By Daniel Mpala
For many it is impossible to think of starting a business without having thousands of dollars in seed capital. Not so for Alhaji Siraj Bah. At 18 and with only $20 in savings, the Sierra Leonean founded Rugsal Trading, an enterprise that now directly and indirectly employs 38 people.
Sadly, Bah’s story has its roots in tragedy. In 2017, Bah (pictured above) lost his adoptive parents to the Freetown landslides that killed over 1100 people.
After the tragedy and to fend for his family, the then 16-year old took a factory job with a company that packaged purified water. It was this that gave him closer insight into the tragedy that befell his parents.
Bah believes the mudslides were caused by the high level of deforestation around the city as well as by the high amount of plastic waste generated by local factories. It was this that inspired him to last year start Rugsal Trading.
The business, just over a year old now, produces smokeless coconut husk briquettes and hand crafted paper bags and Bah describes himself and his team as being “passionate” about promoting environmental sustainability.
Yet starting a business hasn’t been easy. “Startup capital was my major challenge. I was just 18 and a school dropout. I had no higher education so nobody was ready to risk their investment,” he explains.
He’s also struggled to market his products. “I had no money to pay for adverts, so it was really hard. But through hard work and the right team I have I was able to pull things up,” he says.
But having overcome these hurdles his company now makes about $5000 in sales a month and employs 38 people both directly and indirectly. These include eight full-time and 10 part-time employees, and 20 agents who work as distributors on a commission-earning basis. Those who work for him range in age from 16 to 53.
Bah says Rugsal has since its establishment last year produced 90 tons of briquettes, which effectively means he’s saved more than 8000 trees from being chopped down.
Furthermore, he believes his briquettes have saved the lives of many more people, who die every year from inhaling smoke generated by charcoal.
While he started off bootstrapping the company and reinvesting any profits he made, Bah says he’s now raised $35 200 in funding. This includes $15 000 prize money for being placed second at the 2018 Anzisha Prize and a $20 200 investment from an undisclosed angel investor.
‘Boost from Anzisha Prize’
Bah says the Anzisha Prize has helped him gain recognition and secure opportunities to export his product. He adds that being placed second in last year’s edition of the competition has also helped him scale up production and increase his revenue.
He has also benefited from a number of mentors who have helped him to identify and solve problems within his company. He lists these as African Leadership Academy’s Alexandra Flush and Kim Hoffman, Memuna Williams and Ugandan entrepreneur and 2012 Anzish prizewinner Andrew Mpuya as among his greatest mentors.
Earlier this year, the young entrepreneur was announced as one of the top 15 finalists in the 2019 Sierra Leone edition of the Startupper of the Year by Total competition.
The Sierra Leone entrepreneur now has plans to export his products to Senegal, Guinea and Liberia this year, after having built a factory and having acquired new machines and an acre of land in Freetown.
He encourages other young Africans to not wait when they want to start a business, but to do so now.
Says Bah: “Start now don’t wait for the right time because the time is always right. Start where you are with what you have and do what you can.”