The refugee who made good in Liberia

Fomba Trawally
Image caption Mr Trawally is very proud of being a self-made man

Fomba Trawally is a former refugee who had to leave school to support his siblings. Now his import company is one of the biggest in Liberia.

The firm is named after his mother, Kumba Beindu, a woman who had no formal education and sold peppers and aubergines in order to feed her children.

When she died in the 1980s, Mr Trawally, her eldest son started selling shower slippers in a wheelbarrow.

But when civil war broke out in 1989, he had to flee to The Gambia as a refugee.

At the end of 1991 he returned home and - with $25 (£16) that he had saved and $120 that he got from a Malian friend - he started his business, Kumba Beindu and Sons.

"In just one year's time we were able to grow up to $3,000… and now we have businesses all around the country," he told the BBC's series African Dream.

The company imports plastic products, shoes and cosmetics from countries such as China, the United States, Turkey and neighbouring Ivory Coast.

In Liberia it supplies hundreds of smaller businesses in Monrovia, the capital, and several provincial towns.

With tens of employees, Kumba Beindu and Sons' main site is located at Monrovia's Waterside Market, and residents flock to it in search of items normally available only at his place.

Entrepreneurial environment

Mr Trawally never imagined that he would have such growth when he started out.

"I was not expecting that at all. I was not dreaming about it. My dream was only to get $500 in my life," he told BBC Africa's reporter Jonathan Paye Layleh.

"So I was not thinking that I'm gonna talk about $1,000, I'm gonna talk about $10,000 and end up with $1m… If I could get $500, then I could go to a Nigerian market to buy goods from Nigeria," he said.

Mr Trawally believes that with almost a decade of peace, the Liberian economy is improving.

"It's very easy to make business in Liberia. You'll see many Liberians that are doing business now," he said.

"It's more encouraging to do business here than in any other country but we, the citizens, now have to take the advantage first, and then others will follow."

And he wants to lead by example. His next dream is to move into manufacturing.

"My country now needs to also export products. You're not gonna be buying these clothes again in China, you're gonna be buying them right here, Liberian-made."

Frugal life

Mr Trawally, who is now 41 years old, is very proud of being a self-made man.

"You can learn accounting in a school and get your PhD in accounting but the practical idea, if you don't have it, it will be difficult to go through."

He believes that if you want to make your money grow, you have to learn to save it too.

He told BBC Africa that he does not spend his money unnecessarily and leads a very frugal life.

According to him, he has even worn the same pair of jeans for about eight years.

Mr Trawally stresses that young entrepreneurs do not always need a lot of capital to start with.

"It doesn't cost you $1m to start a business," he said.

"My advice to my other friends around the world, including Liberia, is that you should be encouraged and believe that you can do everything with $100 or $500. My mother started with five or 10 US cents which is nothing today."

African Dream is broadcast on the BBC Network Africa programme every Monday morning.

Every week, one successful business man or woman will explain how they started off and what others could learn from them.

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