knew a business could be based on the Hibiscus flower? Magatte Wade co-founded Adina World Beat Beverages in 2004, a manufacturing company based on a simple, sustainable, fair-trade model relying on manufacturing and products from Africa. Their beverages included herbal drinks, organic coffees and teas sold across the US. Her company supported the Quality Biological Agriculture Cooperative (QABCOO), a group of Senegalese women who earn a living producing the traditional hibiscus drink. Also a TED Global Africa Fellow, Magatte subsequently founded The Tiossano Tribe as she continues her entrepreneurship sojourn. Ventures Africa interviewed the lively Senegalese entrepreneur, and she shared her opinion on entrepreneurship, business, economic development in Africa and women empowerment.
How did your family and your upbringing shape you into the person you are today?
The most important part of my upbringing was being raised by my grandmother in Senegal, where I was free to do as I pleased. Until the age of eight or so, instead of going to school I would lead groups of boys on hunting and fishing adventures. By the time I began attending school I had the habit of leading and the habit of taking initiative to get things done. These traits have been far more important to me than anything I learnt in school.
What is your personal ambition and how do you work towards achieving your ultimate vision?
I want to transform the perception that people have of Africa – Africans and non-Africans alike. I know that the Senegalese are amazingly creative and entrepreneurial and yet when most people think ‘Africa’ they think poverty, war, disease, corruption, et cetera. It is a horrible image. I am working to create the first successful high-end consumer brand to come out of Africa so that people begin to associate beauty, style and quality with Africa. Consumer brands permeate our lives – around the world people’s hearts and minds have been captured by brands such as Coke, Levi’s, Google, Facebook and so on. I want to capture the hearts and minds of educated Americans with the Tiossan brand, and from there capture hearts and minds around the world. I hope to inspire thousands of other African entrepreneurs to create high-end consumer brands out of Africa. In 30 years’ time I’d like people to think, ‘beauty, style and quality’ when they think of Africa, rather than ‘poverty, war, disease and corruption’.
How do you define success?
Achieving my vision. When I feel like I’m making progress towards it, I’m full of energy and life. When progress is slow, I become angry and impatient.
Do you consider yourself successful?
No. I have got a long, long way to go before the world sees Africa differently.
What do you consider your greatest achievement and why?
Deciding to commit my life to what I believe in rather than conventional success. At several points along the way I could have followed a much easier path than what I have chosen but even though I would have made a lot more money a lot more quickly, I would have been disgusted with myself.
What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from this?
Partnering with people who were not truly aligned with my vision. In my first business, although it grew very quickly in the first few years, there were various situations in which I discovered that some of the people involved were not committed to the same goals that I was. The result was a painful detour in my life’s path. With Tiossan, I am far more careful only to work with people who truly share and support my vision.
What was the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
To learn to listen to my own voice and to be true to myself. When one is young, success is very dangerous because one is quickly surrounded by people who are eager to get something from you for their own purposes. Often they can be very flattering and I was too easily deceived when I was young. I had to learn to figure out who I really was and then say ‘no’ to many people and opportunities.
What was the worst piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
To pursue big names and big money as a path to success. I have learnt that many people with great public reputations are not necessarily people with whom I would want to do business.
How important do you think a good educational grounding is when it comes to building and running a business?
It depends on the education. Certainly one needs to be able to learn on one’s own – in starting a business from scratch one is always learning new things. That said, beyond basic reading, writing and math I don’t see education as that critical. Richard Branson is a high school dropout. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, John Mackey are all college dropouts. Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, has actually created a programme to encourage students to drop out of college to become entrepreneurs. I realise that in many countries one must get a degree to be accepted in certain social circles. One of the huge advantages that America offers is that anyone can be an entrepreneur, regardless of education or social status.
What do you think makes a successful entrepreneur?
To see value where others don’t is the most important trait. Most people accept the world as it is. Entrepreneurs are people who realise that something is under-valued and then find a way to set up an organisation that capitalises on that value. They see a market niche that is invisible to everyone else and rush in to fill it. They know what they are good at and what they are not good at and they create a team that complements their strengths. They believe in their vision and sell it relentlessly, even when everyone else thinks they’re crazy or misguided.
Who, in business, inspires you and why?
Steve Jobs is my ultimate hero. Starting from nothing, he had an amazing vision as a teenage boy and the rest of his life was dedicated to manifesting that vision. He was committed to making ‘insanely great’ products that were, and still are, exceptionally beautiful. He stuck by his vision despite some extraordinary setbacks, including being fired from his company.
As a successful business person, what challenges did you face specifically because you are a woman?
Because I like to be a feminine woman, one who likes to wear dresses and bright colours, I initially found that sometimes people didn’t take me seriously. I had to learn to speak up confidently and assertively, and to partner with people who supported me being ‘all woman’, even in meetings.
How do you view entrepreneurship among women in Senegal? Are they as up to the task as you are?
Senegalese women are already very powerful and confident in one sense and yet there are still Senegalese men who feel threatened by women in business. I think that simply by being a role model and by educating Senegalese women on how to create companies, Senegalese women could become among the most entrepreneurial in the world.
Tell us more about Tiossan.
Tiossan was originally started in 2009 after I left Adina World Beat Beverages. I knew that I wanted to create a company based on indigenous Senegalese culture but it was only later that year that I spent time in Senegal apprenticing with a traditional practitioner who taught me how to make traditional Senegalese skincare recipes. So it only became a skincare company in 2010. I spent the rest of the year developing the recipes, developing the brand concept and early packaging ideas and writing the business plan. By late 2011 we launched an early version of the product, which we sold in boutiques and online. But as we attracted interest from high-end retailers I developed an even more appealing brand concept. So in 2012 we invested in a completely new, higher-end packaging design and added several new product lines. We also opened our retail store in Hudson, New York. Right now we are working with several high-end distribution outlets, both physical and online, to scale-up our market.
You stepped down from your post as the CEO of Adina to launch Tiossan. What prompted this move and how did you make the change in mindset from beverages to beauty?
Adina was going through a transition that resulted in a new influx of capital and a new focus on the kinds of brand positioning that the Board wanted. We had leading experts from the beverage industry on the Board at that point, including the founder of SoBe and the former Chairman of PepsiCo, among others. I decided to let them manage the brand as they saw fit. At the same time, the original vision of Adina had always been to revive interest in indigenous Senegalese products and that vision was being sidelined. I started Tiossan in order to return to a focus on creating a high-end brand based on indigenous Senegalese recipes.
What is the business start-up scene like in Senegal?
Senegal is ranked 162nd out of 185 countries on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index. It is one of the worst places in the world to do business – that is why it is so poor. The process of starting up a company is still bureaucratic and difficult in Senegal. Electricity is unreliable, it is almost impossible to fire an employee and so on. As a consequence, there are very few legal start-ups. There is an immense informal economy, with people constantly buying and selling goods on the street, but because of the government obstacles to running a legal business, the formal business sector mostly consists of multinational corporations. I would be very wary of support from the government if it was offered. Often such arrangements are slow, bureaucratic and come with strings attached.
Do you think Senegal specifically, and the African continent in general, does enough to foster home-grown businesses?
Africa urgently needs to create business-friendly legal environments. Africa is the most over-regulated region in the world – again, this is why Africa is poor. 10 years from now I would like to see most of the top 40 nations on the World Bank’s ease of doing business index as African, rather than the bottom 40 as we are now.
With regards to corporate social responsibility, what does your company do to ‘give back’?
The entire reason that I started this company was to improve the lives of Senegalese. Whenever I tour a beautiful school or university somewhere around the world, I take notes on how I can create even greater educational opportunities in Senegal. My husband jokes that 100 percent of our profits will probably go towards creating schools in Senegal. Last year our packaging specified 50 percent of profits but this year a business advisor persuaded me to reduce that to at least 10 percent. She gave two reasons for this: First, that some outside investors will be dissuaded from investing if we give away 50 percent. Second, that we don’t want Tiossan seen as a ‘pity brand’. We want people to buy it because they love the product. That said, most of whatever I make personally will go towards the creation of great schools in Senegal. My husband, Michael Strong, has created some of the most innovative and successful schools in the United States and he can’t wait to get started.
What social causes or issues are you passionate about and what drives you to follow these?
I am certainly passionate about bringing prosperity to Africa in general and Senegal in particular. I’m passionate about education and entrepreneurship and believe that the two should be closely linked. The uneducated Senegalese are wonderfully entrepreneurial but right now I think the French educational system in place in Senegal trains them to be bureaucrats and kills their entrepreneurial spirit. I want to create a new educational system that emphasises creativity, innovation, design and entrepreneurship. I’m also passionate about women finding and maintaining healthy relationships. I’m a great supporter of women’s entrepreneurship and professional success but at the same time, women need to make better relationship decisions in order to be happy and fulfilled. Conversely, because women exercise such a huge influence on men, if women demand that men be good people, men will become better people. I see women’s decision making as basically the ultimate power that drives an entire culture. The more we can support women in making healthy, positive decisions about relationships, the better we all will be.
Where do you think Africa fits into global culture?
I think Africa should be a global leader in design, innovation and entrepreneurship. If I am successful, that is where I’d like to see Africa fit in 20 years or so. Right now, I’m afraid that Africa is a symbol of poverty, war, corruption and disease for most of the world. When we started Tiossan we did an analysis of existing African brands and most of them were either ‘tribal brands’, emphasising primitive themes, ‘safari brands’, emphasising giraffe and zebra prints, or ‘pity brands’, basically saying “buy this product to help a poor, pathetic African”. It made me furious. I want to see beautiful, elegant, cool, innovative brands coming out of Africa!
What do you think Africa can do to improve its brand?
Focus on producing world class goods and services and providing the business and cultural environment within which entrepreneurs can produce those goods and services.
What do you most want for Africa?
For Africans to be proud, prosperous, respected members of the global community, influencing the rest of the world with our brilliant products, services and ideas, while raising happy, healthy families.