Selling cassava at a neighbourhood market in Takoradi was not making ends meet for Elizabeth Koomson. She was one of many young women hawking the ubiquitous root vegetable in that part of town, and she was making little if any profit. It didn’t help that many customers with little means would buy on credit, and couldn’t afford to pay her back.
Still, Elizabeth saw few alternatives. Most women she knew were roadside vendors—purchasing small quantities of vegetables, fruit and other goods from local wholesalers and reselling them to generate some income for their families.
Elizabeth thought about other products she might sell, and an idea eventually spawned after a chance meeting with an herbalist and traditional healer from the neighbouring country of Benin.
Like the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africans, Elizabeth turns first to traditional medicine to prevent and treat illnesses. And typical of girls from her region, she had long ago learned how to make soothing tonics and other basic remedies at home. But the healer she met from Benin was selling and marketing such remedies commercially, including botanical ointments to relieve common ailments. Elizabeth was captivated, and from the healer, learned about new medicinal plants and how to combine them with other ingredients to make homeopathic ointments.
She started experimenting with one recipe—a thick salve that included peppermint leaves, camphor and a seed from a fruit locally known as Cafula and native to West Africa.
“This combination of herbs is very strong and very good,” Elizabeth says, “And in an ointment, it can be used to treat skin diseases, muscle and joint pain, congestion, cough and many other conditions. I call it Wonderful Ointment.”
Elizabeth started producing Wonderful Ointment in her kitchen and selling it to friends and neighbours. She was a cassava peddler no more! But to turn her fledgling venture into something more sustainable, she realized she needed some sound business advice. Elizabeth enrolled in an entrepreneurship training program run by a local organization, IT for Teens, in partnership with Youth Challenge International.
“We helped IT for Teens expand from a group that taught young people computer and tech skills to one that also helped them start new businesses,” says Fred Dadzie, YCI’s senior program officer in Ghana. “YCI volunteers teach the classes, which we offer for free to budding entrepreneurs of all ages, like Elizabeth.”
On this day, Elizabeth walks with Fred through the neighborhood where she once sold cassava—a bag of Wonderful Ointment in tow. She’s taking him to see her new storefront on one of Takoradi’s main roads. With sales of the ointment brisk last year, she was recently able to purchase a small pre-fab shop.
“I learned a lot in the training program about research and marketing,” she tells Fred. “I started advertising my ointment on the radio and over loudspeaker announcements and pricing it more competitively,” noting that small jars cost 3 cedis (about $1) and large ones 10 to 30. “Even though I charge more now, I have many loyal customers. Some of them are shopkeepers who buy in bulk.”
Elizabeth also credits her ability to scale up with her newfound accounting skills. “I used to keep no records of anything, but now I know exactly what it costs to make my ointments and run my business, and how much profit I’m making,” she says, showing Fred her latest calculations.
Her shop still has no sign, she laments, and she has had no time to decorate. But all that is coming soon, she promises. Last week was one of her best yet, with 300 jars of Wonderful Ointment sold.