Mahmud Johnson is the founder and CEO of J-Palm, a socially-conscious, for-profit company based in Liberia, West Africa. Mahmud was born and raised in Monrovia, Liberia. He became interested in solving inefficiencies in the palm oil value chain after his aunt palm oil business went bankrupt. He conducted several research that identified lack of technology and the labor intensive traditional method used to extract palm oil as key drivers of inefficient palm oil value chain and low or erratic nature of palm oil supply.
In response to these findings coupled with some economic solutions, J- Palm was established.
Unique facts about J Palm
J Palm creates a range of affordable palm oil based consumer goods and clean energy solutions for consumers at the base of the economic pyramid through a vertically integrated, no-waste manufacturing process.
J Palm’s signature product “Kernel Fresh” is manufactured from wild oil palm purchased from small villages in the hinterlands of Liberia. The naturally grown oil palm kernels gives Kernel Fresh it’s clear look and unique texture.
J-Palm’s business model empowers the communities where they get the palm kernels, increases income for smallholder farmers and provides much-needed jobs for Liberia’s youthful population.
Unlike before when palm kernels went to waste, J Palm buys most if not all of the kernels after palm oil production from the local communities and transforms them into several household products thereby solving the waste challenge.
10 things you could learn from Mahmud Johnson, CEO J Palm Liberia
- What is it like being an entrepreneur in Liberia?
“It’s very exciting. There’s so much that you can do. So many things are yet to be discovered and learned. No doubt the challenges are enormous but the opportunities for growth are endless.”
- What did it take to start. Why oil palm?
“It was not easy to start this business. Maybe the easiest thing was registering the business… “Liberia is a very challenging environment to do business in. Getting the right team to do the business was a huge challenge. Small business owners are literally competing with government and everyone else for the limited talent we have in Liberia”…
“The other thing that we overlooked was technology. Buying the machines was one thing but getting it to work was something completely different. Just because you see the machines working somewhere, doesn’t mean it’ll work here. You make a little bit of money when you use the machine and lose everything trying to repair it’ … “Another thing was the infrastructure challenge. Specifically the roads! We spent a lot on fuel, and lost a lot of time getting products from the farm to the warehouse”.
- What are the challenges with your exact business?
” I’d say technology”… “The palm kernels are extremely heavy. By the time we’ve used the machines to process the kernels, we have to start thinking about repairing them”. To really be efficient, means having the right technology that will operate at the right margin”. “Another major challenge is clearing goods from the ports. The taxes are too high and getting redress is a challenge. There is a need to visit the export law. You can’t tax the economy and expect it to grow”.
- If you had the opportunity to venture into a different sector, what would it be and why?
“I always thought my first business was going to be Domestic transport”.
“I say Domestic transportation because there is an excess demand for transport service in the country. If I had to choose a different business, I’d choose this one to help solve this challenge”. On the other hand, I think that the monitoring problem is scaring investments away. People do not want to make huge investments in domestic transportation and loose it to the taxi drivers. The transport fare is not properly monitored so you can’t really tell how much the drivers make per day. Solving the monitoring and I’d say transport regulation problem as well will increase investments in the sector”.
- What other sector do you see opportunities for entrepreneurial ventures?
“Just helping Small Businesses develop proper messaging around their products. Businesses struggle to get their products to the market because of the lack of the proper marketing tools (product development, packaging, messaging, getting the products to the market). Investment in this type of service will be very profitable but will require a lot of time. Running J-palm is already time consuming, I can’t take on a huge challenge like this.
- How positive are you about the growth of the private sector?
“Very positive. Despite all of the challenges that we as business people have to deal with, our businesses are still growing. The private sector as a whole is also growing and there’s still so much that needs to be done. If the government can engage the private sector more to talk about these issues I think we will experience more growth. Moreover, the solution to the problem of job creation lies in the hands of the government. They could find creative ways of rewarding businesses for every 100 or so persons employed. Like if a small business like J Palm grows from 25 employees to 50, the government could grant a reduction in the personal tax for a year. The government could use their tax regime to really encourage more people to become entrepreneurs and start new businesses”.
- What would you consider as your biggest accomplishments?
“Providing jobs for sales agents who are high school dropouts and have zero chances of getting decent employment anywhere else”.
- How do you stay ahead of the competition and keep prices affordable?
“I constantly work on finding innovative ways to reduce production cost and increase effeciency”.
- What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur in Liberia?
“Making a difference”.
- What advice would you give young people making career decisions?
“Pursue excellence in everything. Understand your work so that you are comfortable and people don’t deceive you easily”.
“Network , and I don’t mean the kind where you give out business cards. I mean build good relationships, do good work, be open minded and constantly stay in touch with the people you meet. Constantly share updates on social media about the work you are doing. The important contacts you need won’t be the ones who like or comment on your posts, but trust me they’ll see it and remember you”.
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