Thursday, March 12, 2009

Happy Anniversary Vida – the story of an entrepreneur

Vida was born into a family with five children; two boys, three girls. Her mother and father were both educated, her father had 2 scholarships to study in USA, her mother went to teachers college but stopped before she graduated to get married and raise a family. Vida attended middle school in Bolgatanga, northern Ghana. When she reached Senior Secondary School she knew that she didn’t like taking notes, and she liked to be creative. Upon this realization she quickly shifted her courses to home economics where she scored good grades.

With a supportive family, and determined to become more than proficient in a kitchen, Vida studied at Domestic Sciences and Catering in Accra, a top quality school. "If you go to La Palm or Labodi Hotel in Accra, and you ask in the kitchens who went to Domestic Science and Catering at least three people will raise their hands,” she told me proudly one day. She studied two years there, and then furthered her education at Tamale Polytechnic, and then at Kumasi Polytechnic for her higher degree in catering.

During that time she started to think about what she wanted to do, where should she get a job? Accra? Kumasi? Tamale? Bolga? She realized she had a vision. Throughout this period her friends would worry about her because oftentimes, while they were all out talking and enjoying themselves, Vida would be staring off somewhere else—her mind adrift with ideas and aspirations.

Of her own volition, Vida prepared a traditional Thanks Giving dinner for all of the Canadians in town!

After graduating Tamale Polytechnic, Vida needed a job. She applied at the largest hotels in town, but they weren’t looking for anybody. Finally a friend told her about GILLBT, a Christian guesthouse and conference centre that was looking for a catering supervisor. Vida went for the interview and before she could even leave the property she was offered the job! Even though the salary was far too small (60GH¢/mo) she knew she had to start somewhere, so she readily accepted.

It was tough to save money, even when she needed to find a place to live and GILLBT allowed her to stay in one of their rooms, Vida still struggled to put anything in her savings. She knew she needed her own space, to experiment and react to everything she was learning, so in her evenings she would walk around and look for a place that she might be able to set up for her own. Some evenings she would get in a shared taxi—not going anywhere—to look around for a good place to call her own.

Most businesses here start with a container. An iron freight container like the kind you see rail cars made from. One of these containers would cost her 7000GH¢ at the time. On her small salary it would take forever for her to save that amount. So she talked to her employer and they agreed to guarantee her on a bank loan for 7000Gh¢. Now she had her restaurant – she just needed a place to put it!

Then one day she found a place she liked near a washing bay. She found out that to get this land she would have to talk to the chief and the elders of that area. Following a discussion with them they agreed that they would like to develop that area, and that a restaurant would employ local people, so if she could pay them 30GH¢ she could use the place.

Finally things started to look like they were happening and Vida placed her little container looking toward the road with a small patio in front. She bought 4 little tables and 12 chairs. It was enough to start. She made a banner for the road that read “Luxury Catering, Now Open!” and began to serve her first customers. By this time she was making more money at GILLBT, but working the two jobs was getting a bit tough. She needed to take the risk and invest more. But before she could expand her shop she needed electricity. To get connected to the electricity network she would have to buy a pole, and get the lines extended to her place. That would be another 2000GH¢. She’d maxed out her loan at the bank and her savings were now going to her restaurant… they wouldn’t have been enough anyway. So like so many Ghanaians, she turned to family friends.

A lawyer in Bolgatanga got a call one morning from Vida, she apologized for her situation and what she was about to do, but also felt that she couldn’t stop now. After she finished her story she waited to see what he would think. To her great relief he laughed at her anxiety and told her that of course he would help her, and he asked her when she needed the money by. 2 weeks later on a trip to Tamale he met Vida in the parking lot of GILLBT. She jumped in his vehicle and asked him to take her straight to the electric company. “Vida! You really are serious about this!” he exclaimed. And she was.

Feeling that the time was right, Vida said goodbye to the friends and support at GILLBT and set out on her own. Her restaurant is in the area where a lot of NGOs have their offices. She started by selling the typical fare: plan rice, fried rice and jollof rice, with some other traditional dishes. But Vida’s approach was a bit different. One of the Canadian volunteers in the area started coming to Luxury Catering, and instead of just repeating the menu Vida asked her “What would you like?” To which she was told “Beef stroganoff.” “Okay, I can make that,” she responded and she hurried off to the kitchen. One tasty continental meal later, her customer was thoroughly impressed! “Vida! You can make these things?!” And that’s how it started. The expat community is fairly connected in Tamale, and soon enough the word started to spread that Vida could make special orders of traditional and continental food.

Things started to take off from there. Yam balls – a traditional food, but not commonly offered – were next to feature on Vida’s menu, again they were a hit! That’s when I got the call – “Jen you have to taste these yam balls and pasta salad! It’s amazing!” It was then that I met this dynamic woman, and soon to become close friend. It wasn’t just that her dedication to customers and service were unparalleled from everything I’d experienced so far in Ghana, but it was that she was genuine; one of those people who always leave you feeling in a better mood.

Next came apple pie, chocolate cake, brownies!! Pizza, hamburgers, salads!! And it didn’t stop there. When Vida was back in Bolga visiting her family she saw the traditional painted walls and knew she had to bring this back to her restaurant. She asked around for local artists and soon her little container had a face-lift! Then came a deep-freezer, a glass fronted fridge, wines, a display case, lounge chairs, fancy table cloths. As Vida’s popularity started to grow, her busy kitchen needed to expand, so she built a brick walled kitchen attached to the back of the restaurant, added another gas range, a pantry.

Every time I came to the restaurant I found something new. Vida’s dreams are being realized one component at a time, and it’s obvious from each culinary experience that Luxury Catering is more than an income; more than a restaurant. It’s Vida’s. When I asked her about her ideas for the future she didn’t hesitate to talk about her next ambition. She’d like to open a training school in Tamale for school dropouts that would teach cooking hygiene and nutrition, and the art of catering. I probed her a bit to see how serious she was. After a quick mental calculation she told me that she should be in a position to start her school around 2012-2013. It’s not often that I run into people who can so readily express their 3-5 year plan in Canada, never mind in Ghana where opportunities are fewer and farther between. For women like Vida, life doesn’t just happen, she drives it, makes it her own.

Looking around Tamale you see so many of the same chop bars, the same kenke sellers, tailors selling the same clothes, the same provision stores offering the same goods. What makes Vida different? It would be short-sighted to point to one or two few things, but it’s obvious that Vida has an internal drive that fuels her entrepreneurialism and creates opportunity in a world that offers so few lucky breaks.

I’ll be leaving Ghana soon, likes so many other “development workers” who come and go from Tamale, I’m sad to be leaving friends like Vida, but also inspired, and I can’t help but be excited for the future of Ghana built upon the efforts of women and men like Vida. In her elemental way, she’s more of a development worker here than I could ever be. To me she embodies the restless spirit that refuses to give in, the tenacity that will find a way despite obstacles at every turn, and the genuineness to make it enduring.

Cheers to you Vida! To your first anniversary: celebrating everything you are and to everything you are sure to become!


Liz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liz said...

Oh my goodness. This is so great to hear. I knew Vida was on her way to great things ... but I can't believe how quickly this happened.

I still have many fond memories of Vida's apple pie and her delivery service!

Jen - sorry I haven't written you an email in forever. I will get on that. Any chance you'll be heading to the West upon your return to the motherland? Missing you and the rest of Tamale! Please greet Vida for me!

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