Joe Collins’s African Supplies Ltd has journeyed from the dining room table to being “the most experienced building materials supplier in sub-Saharan Africa”. His journey covers most of the highs and lows of growing a business.
In the beginning…
Joe had been working with a company in the Middle East, AHI Roofing. It was a global brand, whose strategic expansion was targeting Europe, the Middle East and Japan. When he approached them to ask if they would employ him as Business Development Manager for Africa, a region where he saw some opportunity for their products, they had little appetite for it. When he pressed the idea, he was told that he was welcome to proceed at his own risk with ‘not a single cent’ of support from them.
Always up for a challenge and with spirit of adventure still very much alive, he accepted.
The first five years
The first five years was a bit of a slog. Construction in Africa was in the very early stages of a renaissance, but so early that it was hardly visible to the outside world.
The other thing he found in Africa was a wonderful entrepreneurial spirit. He was fortunate to join with several distribution partners in different African countries at a time when they too were starting their businesses.
As Joe says, “When you know that your business partners are also your friends and you realise that you will be growing old together, how you behave and relate with one another becomes quite different.” When he was in the Middle East he would often hear people comment “It’s not personal, it’s business”; but in Africa, the opposite was and remains true:- “It’s not business, it’s personal”.
And what of the future? Here’s a quick interview with Joe:
We’ve built up experience in 21 countries across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and in doing so have become the most experienced international company in this market sector.
As a consequence, we’ve also become very good in consumer and trade marketing to African markets and something of an expert in shipping and logistics. We currently ship 80-100 containers per month across the region.
We know that core to our business is the strong position we’ve created for our current manufacturing partners and their brands; so it’s vital that we first ring-fence this business and ensure that it remains our priority at all times.
What was your scariest moment?
Probably going for a stroll around Nairobi city centre at dusk isn’t the wisest move; and there are some West African airlines no longer in business who, in retrospect, I don’t think I would consider flying with again. Brushing the top of the trees at the end of the runway with the plane’s undercarriage isn’t a feature of air travel that I want to repeat in a hurry.
What has been the biggest threat?
From a market perspective, we face new waves of cheaper imitation product all the time. That is just our competitive landscape; so continuous innovations in product, in service and in brand marketing are essential to keep us as leaders in our field.
What has been your biggest achievement?
When I started African Supplies Ltd, I was told by AHI Roofing that ‘there is no future in Africa – we recommend that you don’t do this’. They sell to over 90 countries around the world, but now Africa is the biggest region commanding over 1/3 of their global sales. I guess I am pretty proud of that.
What is your ‘secret of success’?
Just do the basics really well. Have the best product that meets the need of the client. Have a strong channel to market. Create strong brand awareness around the product which has equity that your customers understand and value.
What do you predict for the future of African business?
Look at every economic, demographic, social and political indicator. Rising GDP, rising and wealthier population, growing Middle Class, mineral rich, resource rich, fast-growing educated population, land rich, rapidly improving governance and just about every resource currently underutilised. African is the future.
Final Thoughts about Africa
Yes, finally, normal rules apply:
- If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
- There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
- There’s no substitute for hard work.
Phone: 01582 807363