Street vendor turns $200 into a multi-million dollar business

Ex refugee builds toilet paper empire
Ex refugee builds toilet paper empire

    JUST WATCHED

    Ex refugee builds toilet paper empire

MUST WATCH

Ex refugee builds toilet paper empire 02:53

Story highlights

  • Fomba Trawally is a Liberian businessman who started his career as a street vendor
  • He recently opened Liberia's first paper and toiletry product manufacturing company
  • The factory became operational earlier this year, producing four different kinds of products
  • Unreliable electricity, high energy costs and lack of skilled labor are challenges

He started his first business venture as a street vendor with capital of just $200 but two decades later Fomba Trawally has become one of Liberia's most prominent businessmen.

Like many in his country, Trawally fled Liberia in 1989 to escape the West African country's ruinous civil war. He found refuge in The Gambia but in December 1991 Trawally decided it was time to return to his native country.

Once back in the capital Monrovia, the former refugee quickly realized he could capitalize on a need for one product: rubber flip-flops.

"When the war took place people had to be displaced from another point to another point," remembers Trawally, founder of Kumba Beindu and Sons.

"So in the process of that, they don't take their shoes and they walk with their bare feet. And the $200 that I brought from Gambia, I decided to invest that into the slippers."

Read this: 'Nigerian iTunes' dances to the mobile phone beat

Liberia's first commercial gold mine
Liberia's first commercial gold mine

    JUST WATCHED

    Liberia's first commercial gold mine

MUST WATCH

Liberia's first commercial gold mine 05:21
Can Liberia's tourism industry recover?
Can Liberia's tourism industry recover?

    JUST WATCHED

    Can Liberia's tourism industry recover?

MUST WATCH

Can Liberia's tourism industry recover? 05:00

That initial investment in rubber flip-flops made quick returns. Trawally's business grew steadily and by 2005 the self-made businessman owned three retail stores selling items such as paper products and cosmetics imported from all over the world.

With an entrepreneurial spirit, Trawally next set his sights on making the transition from being an importer to becoming a manufacturer. Thus, in 2010 he launched National Toiletries Incorporated, Liberia's first paper and toiletry product manufacturing company.

"I figured out that our population is about four million," he says. "Out of the four million, no one is producing paper -- everybody is going out to bring the paper to import. Even if two million people buy from me by day, I feel that it's something like we'll grow the economy of this country."

The company's factory became operational earlier this year, producing four different kinds of products: baby diapers, paper towels, napkins and toilet paper.

Liberia: From warzone to holiday paradise?

With sales having so far reached more than $600,000, Trawally says his plans are to double the factory's capacity by the end of next year.

"Since I started this company with $200 I feel like other people can make it too," says Trawally.

"I do not hire family; I personally find citizens, some who have never seen such a machine in their life and I train them and watch them improve. I believe if I can do it, so can they and that's what's gratifying."

Yet, running a manufacturing business in Liberia -- a country torn apart by a civil war that left an estimated 250,000 people dead and destroyed much of its infrastructure and economy -- is not without big challenges.

"Number one, we don't have the power or energy in our country at this time -- we're running on a generator," says Trawally. "You tell anyone that I'm running a factory as big as this only on a generator, they'll tell you that you are crazy," he adds.

Unreliable power and poor infrastructure, coupled with high energy costs and a lack of skilled labor, are all major problems for entrepreneurs doing business in Liberia.

Read this: Guns become weapons of mass creation

But there is one business area Trawally is not concerned about.

"For the challenge of distribution," he says, "I don't have a problem with that."

"One supermarket in Liberia, Harbel supermarket, they are the number one customer to me -- they don't buy tissue from anyone beside me," adds Trawally. "And out of all the other small shops and centers I already have over 1,500 members."

Looking ahead, Trawally says his next goal is to expand the business outside Liberia.

"I would like to see myself outside of the country," he says. "I want to get other countries in Africa and export to Europe and to American markets. That is my dream."

        African Start-Up

      • Move over taxi!

        Taxis remain a common mode of getting around in many African cities. Is this three-wheeler about to change that?
      • From bedroom to boutique

        Christine Mbabazi started designing clothes in her bedroom, now a store owner, she has bigger plans; to become household name.
      • Life in Goma just got sweeter

        War long made Goma a difficult place to live in, but one woman has set out to change that -- and she's using soft croissants and fresh coffee.
      • Parasol and headress

        Designer revamps African fashion

        Meet Kemi Kalikawe, the owner of Naledi Lifestyle Store which specializes in fashion and household items in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
      • Trendy tees redefining Africa

        Translating local charm into eye-catching designs, Definition Africa is a booming t-shirt retailer staying true to its Ugandan roots.
      • More from African Start-Up

        See the full coverage of CNN's African Start-Up -- the show that follows entrepreneurs across the continent making their dreams become reality.