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Cordaid NL
Private Sector Development Sierra Leone

‘You have to love what you do’. Graduate starts her own business in Freetown

Cordaid’s Resilient Business Development Services (RBDS) program continues to support small enterprises in Sierra Leone, in growing and strengthening their businesses. One of the participants in this program is Saffie Barrie Akam, owner and founder of Everhealthy Pharmacy. In celebration and support of people making their businesses flourish against all odds, today we look at the story of Saffie’s entrepreneurial journey.

(Saffie Barrie Akam behind the counter at Everhealthy pharmacy in Freetown. © Cordaid/Caitlin Masoliver)

Saffie Barrie Akam first opened the doors of her pharmacy, Everhealthy, in September 2017. It is located in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone that lies along the country’s western coast. This busy and fast-growing city is the business capital of Sierra Leone, not only the largest city but also the economic hub home to 1 million of the country’s population of 7 million.

‘I learned a lot’

As part of Saffie’s journey to growing her business, she enrolled in the Resilient Business Development Services program. Here, she received training and support on strengthening her business model and took part in a business exchange trip to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Speaking of her time in this program, she says “I learned a lot from Cordaid… I think now like a matured person and for the business, I think constantly about ways I can grow the business, innovative ways I can attract more customers.”

From graduate to business owner

Saffie grew up in Abidjan and knew since she was young that she would study medicine at university, having had a life-long passion for science and healthcare. Soon after beginning her studies at the College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences, she discovered her affinity for pharmacy after selecting this as her specialization, she set her next goal to graduate with a certification to practice as a pharmacist, which she hoped would one day lead her to become the owner of her own pharmacy. What she did not anticipate was opening her own pharmacy a year after graduating from university.

A view of Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown. © Cordaid / Caitlin Masoliver

Saffie was one of the eleven students graduating from her school in pharmacy that year. Like many graduates, Saffie took her first step into the job market, searching for an entry-level position in the pharmaceutical industry. After some time, however, she discovered that finding work in this sector in the busy capital of Freetown was hard – much harder than she initially expected, with high levels of competition for the small number of spots available.

“To start the business, we had to sell our car, took loans from family and friends and all our savings. Just to be able to put the funds together.”

Saffie Barrie Akam, owner of Everhealthy Pharmacy

After searching for a while without luck, she decided to take things into her own hands. Rather than applying to work for someone else’s pharmacy, she chose to create her own. And thus,  just a few months after graduating, she became the founder of her own pharmacy, Everhealthy. “My dream has always been to own a pharmacy practice, a proper community pharmacy, but then I wasn’t looking at starting it at the point that I did. But a series of events came up, I looked for a job and I couldn’t get a job, so I decided “okay… we can just start the business!”, Saffie explains

Obstacles along the way

In Saffie’s original plan, she expected to work for a few years after she graduated, in order to gather the necessary funds to open her own pharmacy. This, of course, did not happen, as Saffie began her entrepreneurial path so soon after her time as a student. While she was able to navigate around the lack of available jobs for her in the pharmaceutical industry, by choosing to start her business straight away she encountered her next hurdle; finance.

“I learned a lot from Cordaid… I think now like a matured person and for the business, I think constantly about ways I can grow the business, innovative ways I can attract more customers.”

Saffie Barrie Akam, owner of Everhealthy Pharmacy

Securing the necessary financial means to take her business off the ground was not easy, especially considering she had graduated from university just a few months earlier. She and her husband had to be resourceful, pooling together all of their savings, finding help from supportive friends and family, and even selling their valuables such as their car.

“To start the business, we had to sell our car and took loans from family and friends. Just to be able to put the funds together”, Saffie explains. “And all our savings, because it’s a partnership between my husband and me… renting the shop is a huge capital, and then fixing all the fixtures, the aluminum shelves… it was quite costly because you want to make it as attractive as possible as well.”

Bringing affordable healthcare to Freetown

Despite the difficulty in sourcing the initial necessary finance, since opening in late 2017, Everhealthy has expanded to provide more and more crucial services to Freetown’s population. They offer, amongst many other things: rapid diagnostic malaria tests; hepatitis B testing; blood pressure monitoring; blood sugar testing, and typhoid tests. Diseases such as malaria and typhoid are common in Sierra Leone, and Saffie hopes to intervene with preventative measures and testing wherever possible.

A look inside Everhealthy Pharmacy’s dispensary room. © Cordaid / Caitlin Masoliver

Along the stocked shelves of Everhealthy, besides vaccinations and test-kits you will also find painkillers, antibiotics, beauty cosmetic products, and bottles of distilled drinking water. At first, Saffie sees her clients expressing hesitation, expecting the prices of medicine to be costly. She explains, however, that “when they come once, the first time they come, they say ‘oh, I thought you guys were really expensive, but you’re not!’… Everyone can afford something here.”

‘You have to love what you do’

After two years of running her pharmacy, Saffie feels passionate about her business, and about people pursuing entrepreneurship in Sierra Leone more generally. From her own experiences as a young woman navigating the business scene in Freetown, she has taken away valuable lessons that she would share with anyone wanting to open their own company.

While work is necessary to pay the bills, Saffie stresses the importance of finding love and fulfillment in one’s work. As a business owner, she notes that this is even more important; opening her store at 7:30 am and closing it as late as 11 pm, these sometimes 16 hour days involve taking care of customer consultations, testing, diagnoses, prescriptions, ordering stock, re-stocking the shelves, and closing down the store at the end of the day. Finding joy and fulfillment in her work brings pleasure to what can be an otherwise tiring and stressful day.

“First of all, you have to love what you do”, says Saffie. “Because I love it so much, I think I’m relatively successful… if you love what you do, you don’t just have to come in because of the business… It’s fulfilling. Having customers come back and tell you ‘thanks to the medication you’ve given me, I feel better’… that is really fulfilling. And I cater to the community.”

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Read more on Cordaid’s work building resilient businesses in Sierra Leone, or on their work in private sector development around the world.