Blog and News Articles | J-Palm Liberia

J-Palm Liberia’s Friday The Thirteenth: Tragedy, Resilience and Triumph

Mahmud Johnson, CEO at J-Palm Liberia

It was a damp and cold Friday morning. I walked briskly into J-Palm Liberia’s new office space right opposite the high-end Kendeja Resort in Paynesville. Just the day before, my team and I had finalized the concepts behind two exciting new promotional campaigns for our natural skin and hair care oil, Kernel Fresh. One of our campaigns featured the popular Liberian singer and activist Miatta Fahnbulleh, and the other featured Wilson, a young man who had used Kernel Fresh to clear pimples and dark spots from his face, after years of using chemical-heavy products that never seemed to work long-term.

Wilson: Before and After. Three months apart.

Wilson: Before and After. Three months apart.

On the morning of Friday May 13, 2016 I walked into the office brimming with excitement and new ideas on how to improve the initial concepts we had hashed out. I asked my colleague to help us turn on the generator.

The machine was not there. In Liberian parlance, “the machine said ‘find me!’

We quickly realized that we had been robbed. Overnight, thieves broke through one of the windows and made away with almost all our valuables – laptop, projector, generator, chairs, and so forth. The most baffling and frustrating item they stole was a bag containing the sticker labels for our product, Kernel Fresh. At the time, Kernel Fresh was being sold almost exclusively in supermarkets and convenience stores. Consumers were just catching on, and sales were growing – albeit slowly. With all our labels gone and limited cash on hand, we could not immediately fulfill the few orders we had received from the supermarkets.

We had a few suspects in mind, and called in the police to begin the investigation. About an hour later while the police were taking our statements, we received another bombshell phone call: our company’s truck had been involved in a horrible accident right outside of Ganta, Nimba County. The entire truck had somersaulted and was badly damaged. Thankfully, no one was injured during the accident.

MAN_Truck

J-Palm Liberia’s mini dump truck

Now, I’m not normally a superstitious person. But I began to question fate. What are the odds that my entire (professional) world would seemingly come crashing down on the same day – Friday the Thirteenth, a day widely noted across the world, and documented in literature and media, as an unlucky day? Was someone trying to “witch” me? Was this the end of my company, after three years of excruciating sacrifices, challenges, and hard work?

Given the shocking accident news, we immediately placed the police investigation on hold. I called a buddy to accompany a colleague and me on the drive up to Ganta. I was in such a state of shock that I barely remember much from the five-hour drive. One thing I do remember thinking to myself was, “What’s next? How do we get out of this fix?”

What happens when individuals or, in this case, organizations face setbacks so shocking that they can barely survive? How do people and organizations rise up from the ashes of such unfortunate events? The two main options, it seems, are either to buckle down under the weight of the event, or to use it as a basis for a new beginning – a renaissance of sorts.

We chose the latter.

First, we counted our blessings. We recognized that it could have been so much worse: our colleagues could have been seriously hurt or killed in the accident, and the truck could have run into and possibly killed pedestrians. None of these things happened. Plus, the truck’s engines still worked perfectly, and so we only had to do some welding and repair works on the exterior.

My team and I immediately knew that we had to scale down, to return to our roots. Given that our lease was almost expired, we chose to temporarily relocate the company to my parent’s garage (where it all started back in 2013). Indeed, as noted American economist Paul Romer once said, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” The experience forced us to develop laser-focus on pursuing growth options that were absolutely the most optimal for the business. An oft-repeated phrase on my favorite entrepreneurship TV show, Shark Tank, is: “Sales cures all.” We knew that the only way we could recover from the tragedy was to significantly ramp up our sales organization. We eliminated all activities and events that did not contribute unambiguously to our sales growth.

The first cohort of Sales Reps in our Garage-office

The first cohort of Sales Reps in our Garage-office

At the time, we had to choose between working to get Kernel Fresh into more retail stores – despite the fact that only a small fraction of middle-income earners shop there – or to introduce smaller sizes of the product and price them for the mass-market. We chose to test out the mass-market approach. Our newly hired Sales Coordinator, Melvin Lansana, worked tirelessly to develop our Sales Representatives program in which we recruit and train young people to market Kernel Fresh in their communities, churches, and local market buildings – door-to-door evangelism style. The Sales Representatives model, we quickly realized, was best suited for a new product such as Kernel Fresh that requires explanation and demonstration. With a little training, we saw our Sales Representatives generate in a week, more than what the retail stores could sell in a month.

Beyond the numbers, working with Sales Representatives allows us to see more clearly the impact we make. For example, Jack Moses, one of our Sales Representatives used to make L$4,500 working as a security guard at a bank in Gbarnga. During his one-week Trial Period at J-Palm, he earned commission that exceeded his monthly salary in his previous job. Within three months of working at J-Palm, Jack has rented out his own apartment in Paynesville and has relocated his wife and daughter from the rural area to live in the city. One of our other Sales Representatives, Annie Hiama, recently had an opportunity to meet and discuss about Kernel Fresh with President Sirleaf, as well as with Crown Prince Haakon of Norway during a recent visit to Liberia. Annie remarked during a recent meeting that as a young woman, she believes it is important for her to earn her own income instead of “relying on boyfriends or sugar daddies.”

with the President 2

Kernel Fresh Sales Representative Annie Hiama speaks with President Sirleaf

Motivated by these results, we applied to the Johnson & Johnson Africa Innovation Challenge in December of 2016. Out of almost 500 applications, J-Palm Liberia’s Kernel Fresh was one of the three winners chosen. As part of the award, we get to work with Johnson & Johnson’s incredible team of scientists and engineers to conduct further research and testing on Kernel Fresh, to strengthen internal systems and processes within our marketing and sales team, to develop new product lines, and most importantly, to scale our Sales Representatives Program to create jobs for 1000 young people to work as Sales Representatives for Kernel Fresh. This partnership with the world’s largest consumer healthcare company is exciting for us in so many ways. First, it creates much-needed employment for so many young men and women who, like Annie, can earn decent wages to take care of themselves and their children. Additionally, as demand for Kernel Fresh grows, so does demand for palm kernels in rural communities. Instead of wasting the kernels, more smallholder palm oil producers will now have the opportunity to earn extra income by selling their kernels to J-Palm Liberia.

Johnson & Johnson Africa Innovation Challenge Winners

J&J Innovation Challenge Winners alongside Jonathan Ortmans, CEO of Global Entrepreneurship Network; Josh Ghaim, Chief Scientific Officer at Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies; Seema Kumar, VP of Innovation, Policy and Global Public Health Communications; and Cyril Ramaphosa, Deputy President South Africa

Today marks the one-year anniversary of our “twin shocks.” At the time, it seemed like a curse. But we turned it into a blessing. It hastened our decision to build our Direct Sales team, to eliminate unnecessary spending, and to focus our efforts on the things that matter most: expanding our distribution channels to serve our customers wherever they may be; delivering consistent, high quality and affordable products; and creating hundreds of jobs for Liberian youth. These changes have made all the difference for us, and have enabled us build a more stable and sustainable company.

Sales Team Pic

Transforming Waste into Job Opportunities for Young Liberians

While we hope that we do not face similar stressful setbacks in the future, we are grateful for the direction in which our Friday the Thirteenth tragedies led us. Indeed, as Steve Jobs said in his popular 2005 Stanford University commencement address, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future.”

Friday March 13, 2016 seemed like the end for J-Palm Liberia. Looking back, it’s clear that it was just the beginning for us.

Join Our Team: We are Hiring a Finance and Administration Manager

african professionals picJ-Palm is currently accepting applications for the position of Finance and Administration Manager. Application deadline is Sunday April 30, 2017 at midnight.

The Finance and Administration Manager has four principal responsibilities: 1) budgeting and financial management, 2) financial record keeping and reporting, 3) ensuring process and procedural compliance in financial management, and 4) developing and implementing internal administrative, HR, and operations policies and procedures to ensure that daily activities are aligned with the company’s long-term plans.

Budgeting and Financial Management: The Manager will work with the senior management team to create periodic budgets, projections and scenario planning to guide the company’s operations. The Manager will also serve as the lead staff in tracking business operations to ensure that they align with the company’s budget, and make timely recommendations to the CEO whenever business operations do not align with budget projections. The Manager will also manage the company’s financial disbursements and income receipts.

Financial Record Keeping and Reporting: The Manager will work with the senior management team and Financial Advisor to set up and manage the company’s financial records system: financial requests, invoicing, banking operations, record and track day-to-day financial transactions, and prepare weekly and monthly reconciliation statements. The Manager is also responsible to update the company’s daily financial and operations tracker to assess, in real-time, the degree to which daily financial transactions align with the company’s long-term budget projections.

Process and Procedural Compliance: The Manager is responsible to ensure that all payment requests, invoices, and business financial transactions are compliant with company-approved standard operating procedures for financial transactions.

Administration and HR Management: The Manager will lead the company’s efforts to develop and implement internal administrative, operations, and human resource policies and programs to ensure wellbeing of all J-Palm staff, and also to ensure that daily activities at the company are properly organized to align with the company’s long-term goals and vision.

Ideal candidate:

  • Excellent data analysis skills
  • Self-motivated and fast learner
  • Proven leadership skills/ experiences
  • Strong teamwork and interpersonal skills
  • Minimum education: Bachelors degree in Accounting, Management, Business, or related field
  • Minimum of 2 years of experience in accounting, finance, administration and HR-related functions
  • Proficiency in Microsoft Excel and Word. Knowledge of the QuickBooks accounting software is an advantage

How to apply:

Email your CV to jpalmliberia@gmail.com. Remember to include your phone number and your address on the CV.

Application Deadline: Sunday April 30, 2017 at midnight.

J-Palm Liberia Wins Johnson & Johnson Africa Innovation Challenge

Johnson & Johnson Africa Innovation Challenge Winners

J&J Innovation Challenge Winners alongside Jonathan Ortmans, CEO of Global Entrepreneurship Network; Josh Ghaim, Chief Scientific Officer at Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies; Seema Kumar, VP of Innovation, Policy and Global Public Health Communications; and Cyril Ramaphosa, Deputy President South Africa

J-Palm Liberia, has been selected as a winner of the first Johnson & Johnson Africa Innovation Challenge. J-Palm Liberia’s CEO Mahmud Johnson received the award from South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday March 14, 2017 at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Johannesburg. Johnson received the award alongside two other African entrepreneurs, Grace Nakibaala of Uganda and Francoise Nibizi of Burundi.

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From Sales Agents to Distributors: Empowering Liberian Women Entrepreneurs

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L-R: Winifred Gbeior, Maria Kollie, Melvin Lansana (Marketing Coordinator) and Mardea Gbah

Congratulations to Mardea, Maria and Winifred, our most consistent and highest grossing sales agents for the last three months. Today, they graduated from Sales Agents to become independent distributors.

J-Palm Liberia will provide each of them with an initial stock of Kernel Fresh in the form of 0% interest loan payable over 6 months. They will sell the initial stock and use the proceeds to purchase subsequent stock at wholesale prices. This arrangement is estimated to increase their incomes by almost 70%.

Join us in congratulating these hardworking, dynamic and enterprising ladies!

Tony Blair visits J-Palm Liberia

Note: This post was originally published on the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative Website.

Mr Johnson describes his plans for the future of J-Palm

Mr Johnson describes his plans for the future of J-Palm

Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) Patron, Tony Blair, visited  J-Palm Liberia on Tuesday September 6, 2016. J-Palm’s founder, Mahmud Johnson, showed Mr Blair and Nick Thompson, AGI’s CEO, around one of Liberia’s most innovative businesses.

J-Palm’s model is simple. They use otherwise wasted palm kernels to produce palm oil products, by providing equipment to small holder farmers which helps them increase their productivity and improve their livelihoods. J-Palm then employ fifty young Liberians to manufacture affordable beauty and energy products, some of which are on show in the factory.

Read the full post on the AGI website here.