In this interview, Mariama shares her story and thoughts about her journey as an entrepreneur.
How I turned my passion for food into a business
When I moved back to Sierra Leone in 2016, I started working for a local and an international NGO at the same time.
Since the NGO didn’t have an office, it was quite common to work from a café or restaurant to use the free Wi-Fi for the day. I spent a lot of time in my car driving between meetings and coffee shops.
Every day, my colleagues and I would work in a different place: new restaurants, new hotels, new cafes, etc.
Coming from Montreal where the food scene and customer service culture is amazing, I noticed this was not the case in Freetown. Everywhere I went, there was always a reason to complain to the manager, or ask to speak to the owner.
Very quickly I realized that the same complaints were coming up wherever my partners and I went. We summarized that these problems were usually around product and service.
- In most restaurants, there was a lack of consistency in quality and menu variety – most restaurants served burgers, fries, pizza, pasta, shawarma.
- Most restaurants didn’t adjust their menus to focus on local ingredients.
- A lot of waiters were poorly paid and managers often did not invest in hospitality training.
We thought solutions to these issues will help restaurants achieve variety and consistency. Services like menu consulting, branding and customer service are just what many Freetown restaurants needed.
With Foodies Salone (Foodies), we decided to build something that would motivate establishments to step up their game and improve their standards.
How we started Foodies Salone
We tested out our business model through a lifestyle Instagram account. Our strategy was to highlight restaurants that were building Sierra Leone’s dining culture. Any featured restaurants had to be locally owned, pay fair wages and have good customer service.
With Sierra Leone’s small economy, restaurants rely on a limited customer base to make a profit. Within months of running an Instagram account, Foodies Salone began to influence consumer behavior.
Our social media test allowed us to establish ourselves as an authority in branding, marketing, staff training, online listing and advertising, and business development to the multiple restaurant owners who began to reach out to us to improve their product and service.
Soon enough, demand became bigger than 3 of us could handle. With our business model tested and validated, we created our service package, registered our company, and opened a bank account.
Lessons we’ve learned
Educating the market
At the beginning, restaurant owners did not understand what we were trying to do.
We were talking about apps, websites, and social media, but they barely knew how to use Pinterest. We worked extremely hard to find simple ways to explain what we did and how it would help them.
Factoring in knowledge and infrastructure gaps was not something we had initially considered. For startups looking to innovate in unstructured markets, this should be something to consider in your game plan.
Be patient with your monetization plan
As three young African women trying to run a business in our own country, we faced a lot of hostility. On top of that, my own friends were quite skeptical about what I was doing.
The beginning was quite hard because I had no money. I was dead broke for the first nine months.
Most people knew about the Foodies Salone Instagram page, but they did not understand how we planned to monetized the brand. They were constantly asking me: “do you even have a real job? How do you make money? How can you afford to travel?”
When we started, we made a conscious decision not to touch the money we made and to re-invest all the profits into the business. I was living on my savings and nothing was coming in. It’s only when it became hard to put gas in the car to drive to a meeting that we started using part of the profits.
Just stick with it. You’re broke? Yeah, it’s a start-up. It will get better.
Advice for anyone looking to start a company?
- Solve a problem. Necessity is the mother of invention. If you are looking for inspiration on what kind of business to start, think about things that are lacking in your routine.
- Do NOT accept freebies. Some people will try to get you to work for free with gifts. Always assess the value of what you are given and the reasons why they are given before accepting.
- Stay professional. As a woman, people will be more critical of you. Make sure you keep everything professional. Stick to business.
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