Stories From The Field: Jana Nurmukhanova In Ghana

Jana Nurmukhanova, TechnoServe Fellow, Supports High-Potential SMEs Ghana.

I grew up in the country of Kazakhstan during the change and hardship of the post-Soviet era. My mother was a small entrepreneur, not by choice but by necessity. While working as a chemical engineer, she had to start her own venture in small-goods trading in order to support three children on her own. Her undertaking required a lot of hard work and put a strain on our family, as we often had to help out in our spare time. This experience made me appreciate the value of entrepreneurship and the impact it can have on people’s lives. We could afford a decent house and had food and electricity in a time when many people did not, and within a couple of years, my mother was already scaling up her venture and employing staff. My mother’s success story is a model for how small entrepreneurship enables people to lift themselves out of poverty and create opportunities for their families and others.

As I was completing my business school applications, one of my mentors at McKinsey & Company said that I should look into TechnoServe. I had been writing about my passion for promoting entrepreneurship and small business development in my business school essays, and here was the perfect opportunity to apply my passion and skills to SME development and get valuable experience in return. Fast forward two months later – I left McKinsey & Company, where I had worked for the past three years, I deferred INSEAD Business School, and I landed in Ghana on a hot July day, ready to serve as a TechnoServe Fellow business advisor to local SMEs.

I was a ball of nerves when I arrived at work the first day. I remember thinking, “What am I actually going to be doing? What does it mean to advise entrepreneurs? Will they take a twenty-something year-old consultant, who has never run a business, seriously? Will I be able to help these people?” However, I quickly found out what it meant to be an SME advisor, and it was not half as intimidating as I had imagined once it was broken down into strategic steps. We devised a strategy for each business and performed a diagnostic to understand the state of their current operations. We talked with the business owners about their long-term aspirations, and together we devised achievable goals for the short term and identified obstacles that were keeping them from achieving their goals. Together, we would decide which three to four critical areas to focus one where we could have real impact.

For example, one entrepreneur who produces teaching aids for primary school children aspired to reach 250,000 children in five years, compared with the current 60,000 children. To achieve her goal, we knew we had to improve the quality of her main product, EAZiMATHS, make the packaging more appealing, and increase the marketing and distribution. We held meetings with various manufacturing, packaging and marketing companies to gather information and understand the situation. Five months later, we had improved the product’s design, automated most of its production, and simplified the packaging. She also hired several commission agents to sell her product outside of Accra, Ghana. We introduced her to the largest bookshop chain in Ghana, and she is now negotiating the distribution of her product through them. We also influenced her to improve her bookkeeping methods, helped her to hire an accountant, and together completed applications to various venture capital firms to receive the necessary funding to expand her business.

There are so many things that I learned from the entrepreneurs I worked with as a Fellow and that I was able to take away with me to my next job. To name just a few:

  • An entrepreneur is defined by their commitment and drive.
  • Success does not depend so much on the business model, but the execution of it.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of exposure – you never know where help will come from.
  • Always be willing to invest in relationships and leverage networks when you need them.
  • Form partnerships to create win-win situations.
  • Keep moving, innovating, and improving.

My time in Ghana was special for so many reasons. Along with getting amazing work experience and learning valuable lessons, I also got to experience new things in my personal life, such as learning how to surf and ride a horse. There were so many times when I asked myself, “Is this really happening to me?” At one moment I was helping to feed piglets at one of my entrepreneur’s farms, and the next I was traveling with the Minister of Tourism and various ambassadors, surrounded by a military convoy on the way to inaugurate a new tourist destination. I am incredibly grateful to the people I met in Ghana and to TechnoServe for this experience. It was an absolute adventure and something I will never forget.