A Year of Mamaa - Lessons learned from starting a social business

It has now been little more than a year since registering Mamaa Trade as a new social business in Toronto. Looking back the year has been very educative, exciting, sometimes exhausting and also quite lonely. I've previously enjoyed working with a team of like-minded people in organisations and institutions - now I need to plan and execute everything by myself from start to finish. And there's so much to learn, from making shea butter and soap to customs clearance and marketing, from taking quality photos to bookkeeping.

I had some experience from social enterprises from my previous work as a director of a development NGO. But I soon found out that the picture I had was too rosy. Already when making my business plan and cash flow projections, it became clear that this enterprise was not going to make me rich. To make it sustainable, let alone profitable, without subsidies provided by a mother NGO in the form of having some expenses paid, goods transported for free, free branding and advertising, remains a challenge.

But at the same time it is a great challenge to work on. I can work with the issues I care about and women I admire and know as my friends. Although I'm in Canada and the women in Ghana or Uganda or Afghanistan, I can still feel that we are working for a joint cause. To make their business and my business flourish. And I'm really happy to continue to work with my previous colleagues from NGO Mondo, who are giving valuable support in the form of capacity-building of the cooperatives on the ground.

It has not been only challenges, but there has also been a lot of successes along the way. I like the branding and now have a decent stock of quality goods in place. Okay, it took almost five months to get a container shipment from Ghana to Toronto and it was much more work than I anticipated. But the goods are here now. Yes, there are still some quality issues with part of the products which we need to work on with the women but those were anticipated - we are all still learning. And yes, selling is not one of my strongest qualities, but we are all able to develop new skills with time, aren't we?


What I was maybe not so prepared for, was how careful one needs to be against all those who want to gain money from you. Suddenly my small new business, that is still running a minus, gets a lot of offers for services I either do not need or could not pay for even in better times. And there are also those who find the most innovative ways to fool you. I'm currently recovering from having my recently established Facebook ads account hacked - someone was running their campaigns in secret with my credit card. I also get fake calls from the tax authorities warning me with court procedures if I do not pay my VAT. And just recently someone was willing to order goods with a fake address to Bermuda. If I only would pay for the transport first I could invoice them later...

It really has been a very educative first year as a businesswomen. Having always though of the private sector as wealthy exploiters of poor producers and workers, I've now recognised that as a starting entrepreneur I'm the one being exploited - working long hours without pay and investing my savings with the hope of getting the investment back someday. But as they say: "If you want it, go for it. Take a risk. Don't always play it safe, or you'll die wondering."

Johanna Helin