Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

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

From Earl Nurse, CNN
December 5, 2013 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
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

(CNN) -- 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."

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

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

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.

I want to get other countries in Africa and export to Europe and to American markets.
Fomba Trawally, Liberian businessman

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."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 0959 GMT (1759 HKT)
Former banker Fred Deegbe is on a mission to prove that high-end shoes that rival the word's top brands can be crafted in Ghana.
April 7, 2014 -- Updated 0900 GMT (1700 HKT)
At 23, many people around the world are still at university -- at that age, Gossy Ukanwoke had already started one.
March 26, 2014 -- Updated 1055 GMT (1855 HKT)
Regina Agyare, a leading Ghanaian tech entrepreneur, teaches young women coding, and encourages them to pursue a career in technology.
March 19, 2014 -- Updated 1109 GMT (1909 HKT)
US Currency is seen in this January 30, 2001 image. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Africa's top entrepreneurs share secrets to success.
March 10, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Too lazy to have a shower? Worry no more, there's a lotion for that. DryBath let's you skip the bath by rubbing it vigorously over your skin.
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1622 GMT (0022 HKT)
Eve Zalwango started Awaka, a furniture store in Kampala, Uganda that makes custom wood products from locally grown trees.
February 28, 2014 -- Updated 1134 GMT (1934 HKT)
Former doctor started the largest online supermarket in Nigeria, Gloo.ng, to cater to busy women with no time to shop at the grocery store.
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 1511 GMT (2311 HKT)
Johannesburg entrepreneur Claire Reid invented a biodegradable tape which makes food gardening simple and effective.
February 13, 2014 -- Updated 1226 GMT (2026 HKT)
Jean-Philippe Kayobotsi has swapped business suits for delicious pastries to open up a high-end bakery in Kigali, Rwanda.
February 12, 2014 -- Updated 1121 GMT (1921 HKT)
If you've always wanted a closet full of stylish clothes, handmade jewelry and bespoke accessories, then you'd better read this.
January 29, 2014 -- Updated 1858 GMT (0258 HKT)
A free taxi app launched by young entrepreneur Bankole Cardoso is growing rapidly despite targeting those who can afford their own driver.
February 5, 2014 -- Updated 1203 GMT (2003 HKT)
Where do flip-flops go when they break? They turn into eye-popping artwork, of course
January 24, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Award-winning entrepreneur Andrew Mupuya started his business at 16 and has now become a paper bag king.
January 20, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Tohoza online directory rwanda
Separated as kids during the genocide, Chance Tubane and her brother Patience Nduwawe reunited to create online directory Tohoza.com
January 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
snapscan mobile payments
What are Africa's most exciting tech companies? Find out here.
December 18, 2013 -- Updated 1013 GMT (1813 HKT)
What would you do if you had to wait 90 minutes for a pizza delivery? One investment banker decided to launch his own pizza store.
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 1711 GMT (0111 HKT)
African Start-Up follows the journey of self-starters breaking into business.
See the full coverage of CNN's African Start-Up -- the show that follows entrepreneurs across the continent making their dreams become reality.
ADVERTISEMENT