We are sad to announce that Zohra Baraka passed away on 7 August 2021. Zohra was an inspiring leader who made a difference to thousands of lives across Africa. This interview took place in 2018 and gives a sense of the contribution she made through her work.

Meet Zohra Baraka, Founder and Director of Mohazo Eximpo Limited.  Mohazo Eximpo sells and distributes handcrafted items in the global marketplace. Zohra wears many hats. She is also the Chairperson of the African Women Entrepreneurship Programme (AWEP) Kenya Chapter and serves on boards of various organisations including Kenya’s National Committee on AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act) and the Micro and Small Enterprises Authority (MSEA), a government parastatal under the Ministry of Trade.

What led you to setting up your business?

I initially wanted to join employment and looked for a job for a while. I had been teaching, though it was not my profession. Life was really tough then. When I realised that nothing was forthcoming, I decided to do something on my own. A friend was going to Canada so I gave her some baskets to sell. I wanted to do something different from what others were doing. I also knew that I did not want to do it in an informal way. I wanted to set up something professional. At first, I thought I’d sell coffee. The terms and conditions were tough so I had to think of something else. I love art so I decided to deal with handicrafts. In 1987 I decided to register the business and in 1990 I made it into a limited company.

How would you compare then and now?

Registration was lengthy in those days and so was everything else. Things have become easier now. I am no longer doing things on my own like I used to. I have a lot of support these days.

What are some of the challenges you face in the Kenyan context of running your business?

Access to finance, especially when it comes to due diligence by financiers. The process is long and tedious and rarely bears fruit. I have gotten many rejections because financiers do not understand my business model. In the kind of business I am in, you can receive millions one month, and then have three dry months. I don’t bank daily like other businesses might. Money doesn’t come regularly. Banks do not understand this. They want to see regular flows of income. In my case, sometimes payments come after 3-5 months. Additionally, most of the banks want collateral and most SGBs do not have this.

Another challenge is information around access to finance. We do not know whether to take equity or debt or which options work best for our business model. Financial literacy is really important. I have had to learn what I know by seeking it out from different places. I wish there was more information available especially advising small businesses on getting pricing right and what type of finance to get to suit your business. Many of the women I work with have little financial literacy and need the support.

For a lot of small businesses, we do not go through financials well enough to know if we’re making it or not. I have learned a lot of things along the way. For instance, I did not know the true value of insurance until 2015 when a wall fell at our go-down and destroyed everything! We lost all our machines and millions worth of business and property.

The other issue is unaffordability of the interest rates; it’s almost 20% interest when you get a loan. Microfinance institutions are a bit better charging about half of that. However, it is still quite costly for small businesses.

Aside from finance, another challenge I face is dealing with capacity issues of the artisans I work with. Some of them take longer to make products than others. I have to do a lot to manage quality and product standards.

Despite these challenges, you seem to be doing something right. What have you found to work best in terms of accessing finance?

I have saved and made some investments. I have rental income that I get from some properties which I am able to pump into the business. This rental income also serves as a cushion during dry periods.

How do you get your clients?

By word of mouth; people give referrals. I also participate in a lot of trade fairs and exhibitions which give the business visibility. Some people find me online. We have a database of over 20,000 contacts of importers of products that we’ve built over 10 years which we reach out to constantly. But still I cannot supply all of them due to capacity.

Which markets do you operate in?

I sell mostly to the US, Europe and some locally.

Where do you see your business in five years?

We are registered in the US. I’d like Mohazo to be the Amazon of products from Africa sourcing all products from Africa. I want to start a website for African products from Africa.

What about in ten years?

I’d like the business to become a multinational company. I’d also like to see the business independent from me. For things to run without me having to drive them myself.

How would you describe the culture of your organisation?

It’s an easy, friendly and optimistic environment. We all love what we do.

What has been the impact of the coaching programme for you and your business?

It’s created a lot of discipline in me which I have been able to pass on to the staff.

What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur and running a business?

I see a lot of potential in people. I like to work with those who have no access to opportunities and give them a way to make something of themselves. When I see that I have helped people make an honest living, people who otherwise wouldn’t have had anything – it makes me happy.