Jennifer Barassa, 63, is an accomplished Kenyan entrepreneur. She runs Top Image Africa, a below-the-line advertising agency with operations in Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Zambia, Congo Brazzaville, Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria and Niger. Below-the-line advertising strategies generally promote products in ways other than through television, radio, magazines and newspapers. The company handles customer engagement, merchandising, promotions and billboard advertising.
But it is its expertise in rolling out and growing mobile money agency networks that has catapulted the company into the industry’s top tier. Top Image has been involved with mobile money transfer service M-Pesa almost since its launch. The firm helped design the training curriculum and test used for M-Pesa agents, and today continues to provide services in training and monitoring agents.
Initially, Top Image was given the target of reaching 1,200 agents in one year but surpassed this, recruiting over 1,400. Since then it has contributed in growing M-Pesa’s agent network from the initial 165 to over 90,000 today. Following this success, Top Image has been hired by other mobile network operators such as MTN, Airtel and Orange.
Barassa is now recognised as an expert in agent network management. She has consulted for the World Bank on mobile money matters, won numerous awards, and often speaks at conferences about agent management.
She recently shared her experiences in entrepreneurship at the ‘Youthful Multimillionaire Entrepreneurial Conference’ in Nairobi.
Barassa told the audience she started her career as the first African female teacher at one of Nairobi’s best high schools, called Lenana. Although it was prestigious to teach there and the job came with some perks, she wanted more. So she quit teaching, to the surprise of many.
“I was very ambitious. I wanted to make money. I wanted to drive a good car. I wanted to wear gold. And I knew teaching, though being a noble profession, would not give me the kind of things I wanted. So I took up a job as a sales representative for Kodak. Nobody could believe I could leave such a good school, that a university graduate would go hit the streets of Nairobi to sell films.”
Barassa took evening classes and polished her marketing skills. She worked with some of East Africa’s largest corporations such as Johnson & Johnson and Sterling Health (now GSK) where she rose through the ranks to become a top executive. But again she grew restless. She quit in 1995 to start her own business, initially running it from her living room.
It took her just six months after starting her company to generate revenues worth Ksh.1m. She attributes this to the friendships and good relationships developed during her career.
“What opened doors for me to get my first [orders] were my former boss and brand managers I worked with.”
When it came to CEOs and executives with whom she had no connections, she was diligent at getting them to give her an audience.
“I would go to offices and nobody wanted to give me an appointment. So I told them I’m willing to be there at 6:30am before they get swamped with work. They would see this person is resilient and they would give me a meeting,” Barassa recalled.
“I would also pester people for small jobs of even Ksh.50,000 (about US$500). What they didn’t know is I’d talked to five others to give me similar small jobs [which cumulatively would be a good amount of money]. I would use those small jobs to show that I could deliver. And I’d deliver above their expectations and in turn they would start giving me jobs worth much more.”
Quality trumps price
When she got into business in 1995 there was limited competition. However today there are dozens of agencies, some which, according to Barassa, rely on low prices to attract customers. But instead of going cheap, Barassa positioned her company as being reliable and quality conscious.
“I tell people I am the Mercedes of the industry. How I price my products is top of the range because I deliver. I deliver above expectations. If you want mediocre work, go to another agency. People call me, I don’t go knocking at their doors,” adds Barassa.
“You have to differentiate yourself from others and you need to position yourself in the mind of the consumer. We are results oriented. I tell people Top Image is the best below-the-line advertisement agency, and for a long time people thought I was just arrogant until I started winning industry awards and got big deals.”
Barassa advises entrepreneurs not to let the competition dictate the future of their companies. Businesses should study their competitors, but their growth plans should be guided by the initial vision.
“Don’t let competition drive your strategy. Don’t be reactive, be innovative.”
Top Image has grown its footprint throughout Africa and internationally. It is set to open an office in Bangladesh next year where it will hire 400 people to help roll out a mobile money agency network. This is just the start of a planned wider expansion in Asia.
“When we started working with Orange in Mali on mobile money they were number five in the group in Africa. Within eight months they were number one. Soon Niger came calling, then Senegal came calling,” she explained.
As the firm’s operations expand, Barassa continues to keep a close eye on the goings-on in each subsidiary.
“People can say I micro-manage but I just need to know what is happening in each country. I don’t want surprises.”
First put your finances in order
Since financing is still a challenge for many start-ups, Barassa urges aspiring entrepreneurs to save enough money to keep their business afloat in the early days. Back in 1995, when she started out, things were easier because companies would pay 50% of the fee upfront. But this arrangement ended because it was abused by unscrupulous operators who’d disappear after getting paid.
“If you want to start a business, you should start saving early. Have one year’s rent for your house, school fees for your children. Many fail because they did not save, or get a loan, and so they operate hand to mouth until they give up. I know people who have started businesses, quit, and gone back to employment because they were unable to make ends meet.”
Barassa adds she too has made mistakes.
“One mistake I will never forget was simply a spelling error. I wrote a proposal to the Nation Media Group and I wrote ‘busines’ leaving out an ‘s’. I was phoned and asked how I could send such a document. I have also made mistakes in hiring. I hired someone to be the general manager for the company, only to find out that it was not the right person for the role.”
Keeping it in the family
Barassa said entrepreneurs running family ventures should introduce their children to the business from an early age. Her only child, Bidanya, is now managing director, and being groomed to take the business through the next chapters.
“[We] Africans don’t take our children to work with us. Sometimes they don’t even know how you make money. You send them to good universities and you think that is enough. And when they eventually take over the business they run it down.
“Giving children good things is not enough… I used to say, ‘I am a single parent, if I drop dead now, how does my child survive?’”
Raised in a suburb in Nairobi, Barassa learnt the virtue of hard work from her mother.
When she was young, the high-profile wedding of prominent Kenyan trade unionist Tom Mboya to a US-educated pharmacist named Pamela, captured Barassa’s imagination and made her dream big. The 1962 nuptials was dubbed the wedding of the decade.
“Pamela came in a yellow Volkswagen. I can still see it today. I used to tell people when I grow up I want to drive a yellow Volkswagen. She was the first African lady I saw driving a Volkswagen… She was looking so tall and imposing. My mother said if you want to be like that lady you have to read, you have to work hard,” Barassa recalled.
“My mother told me hard work will not kill you.”