Seeking change and building a business

Steve Tripoli Jan 24, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s tempting to call this a story about the American dream. And I guess it is in a way. Except it’s about two guys from Ghana.

Steve Tripoli at the Marketplace Entrepreneurship Desk has their story.

STEVE TRIPOLI: Victor Kofi Mallet and Baafour Asiamah-Adjei met as students at MIT six years ago. They were both engineering majors, but the school’s annual business plan contest had caught their eye.

Baafour says that contest pointed up a big difference between doing business in Ghana and America.

BAAFOUR ASIAMAH-ADJEI: Even if I can’t trust you on a personal level, in America I know the laws work in our favor. There’ll be justice.

He says Ghana’s legal system lacks protections for business people. And that makes it dangerous to partner with people you hardly know, even if they’re really talented.

ASIAMAH-ADJEI: To just say “Hey, let’s go and meet in the conference room and you can be my lifetime partner,” I thought that was a cool and weird idea.

Baafour and Victor didn’t win MIT’s famous 50K business plan contest. But they did learn about forming teams and evaluating ideas. About how good ideas get funding and advice.

They decided to launch a similar effort to inspire entrepreneurs back home.

CONTEST ANNOUNCER: The first prize is $5,000 in seed capital.

The Ghana New Ventures Competition was Victor and Baafour’s take-off on the MIT contest.

ANNOUNCER: And the team that was awarded this prize is Supply Solutions. [Applause]

It was launched in 2002 and ran for three years. The contest was a hit in Ghana. It even spawned several imitators.

But entrepreneurs there face tough obstacles. Victor says even teams with good skills and ideas face barriers you don’t often find in America.

VICTOR KOFI MALLET: In Ghana, if you do not have a strong connection to somebody with money, as in a family relative or a friend of the family, you’re pretty much out of luck. There is no appetite for risk.

Still, Victor and Baafour had planted some seeds. Then, they headed back to the States and the next phase of their plan.

[Sound of washing cucumbers]

STAN COLEMAN: OK, now we’re washing the fresh cucumbers.

They’ve picked up two African-American business partners, Stan and Christine Coleman.

The Colemans have a secret recipe for pickles. Their small-scale production line starts with crispy cucumbers, a cutting board and sharp knives moving quickly.

STAN COLEMAN: Be careful, you need all your fingers.

Victor and Baafour, still in their 20s, add a dash of business acumen to the Colemans’ secret recipe.

The product is

PhillyFresh Pickles. They’re now in 13 stores and three restaurants around Philadelphia. A line of olives is planned and production’s moving to a less labor-intensive plant.

Everyone involved still works their day jobs. But it’s no accident that Victor and Baafour chose this business line. Because the final leg of their entrepreneurial game plan points straight back to Ghana.

Victor sees Ghanaian mangoes, pineapple and cocoa products as well-positioned to crack world markets. So doing specialty foods here is part of the learning curve.Baafour also sees their journey heading toward something bigger.

ASIAMAH-ADJEI: The goal is actually to be a big entrepreneur who will be able to drive Ghana’s development. So, the only way I see it, short of becoming the head of the Bill Gates Foundation is [laughs] to start up my own company to do it.

Victor says the things they’ve done to spark Ghana’s entrepreneurial ecosystem are essential for developing countries.

MALLET: Entrepreneurship is really the only way I see to control your own path. And to also provide opportunity for other people. It’s a passion. I mean it’s one of those things that, once you catch the bug, it’s really hard to turn your back on it.

And maybe this wasn’t part of Victor and Baafour’s plan. But if your interim step is a pickle and condiment business, there are worse places to start one than Philly. After all, didn’t a little company called Heinz get its start not too far from here?

I’m Steve Tripoli for Marketplace.

“Philly Fresh Pickles”

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