“I get visions of beautiful pieces of furniture,” says Joseph Ackon (27), sinking into a plush sofa, the colour of caramel, in his new showroom in the southern Ghanaian town of Sekondi. “My designs come from my imagination, and from God.”
Joseph opened By Grace Furniture Works eight years ago when he was 19 years old. He had learned much from a local furniture-maker who took him in as an apprentice. After four years, he had saved a small amount of money—enough to venture out on his own.
By Grace Furniture Works began as a closet-sized wood shop, tucked away at the base of a small hill off the main road. He toiled away there for some time, a one-man show, building tables, dressers and chairs upon request, mostly for neighbors, for a song. But word starting spreading about his quality craftsmanship and eventually he took on an apprentice, and then another, expanding his space as his business started to grow.
“My problem was that I kept no records of what I spent on tools, materials, earnings or wages,” Joseph says. “I didn’t know what to charge, because I didn’t keep track of costs. Inflation was bad and prices kept changing, but I had no budget or plan. Sometimes I made money, sometimes I lost.”
More frustrating for Joseph was that his modest and inconspicuous wood shop was not attracting big spenders. He had ideas for furniture designs, more expensive and modern looking than what he was crafting, but no one, not even those who could afford it, would lay down that kind of money on spec.
“I needed to have finished furniture for people with money to buy, or at least floor models for them to see,” Joseph conceded. “I also needed money to build the models and a showroom to display them, and knew none of this would be possible without some help.”
Help would soon come in the form of a five-week workshop to help young entrepreneurs start or grow their businesses. The course was being given by Youth Challenge International volunteers and held at a YMCA school in the neighboring city of Takoradi. Canadian Kayla Kozan, a recent business school graduate at the time, was one of Joseph’s instructors.
“Even though the students had no formal business training, they were not learning business skills for the first time—they had been learning them, informally, their entire lives,” Kozan recalls. “Ghanaian business education begins when a nine-year-old runs the family shop because dad is at work and mom has to run to the market for plantains. This early exposure to trade ripples through their childhoods and into adulthood.”
Kazan’s course focused on business planning, budgets and bookkeeping, as well as marketing and communications, and it included one to one mentorship to help participants set strategic goals. Joseph says that training was exactly what he needed.
“Our value as volunteers is not in educating youth on business, but rather in helping entrepreneurs like Joseph polish their skills,” says Kozan.
Joseph’s strategic goal was to get his books in order right away and secure enough capital so that within five years, he could build and open a showroom in front of his existing wood shop, stocked with his latest furniture designs. He would put up a bold and colorful sign that would be hard to miss, distribute promotional materials throughout town and use local media to advertise.
Joseph left the workshop armed with an abundance of practical ideas, connections with micro-lenders, an action plan and lots of motivation to get started.
“I was able to meet my goal in less than two years,” Joseph says, grinning proudly.
His new showroom opened in late 2014 and so far, business is good. To meet increasing demands for inventory, Joseph continues to recruit apprentices. He has trained more than 10 young men and says it feels good to teach his craft to other eager furniture-makers.
He also continues to test marketing ideas gleaned from the workshop. He’s been using a local radio station to promote his furniture—securing ad time to coincide with high-profile events when listenership is at its peak. He’s also working on making calendars that feature images of his furniture that he will provide to customers and local merchants free of charge.
Joseph gets lots of extra help these days on his new endeavours:
“I have a secretary now who handles all my expenditures,” Joseph says. “And that’s very good for me and the business.”