A few weeks ago, I caught up with the Founder of Bravehearts Expeditions, Dziedzorm JayJay Segbefia to share his wins and losses during his entrepreneurial journey with aspiring social entrepreneurs.
JayJay is a Mandela Washington Fellow of the prestigious Young African Leaders Initiative of the US Government. His firm, BraveHearts Expeditions, is West to Central Africa’s sole outdoor leadership and experiential learning expeditions firm which takes teams of European and Ghanaian clients and pushes them beyond their regular limits of physical, educational, mental and cultural endurance in the deepest recesses of the Ghanaian jungle. In this way, the firm not only raises revenue for employment but also provides economic incentives in the forms of community ecotourism guiding jobs, scholarships, and the provision of potable drinking water to local communities to halt the process of environmental degradation and prevent biodiversity loss in Ghana.
What inspired you to set up a social venture as opposed to a conventional business?
I was inspired to set up a social business venture because I wanted to provide more economic empowering alternatives to the destruction of the environment by rural people. My mission was to make it more economically beneficial to rural folks to maintain their picturesque, biodiversity-rich environments in exchange for monies and opportunities more valuable than the incomes they generate from messing up wildlife, forest and riverine resources.
You’ve had incredible results and have thousands of people joining you on your expeditions. What is your secret to success?
My team and I put in place a very personal marketing strategy: we make what we call Expedition Invitation Pitches to our potential clients in which we talk about the endearing parts of the expedition adventure. Then there’s also social media. BraveHearts Expeditions began on Facebook actually.
What inspired you to take that leap and go full-time with BraveHearts Expeditions?
I got fired out of a job. I still don’t know exactly why I got fired, but when it came, I was happy – it was a job the job description of which still eludes me. In any case, I found myself with more time than I had ever had to myself in decades and decided to turn a passion – a hobby – into a job. I could have found another, but I got tired of running other people’s business, most of which only interested me as far as wages and salaries went, but this time I figured I wanted to do something I enjoyed the most, and that was BraveHearts Expeditions.
How did you test and implement your revenue streams?
I started testing my assumptions in 2012 to see whether I could develop an outdoor culture that would raise revenue and create profits I could share with local communities in our expedition locations. I started with senior high schools and had amazing results – 2-Thousand signed up in the first year. Being a low income country, we barely broke even. But it was through the hard work of validating our business models that the opportunities came to take foreign clients out, who evidently could afford the full cost of our expeditions. Our German clients were our most prized assets, and as demand for our jungle expeditions increased, so did the many other innovations we came up with to raise more revenue.
Is business as hard as everyone says it is?
Starting a business is hard work. In Ghana, perhaps, it is a bit harder given our near-impossible access to capital of any serious kind. The biggest challenge for me was convincing Ghanaians to pay to join my expeditions. In a country where people live below a dollar a day, asking people to pay as little as $20 in exchange for outdoor leadership expeditions was a near-impossibility. But I was hungry, and figured to tailor our services to what people held most dear, and in our senior high school market segment, it was the certificates awarded at the end of each expedition. That shot our expedition numbers from 15 people in the first three months to 2,000 by the end of 2012.
What was the dream when setting up BraveHearts Expeditions?
The dream in setting up BraveHearts Expeditions was to be the undisputed continental leader in outdoor education and adventure or extreme sports, offering world-class adventure services in sustainable rural terrain that provides value for money and benefits the rural poor in the long term.
In your opinion and based on your experience, what does it take to set up a successful business?
It takes perseverance to set up a successful business. And a hunger that is deeper than mere profit to make it succeed. It takes sacrifice – what I like to call a hairy, bold and audacious attitude that refuses to go under in spite of the difficulties. Sometime at the beginning, when I had kept pushing, seeking for outdoor leadership contracts and getting turned down by corporate institutions, I remember thinking that if I kept at it, something would give way that would turn our fortunes around. That something did give way, and we now have four, instead of two revenue streams.
Many young entrepreneurs get turned down due to their age. What are your thoughts on this?
My thoughts on the phenomenon that gets young entrepreneurs turned down because of their age is simple – excellence. No one really cares about how old you are when you can prove undisputed knowledge and competence in a field. I have been three times younger than CEOs in my country, but my opinion that teamwork is best built and derived at when employees are hanging from a rope on a steep cliff has found better acceptance than HR training sessions in expensive hotels because I knew what I was talking about – that utilizing real risks (in this case, the fear of falling off a cliff) works better to anchor teamwork lessons than sitting in expensive hotels where the risks of not working together are only theoretical.
Do you believe age is just a number or is experience necessary?
Experience is also necessary, and that can be acquired regardless of age. It is the quality of the experience that counts, in my opinion, and not the number of years spent acquiring it. There are, in any case, many businesses that were set up by experienced entrepreneurs that have failed. When one is hungry, one has little room for error except to make that sale fast, and to profit from it now and in the sooner future.
There is an uprising business model which includes social good and profit. Do you believe that it works?
Yes. I believe profit for a purpose is the way to go. That’s how to ensure enough motivation to fuel sustainability. Resources, material, social, economic or in whatever form, must first be accumulated before they can be distributed. Every social venture must have a profit, even if just to remain socially effective. I was able to provide the economic incentives to our beneficiary communities only after we began to make serious profits because whatever innovation one was going to provide for a social good would still require cash to come about. For some of our communities, cash was the only currency they could understand to preventing biodiversity loss, especially around dinnertime.
What do you think it takes to empower someone?
It takes empathizing with, and living the experiences of people to be able to empower anyone. One must feel a part of the problem in order to figure a way out. And that includes providing all the opportunities for people to help themselves. Not even the weakest member of our beneficiary communities need our help – they have survived longer than we have existed and chances are, they would be around longer after we’re gone. This has called for much humility to bring about change, and to make it clear that the change we preach is as good for us as it is for them, and that everyone – especially they – benefit.
What advice would you give to a young and aspiring entrepreneur?
My advice to young and aspiring entrepreneurs – don’t waste too much time with long business plans. They have their place – but long after you have made your money. You are too hungry to waste time on business plans in any case. My advice is to quickly identify the product or service you can sell to your client and to quickly make that sale… unless you intend to eat your own product or service by yourself, of course. More sales means more profits, and more profit means less loans and debt, and less venture capitalists to mess up your business. Don’t waste too much time. Find your customer, and all others – wealth, success, fame, etc. – will be sure to follow. Unless you have a customer willing and able to buy what you are prepared to make, you don’t have a business.
BraveHearts Expeditions are currently crowdfunding to build an education centre on Lake Volta. You can join them and help bring this idea to life here.