We spoke to two very different African entrepreneurs: Maisson Hassan, whose company Fandora designs Sudanese handicrafts from local and recycled materials; and Mario Demetriou, who co-founded the high-tech aerial photography company DroneSnap, based in South Africa.
What makes your business different?
Maisson Hassan, Sudan: Our business, Fandora, uses local, recycled materials to create beautiful jewellery and accessories. We also organise recycling workshops at schools, cultural centres and prisons.
The name Fandora comes from two Arabic words: 'fan', meaning 'art', and 'dor', meaning 'role', so the brand represents the role of art in a community.
Mario Demetriou, South Africa: DroneSnap is an aerial photography business. Our drones take aerial images for mining, construction, property and film companies. We have professional drone pilots all across Southern Africa, so we can cut down on travel costs. This means we're able to offer much more affordable, better-quality pictures than the aerial imaging provided by helicopters. The service runs on-demand, via an online platform.
How did you get the idea to start your company?
Maisson Hassan: Despite a masters in nuclear physics, I didn't land my dream job on graduation, so I opted to teach in a school until I figured things out. I had several pressures to balance – work pressure, stress, long hours, and no time to socialise or spend with family. The solution was to stop working for other people and set up my own business. I wanted to make things that could proudly be labelled with the tag 'Made in Sudan'; that would capture Sudanese culture and tap into a strong local market.
I spent hours researching jewellery design companies who used affordable and environmentally friendly materials. Nowadays, many Sudanese people can't afford locally made gold jewellery, so the market is dominated by cheap Chinese imports. You can still find Sudanese jewellery-makers, but they often use imported stones and crystals to keep prices low. I wanted to show that we could do it better.
Using a small room at the rooftop of my family house as a workshop, I started the company with two friends. To solve poverty in our community, we thought about recycling handicrafts, using waste paper, glass, plastic and metal as free raw materials.
Mario Demetriou: We started out in May 2014 as a simple aerial photography company supplying drone photography and videography to events companies and real estate agents. After doing this for around a year, we realised that our clients were requesting jobs all over South Africa, but were unhappy with the extra costs involved for us to travel out to provide the service. We realised that the business wouldn't be viable unless we adapted it somehow.
In July 2015, we decided that the best way to solve the problem was to enter into partnership with drone operators all across South Africa. We would refer business to them and, in return, we would charge a commission on their fee. We began building an online platform for drone operators to register and list their services. A month later, we had an active online platform, and after two months, we had more than 25 vetted and qualified drone pilots registered nationwide.
Did you need a lot of capital to set up your company?
Maisson Hassan: I started my business with very little money - about $50. I kept it low-level, working from home and going to weekly and monthly bazaars, distributing my products in neighbourhood boutiques and shops.
We won a grant of $5,000 in the British Council's Mashrouy entrepreneurship competition, and used the money to buy some sewing machine and tools. We rented a space to run our business, and took on 17 part-time contractors.
Now, I run Fandora as a home-based business. I supervise a team of 30 volunteers and part-timers to organise training workshops and public events. I don't pay salaries. Instead, we all work on commission.
Mario Demetriou: My business partner and I began working on the project while we still had full-time jobs. Because we didn't have access to a lot of capital, we found ways to get around it. It took a lot of discipline, hard work and planning.
In the beginning, we each contributed around 6,000 South African Rand [a little less than $400] to buy our first drone. All the money we made was put back into the business. Eventually, we earned enough to upgrade our drone, and we now have several different drones worth more than 50,000 Rand [about $3,230]. By September last year, we had saved enough money to fund ourselves for around six months without any income, so we decided to resign from our jobs and pursue DroneSnap full-time.
How much time did you spend developing your idea?
Maisson Hassan: It took me about three months to develop the basic business idea. The company is three years old now, but we are always thinking about how to upgrade and improve our products.
Mario Demetriou: It took us two weeks to do the relevant research and purchase our first drone after coming up with the initial idea to start DroneSnap. After we'd bought our first drone, but before resigning from our jobs, we spent every weekend and most evenings for about a year working on our idea. The early work involved brainstorming, testing the drone, market research, speaking to clients and offering free demonstrations.
Once we decided to build an online platform in July 2015, we had a minimal viable product - the most basic version of the platform - up and running in two weeks. After we began working on DroneSnap full-time, we were working over 12 hours a day, seven days a week. That time was spent travelling to jobs, doing the work, learning to edit photos and video, learning about cloud architecture, trying to find new clients, and developing the online platform.
How much time do you need to spend on marketing?
Maisson Hassan: We do some marketing via Facebook, and at our home-based gallery and seasonal local bazaars. We want to scale up our business, but carefully, one step at a time.
Mario Demetriou: We spend a large portion of time on marketing and spreading the word about DroneSnap. We have Google Adwords running constantly, and we spend quite a bit of time writing blog posts, working on search engine optimisation and maintaining a social media presence. We attend networking events about every two weeks, and we talk to potential clients almost every single day.
What’s the biggest mistake you've made?
Maisson Hassan: There are two: the first was taking on co-founders who were not fully committed to the project and did not contribute financially. They soon decided to leave, and I found myself spearheading the company alone. I hired contractors to help instead.
The second mistake was expanding too fast, by renting a bigger place and increasing running costs, while our production lines were still limited. After a year, I went back to a home-based business and revised my business plan.
Mario Demetriou: There was a stage where we tried to design our own drone to save costs. This was definitely the biggest and most expensive mistake we've made. We began working on it and ran into so many complications along the way. The funny thing is that by the time we had actually gotten the drone functional, China had developed and released new drone technology that was capable of doing what we were hoping to do, but much more cheaply.
We learnt that we can't compete with the manufacturing ingenuity of the companies that specialise in this technology. We also realised that the technology in the drone industry advances at such a rapid rate that we should always be careful when making purchasing decisions.
Has Africa influenced your product?
Maisson Hassan: Indeed, Africa has been the biggest inspiration on my business. Sudan has a mixed Arab-African culture, so we have a very rich heritage.
When I started my company, I looked at neighbouring countries to get ideas, searching for jewellery designs that reflected local heritage and blended ancient and modern styles. I noticed that some antique shops in Khartoum already sold glass, wooden and paper beads from different countries in Africa. But no-one in Sudan had started making these beads locally, despite high demand from tourists. So there was a gap in the market.
Mario Demetriou: With the surge of the internet and globalisation, South Africans have access to many of the same technologies as people overseas. But there is still a lack of innovation. Our company's strength is that we are innovative and willing to take risks. South Africa is hungry for new developments, and has an incredibly high unemployment rate, so we're teaching local people skills to operate drones, manipulate data and provide worthwhile services. South Africa's currency hasn't been doing too well lately, but that economic context could be a great opportunity to develop a base in South Africa, then branch out and offer our services to the rest of Africa and the world.
We have great weather, so we can operate our drones for most of the year without worrying about rainfall and heavy winds, as our drones don't work well in bad weather. South Africa also has plenty of farmland, so there's demand for our agricultural services.
What’s the most satisfying thing about running your own company?
Maisson Hassan: I am not even close to financial freedom at the moment, but I am satisfied that I have freedom to think and develop my ideas, and manage my own time. I can see and feel how my company is growing and influencing the community, slowly but surely.
Mario Demetriou: Working on things that we are passionate about and that challenge us is extremely satisfying. We want to contribute something of value to society; something that improves efficiency in the economy. Running our own company gives us the opportunity to do this.
What’s the most frustrating thing?
Maisson Hassan: Building a business in Sudan is not easy, especially for a niche, non-mass-produced product such as recycled handicrafts. Sudan has all sorts of problems, and no-one can solve them all. My passion for handicrafts and social work is why I pour my energy into making this project successful. When you truly believe in what you are doing, you don't take no for an answer.
Mario Demetriou: Uncertainties about your next pay cheque can really eat at your spirit and make you negative. It's important to stay positive and keep planning for the future.
What is it about your company that you are most proud of?
Maisson Hassan: If you want to change things, start with women. They have potential to change society quickly, because they work in their homes, increasing awareness among their children and relatives. I am proud that Fandora works for the community. Through our recycling-handicrafts workshops and training, women can learn skills and start their own businesses.
Mario Demetriou: The fact that we have gotten the business up and running on an incredibly low budget has definitely made us extremely proud. We have also constantly adapted to obstacles.
Do you have any advice for other people who want to set up their own businesses?
Maisson Hassan: Entrepreneurship is a way to escape from unfortunate conditions: war, economic problems, and unemployment. Instead of waiting for the perfect job, you can create your own. People may be sceptical about the buzz and actual impact of entrepreneurship, but I am a firm believer that it brings good to Africa. New business ideas are especially good for women. They can make their fortunes through non-traditional avenues, and secure livelihoods for their families and communities.
Mario Demetriou: Make sure you've saved up enough money in case things go wrong. Take risks, but remember that it's so important to make sure that you have safety measures in place.
Finding the right business partner and maintaining a healthy relationship with that person is also one of the most important things you can do. Having a business partner with the same interests and passions can make an incredible difference in motivation and business direction.
Maisson and Mario took part in Entrepreneurial Africa: London Showcase this week, a three-day British Council programme bringing together young businesses from Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, and the UK.