Changing a narrative in Liberia

Mahmud Johnson is changing the narrative of Liberia. The founder of J-Palm Liberia, a palm oil and kernel collection and sales company, knows the positive growth of the company sends a strong message to his employees and customers, and to entrepreneurs all over Africa.

You can change narratives and change lives. Since winning $150,000 in the 2016 African Entrepreneurship Award, Mahmud’s impact is evident on the growing network of employees, farmers, and families he influences.

What does this changed narrative look like? J-Palm’s annual sales were stalled at $2,000 in 2015. The next year, that number reached $33,000, a 1,550% increase. And, at the close of 2017, J-Palm has turned over $200,000 in sales. In 2018? Sales manager, Melvin M. Lansana projects that J-Palm “will hit the million-dollar mark!”

These increased sales are the result of J-Palm capitalizing on not only on palm oil, but on also using palm kernels, which were previously discarded. Simple palm products from the ubiquitous smallholder palm farmers of Liberia meets valuable food and cosmetic needs for an eager market. With funding and year-long mentoring from the African Entrepreneurship Award, J-Palm has taken off. Mahmud says that the Award “put fuel on the fire” of an already interesting project.

From 0 to 600 Empowered Sales Agents

J-Palm fuels the fire with a motivated and swelling sales force. From 2015 to 2017, Mahmud’s sales force grew from zero to 175 agents. In 2018, J-Palm will increase that number to 600. Mahmud says a growing sales force came from the realization that “only 2% of Liberians shop in supermarkets.” The company needed to get J-Palm products directly to the people. Mahmud recruited and trained two sales agents from a restless and jobless labor force. Within days, these sales agents were earning commission and a steady salary, requiring Mahmud to rapidly increase his sales force. Each agent goes through a brief training course on sales and marketing, as well as information on the product they are pitching. Then, Mahmud sends them out to sell. After a two-week trial period, sales agents

earn about 38% commission and they also earn a sense of pride.

With this approach, profits skyrocketed and employees improved their livelihoods. Rita N. Paya, a J-Palm sales rep, says, “I’m so happy and proud of being at J-Palm. It has made me who I am today. I was sitting at home doing nothing and now I am able to feed my family. Right now, I’m father and mother to my children. J-Palm pays us based on our hard work. The more we sell the more money we earn. So, I’m so happy being at J-Palm.”

Mahmud, left, recognizes top sales agents with prizes and scholarships.
Mahmud, left, recognizes top sales agents with prizes and scholarships.

A Foundation for Lasting Impact

Changing the narrative of Liberia, means changing lives. Jack Moses, a top sales agent for J-Palm Liberia, sums up what makes the company special. He says, “It’s really amazing to work at J-Palm. A company that has taken a simple product, like the palm kernel, to help improve the lives of many people.”

Mahmud’s background inspires his desire to create impact. He says that “When I was growing up in Liberia, my parents didn’t have a lot of money. My mom was able to get a job, and she also took a small loan from a family member. She used that money to start a used clothing business. Based on the proceeds, she was able to send me to school.”

His mother had a small opportunity to change boy Mahmud’s life. It is these opportunities that entrepreneur Mahmud wants to create for others. He says, “When I think about long term development in Liberia, I think of it on a very micro level. How can we empower moms and dads so that they can make the kinds of investments in their children’s future that will ultimately lead to long term impact?”

His sales agents are moms and dads given opportunities for better lives. J-Palm awards a scholarship every quarter for top performing agents. Momodou Fatajoh, J-Palm’s Recruitment and Training Coordinator, says, “We create opportunities and empower our sales reps. This school year we provided scholarships to 30 of our sales reps. Some of them chose to send their brothers, sisters, children to school. We also give awards and gifts like beds, TVs and phones to our top performing sales reps. All of these help to impact their lives.”

New Employees, New Machines and an Office Facelift

Award funding enabled a powerful sales force to have more products to sell. The $150,000 helped Mahmud to scale up his operations. New machinery increased production capacity from 300 bottles to 3,000 bottles a day. These machines meet the increasing demand for Kernel Fresh. J-Palm manages their back-office logistics with 15 full time staff, up from just four in 2016.

Award funding also gave J-Palm a facelift as Mahmud modernized and expanded his Monrovia headquarters. With a sales-driven business, Mahmud says “we realized that perception is very important.” With a new office J-Palm attracts more sales agents and referrals and Mahmud says, “We have a lower walk away rate as people realize we are credible.”

Increasing Profits up to 80% for 400 Farmers

J-Palm’s impact goes beyond processing operations and downstream sales agents. Upstream smallholder farmers have improved livelihoods. Farmer participation increased from 60 in 2015 to now more than 400. And, while palm oil is still the signature product of J-Palm, Mahmud is just beginning to crack the potential of the palm kernel.

With palm kernels, J-Palm Liberia produces its signature product, Kernel Fresh. Mahmud says that a big problem for oil palm farmers in Liberia is “there was no use for the palm kernels. People use the oil and then throw away the kernels. So, essentially, we’ve created a market for palm kernels. Instead of wasting the palm kernels, they sell them to us and make an additional income.” By using these kernels for cakes and biomass, these 400 smallholder palm farmers have increased their profits by 50-80%.

Monthly, the company currently processes 100 tons of palm kernels. Mahmud estimates that across Liberia, 220,000 tons a month go to waste, burned or dumped. While J-Palm has made great strides, the company currently works with less than 1% of its potential.

Mentoring Helped Mahmud Focus on the Future

Managing a growing sales force, a network of farmers, flourishing profits, and thousands of bottles of Kernel Fresh, demands great wisdom. Mahmud, a college educated entrepreneur was managing well. However, he admits, “there wasn’t a lot of big picture thinking.” In the midst of “putting out fires and managing the little bit of cash we had,” it took Award mentoring to help Mahmud come to certain realizations.

Mentors encouraged Mahmud to effectively manage receivables. Mahmud says, “We were giving out the Kernel Fresh stock, and collecting the money later. A mentor reiterated to me that it was important to focus on the cash because ultimately that is what’s going to make your business stay alive.” Mahmud has since refined his collections process with the help of new employees. Sales agents now pass through a trial period, and are first given a limited amount of stock. Mahmud says these shifts “allow us to make sounds business decisions and not take too much risk.”

Mentoring lifted Mahmud’s eyes to the big picture. Mahmud remembers the application process. He says, “We were in the trenches and trying to gain some market traction. The mentorship I received, as well as the structure of the questions being asked allowed me to step back and think about where we wanted to be two, three, five years from now.”

Mahmud and J-Palm are future focused. These same principles Mahmud uses to inspire his employees and sales agents. He says that “I took the idea of monthly projections from AEA, and I use that with my company on a monthly basis for our team to set goals together. For the first-time last month, we met, and actually exceeded the target that we set!”

A Future of Impact

For Mahmud, it seems the best always keeps coming. In recent months, the president of Liberia inducted Mahmud as an Officer of the Order of the Star of Africa. Mahmud brought along four of his top sales agents as special guests.

Triggered by African Entrepreneurship funding and mentoring, J-Palm continues to grow. Mahmud says that in Liberia, “We don’t have venture capitalists or impact investors. So, AEA fills that gap. For me, my business would not have been where it is without the support we are getting.” Mahmud boldly steps into the future and continues to lift J-Palm to new heights, impacting hundreds of lives along the way. The impact is palpable. And, J-Palm sales manager, Melvin says, “History will remember us as young people who changed the narrative of Liberia!”

J-Palm Liberia sells Kernel Oil products for cooking and cosmetics.
J-Palm Liberia sells Kernel Oil products for cooking and cosmetics.