Ten years ago a business like mine would not have been possible. I run a startup that relies on farmers in some of the poorest, most remote places on the planet. At any given moment my phone is likely to be full of messages from Ghana, Nicaragua or Benin.
Lisa Curtis , Contributor Entrepreneur, changemaker and foodie Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
Ghanian farmers harvesting moringa for Kuli Kuli's products
Ten years ago a business like mine would not have been possible. I run a startup that relies on farmers in some of the poorest, most remote places on the planet. At any given moment my phone is likely to be full of messages from Ghana, Nicaragua or Benin. While most companies wait to expand internationally, we jumped in headfirst with less than ten thousand dollars in our bank account. Along the way, we learned a few critical lessons about how to build an international, socially conscious business on a budget.
1. Diversify Geographies – I found the perfect international business partner early on in my company’s journey and, stopped there, believing I was done. We were partnering with a women’s cooperative in Northern Ghana to source our main ingredient, the leaves of the moringa tree. I loved everything about the cooperative and naively believed that I wouldn’t find a better partner anywhere else, so why look? Then, three months before we were supposed to launch our moringa powder nationwide, all of the moringa trees burnt down in a Ghanaian wildfire. We scrambled to find new suppliers and vowed to never again be solely reliant on one international partner.
2. Adjust Your Watch Accordingly – Every country I’ve lived in has had a different relationship with time. From “Hindi Time” in India, “Swahili Time” in Kenya to the five minutes early that everything runs in Germany, it’s clear that when you’re working abroad American notions of time no longer apply. We’ve found that particularly in the global south, it’s important to build in extra time for shipments to arrive or processing centers to be built. If not, you’ll find yourself continually frustrated while your international partners might assess the situation from their perspective of time and shrug their shoulders at a two-week delay.
3. Understand How You’re Perceived – As much as we’d like to pretend that all people are treated with equal respect, there is discrimination and subconscious bias in every country and culture in the world. As a young woman, I often find it difficult to get taken seriously by international partners who live in strongly patriarchal societies. Sometimes, during particularly difficult negotiations, I’m forced to ask older male investors to intercede on my behalf. I also find that my white skin means that I’m instantly assessed as an aid worker in many poorer countries. To help prevent that preconception, I often ask our local partners to lead conversations with their communities that explain the concept of mission-driven business and our mutual goal of long-term business sustainability.
4. Over-communicate – Working across multiple time zones with partners who you aren’t able to frequently meet in person can be extremely challenging. I’ve found that the key to forging successful international relationships is over-communication. We constantly use Skype, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp and email to keep in touch. We also use a CRM system called Pipedrive to track all of our relationships. We’ve set the system to turn red, flagging if we haven’t communicated with a partner in 10 days or more. This constant communication allows us to catch issues before they grow too big and to work closely with our partners in resolving them. For example, when a tropical storm damaged a moringa farm that we were working with, we were able to help bring other partners to the table to provide relief financing within a week.
5. Bring American Resources to the Table, But Have a Limit – As an American, you have access to capital and resources that are unheard of in most countries. Particularly as a mission-driven business, it’s easy to want to give your partners everything they ask for. In our early days, one of our core moringa farming groups told us that they couldn’t scale to meet our demand unless we helped finance their operations with a low-interest loan of over $100,000. We felt torn as we needed them to scale and wanted to support them, but at the same time were concerned about the timeline for repayment. We ended up doing it anyways. As you might have predicted, it’s now been almost a year and the promised repayments have fallen far behind. As a small growing business, this loan has put a significant drain on our working capital. We now have a new policy where we will actively make investor and lender introductions and sign MOUs guaranteeing our purchase, but will no longer finance partner operations ourselves.
Running an international business can be a beautiful thing. I find that visits to our international partners inspire me and reinvigorate me to keep going. Expanding internationally can drive new business growth that would have been impossible to achieve in America . In today’s globalized world, all businesses need to understand how to work successfully in an international context.
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