A loud SQUAK almost makes me jump backwards as I open the gate to Margaret Kpodo’s compound – I look down and realize I’ve just bulldozed a chicken with the fence, and as I snicker, it angrily picks itself up and preens its feathers, throwing angry glances as it stalks away.
Margaret’s compound is always a zoo, quite literally: a very pregnant goat chases her two baby goats around the perimeter (I didn’t know pregnant goats could run that fast!) followed by very excited dogs, and dozens of chickens roaming freely alongside dozens more children while their working parents look on. Margaret bursts out of her house, arms open, warmly coming to greet Mercy and I (Mercy is Lumana’s Assistant Loan Officer, and a stellar translator). I ask Margaret, jokingly, if all of these kids are hers. “Of course not! I live here with my brother, daughter, niece, three cousins and their families, and my old mother,” she laughs.
This is the third time I’ve met Margaret; the first two times were in co-operative meetings with our field officer Richard, where she was shy and gracious. Now, however, in the comfort of her own home, she is anything but quiet: welcoming, hospitable, and animated, it’s a pleasure to chat unguarded. We’re invited into her sitting room and chairs are provided, and I can see into her tailoring shop that most likely doubles as a bedroom, half-finished skirts and cloth strewn all over the chairs, the walls, the desk, and the floor.
“Business isn’t good,” Margaret says, her voice sobering. “Most of my tailoring work is seasonal, since people only need new clothes around Christmas, Easter, or a funeral, and I don’t feel good anymore. Also, people don’t come to me sometimes because I’m getting older and they think I can’t do the new fashions, even though I know it all.”
“Do you think that if your tailoring business doesn’t get better, you will still continue?” I ask, noting that Margaret suddenly doesn’t look as happy as she did when we first walked in, sitting on the ground in her doorway, clutching scraps of fabric in her fingers and wearing a sad, weary smile.
“I have already started a new business. I sell cassava and corn locally in Atorkor every day, which I buy from Anloga. That’s becoming my everyday business, and tailoring has become an on-the-side type business,” Margaret states matter-of-factly. “But, don’t you miss doing tailoring? You’ve been doing it for more than 30 years,” I ask, a bit forlornly.
Wait, let me back up: I have spoken with so many of our clients that are working in an industry (fishing, farming, tailoring, food selling) just for the sake of making more money to survive, but finding little to no joy in the job itself. Before this interview, I learned that Margaret has been creating beautifully crafted clothing for her Atorkor community for years and years, even passing her artisanship onto her son; I was very much hoping I would be able to talk with Margaret about her love for the feeling of Ghanaian-made Kente or batik running under a sewing machine. Crestfallen might be too strong of a word, but I’m definitely feeling a little sad.
“I see. So, you sell cassava and corn now, and only tailor a little… for what are you planning to use the next loan?” I ask, feeling like I already know the answer. “I would like to start another business, a provision store. With my old age, it’s not easy to work hard anymore, but I could run a store,” Margaret replies.
Okay, that makes sense. We continue chatting about her family (“My family is from Atorkor, and my brother is the chief of the village.”) and future aspirations (“I would like to stop working one day, but first I need to make enough money to do so.”), but Margaret’s voice turns quieter and quieter, and she seems to withdraw further into the doorway. Despite the world-weariness written all over her face, however, she continues to mention her plan for using the next Lumana loan to create another business.
Last question: “Margaret, if you started a provision store, would you continue selling cassava and corn, as well as doing tailoring on the side?” I mildly ask. She nods her head assertively, saying, “Of course. I will continue doing as many jobs as I can.” As we thank her and leave Margaret’s compound, I notice that she does not accompany us to the gate.
Margaret’s story is similar to many others I’ve listened to, either over a frying pan cooking the day’s catch, or in small huts with corrugated tin roofs. Create a business, the business collapses, start over again with a new business, and repeat. When I ask, people seem to have a general idea of why their past venture failed, but when it comes to revenue earned or their return on investment, it’s clear that these questions have never been calculated. Reflection or asking ‘why’ about past failures aren’t common; in Atorkor, Ghana, the only direction left is forward.
While this courageous business mindset is impressive, I can clearly see that it exhausts many of the people living and working in Atorkor, like Margaret. Having worked since she was five years old (she started helping with the cooking for the family when she was barely able to see over the stove), this woman needs a break. I usually ask our clients if they would like to stop working one day, and the answer is always a decisive yes, followed by a despondent “…but, only if I can.” Margaret isn’t that different from you or I; while she is able to lift more on her head at sixty than I can do in my arms at twenty-three, she would still like to relax, see her children grow up and her grand-children play around her, and be able to gracefully enter old age with a financially secure peace of mind. However, her living circumstances – and the necessity to always run on survival mode – have forbidden this.
A former business major, Adan, who used to work at a microfinance institution in Mozambique told me an interesting story relating to the rural business mindset: Feliciana was a school girl living in a poor village, trying to earn money for school and her family from three side businesses, one being a hair extension salon where Feliciana spent most of her time. While visiting her salon, Feliciana told Adan that she often spent the entire day on one client. On the day of an appointment, Feliciana would spend 1.5-7 hours traveling to and from town (in Africa, rural travel depends on many external factors) to pick up the required extensions that would cost anywhere from 50 cents to $5 (which the client would then pay for), and then, no matter how skilled of a weaver she was, she would usually spend the rest of the day pulling, braiding, and pleating, for a small labor fee of 50 cents or less – all of this for one, single client. After listening to Feliciana’s story and realizing she was most likely spending too much money on this one business, Adan took time to go over her expenses - a simple calculation of her profit margin - and within fifteen minutes had determined that she only made about 3 cents per client because of travel and other related expenses. Because of Feliciana’s long distance to the nearest town, Adan and Feliciana determined together that the hair extension business was not profitable and had to go.
Of course, hair extensions are a different beast from tailoring, but in the same way that costs and expenses were able to convince Feliciana that she would be most profitable elsewhere, these same projections, simplified to rural needs, can aid Margaret and many of our other clients to calculate their own profitability, and thus allow the indisputable wisdom of numbers to make difficult business decisions for them.
Small business owners in developing countries, no matter how rural, are not magically exempt from the rules of engagement. Depending on the amount of money, business practices are scaled up or down, and quintessential business calculations should be as well. During Lumana’s three-day business education courses, clients are schooled in personal finances and savings, and this summer, we are working to integrate more of these projections into the program. By the end of the summer, these beginning courses will include calculating profit margins and basic marketing principles, taught by the elders of the towns in which we work.
Margaret deserves the opportunity to live quietly, without having to worry about food on the table or what business she will start next. In order to do so, however, she must stop living day-to-day; introducing fundamental business concepts into her operation will allow her to look to the future and make educated decisions about profitability, to ensure a graceful transition into retirement.