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Fire Can’t Extinguish This Company

The Building Markets’ Liberia blog features stories of local businesses finding success. This time, Building Markets wants to showcase a story of a business with one major challenge that is quite common in Liberia: fire.

Not so long ago, the USAID Sustainable Marketplace Initiative Liberia (SMI-L) published a story of a Fashion House that went up in flames. Through Building Markets’ help, Rich Fulfillment Fashion House was able to begin winning contracts again with buyers like UNDP, though it certainly wasn’t easy.

God’s Grace Soap was unlucky just like Rich Fulfillment. Their entire business burnt to the ground in an electrical fire in March 2013. The business launched in 2011.

“It’s been like starting all over again,” said Ricki Toles, the Secretary of God’s Grace Soap (pictured in the middle).

The fire destroyed the provision shop and the owner William Togba’s (pictured right) house, which was right next door. It took five months to rebuild the sales office. The company lost 18 employees and all of its customers. Even now that the factory is back up and running, most of the employees are volunteers because the sales are not yet back. Only eight employees are paid. The company currently produces about 50% of the amount of soap they were making before.

“We’re trying to get our customers back. We are operating in the red,” said Martin Kondeh, William’s assistant (pictured at left).

Although now they are starting to regain customers, God’s Grace low capacity means they cannot always meet orders. “Many are calling for five cartons, ten cartons, and I can’t always supply,” William explained. “A lady called today for seven cartons, but I couldn’t deliver because it’s too far.”

The company doesn’t own a vehicle in order to transport their soap. Increasing distribution while supplying customers on time is a major challenge. Raw materials are also a challenge for God’s Grace because the soap ingredients are costly, particularly palm kernel oil because it’s seasonal.

After the national fire service put the fire out, they directed William to a division within Internal Affairs that could help. He filled out paperwork, some representatives came and made an inspection, and he hasn’t heard from them since. They did tell him that to prevent another fire, he should purchase insurance and buy a fire extinguisher. William cannot afford either right now.

Two months before the fire, God’s Grace received a loan from Access Bank for $3,000. When his business burnt down, he had no means of paying back the loan. Building Markets invited William and representatives of Access Bank together to find a way to restructure the loan while the company got back on its feet. Building Markets knew William from his attendance in general procurement and financial management training sessions.

“I did the trainings because a good business has knowledge of finance,” William said. “I learned a lot from the Building Markets trainings. I’m implementing what I learned now.”

One example of this is William’s attendance at Building Markets’ recent Go Green Environmental Training event. One of the things he learned was to mount signage of safety rules and protocols where employees can see it. This example shows how seriously Williams takes his business and wants it to succeed.

One obstacle standing in William’s way is access to finance. Access Bank did restructure the loan into monthly payments of $50, but at the company’s current profit rates, it will take three years to pay it back. Meanwhile, he cannot get a second loan in order to up his production capacity until he pays back the first. It is a bit of Cache-22, all because of an unlucky fire.

“When the fire happened a lot of people left me. The fire brought a lot of setbacks,” William said. Despite these negative words, there is a hope and a sparkle in William’s eye. You can tell he believes that with enough hard work, God’s Grace will bounce back – even if the process is a bit slower than he’d like it to be.

Employees of God's Grace Soap at work. Since the fire, God's Grace only employs eight people full-time compared with 26 previously.

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