics imported from all over the world.

With an entrepreneurial spirit, Trawally next set his sights on making the transition from being an importer to becoming a manufacturer. Thus, in 2010 he launched National Toiletries Incorporated, Liberia's first paper and toiletry product manufacturing company.

"I figured out that our population is about four million," he says. "Out of the four million, no one is producing paper -- everybody is going out to bring the paper to import. Even if two million people buy from me by day, I feel that it's something like we'll grow the economy of this country."

The company's factory became operational earlier this year, producing four different kinds of products: baby diapers, paper towels, napkins and toilet paper.

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With sales having so far reached more than $600,000, Trawally says his plans are to double the factory's capacity by the end of next year.

"Since I started this company with $200 I feel like other people can make it too," says Trawally.

"I do not hire family; I personally find citizens, some who have never seen such a machine in their life and I train them and watch them improve. I believe if I can do it, so can they and that's what's gratifying."

Yet, running a manufacturing business in Liberia -- a country torn apart by a civil war that left an estimated 250,000 people dead and destroyed much of its infrastructure and economy -- is not without big challenges.

"Number one, we don't have the power or energy in our country at this time -- we're running on a generator," says Trawally. "You tell anyone that I'm running a factory as big as this only on a generator, they'll tell you that you are crazy," he adds.

I want to get other countries in Africa and export to Europe and to American markets.
Fomba Trawally, Liberian businessman

Unreliable power and poor infrastructure, coupled with high energy costs and a lack of skilled labor, are all major problems for entrepreneurs doing business in Liberia.

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But there is one business area Trawally is not concerned about.

"For the challenge of distribution," he says, "I don't have a problem with that."

"One supermarket in Liberia, Harbel supermarket, they are the number one customer to me -- they don't buy tissue from anyone beside me," adds Trawally. "And out of all the other small shops and centers I already have over 1,500 members."

Looking ahead, Trawally says his next goal is to expand the business outside Liberia.

"I would like to see myself outside of the country," he says. "I want to get other countries in Africa and export to Europe and to American markets. That is my dream."

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