High fashion startup creates jobs in West Africa — Daniel Heyman, MBA ’14

In the world’s poorest regions, there is no single path to development. Government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and private enterprises all have roles to play. Bureh engages with Sierra Leone’s private sector to promote, at a grass roots level, private enterprise and the entrepreneurs who will make this happen, all while being a socially responsible, for-profit company itself.

I recently started Bureh with two colleagues I worked with at MIT’s Jameel Poverty Action Lab in Sierra Leone. Bureh makes cloth belts that we have begun selling online and in a London. In coming months, we will market these colorful fashion accessories in select stores in the United States and Europe.

My partners—Grant Bridgman of South Africa and Fatoma Momoh of Sierra Leone—and I came up with the idea for Bureh while working on agricultural research projects in Sierra Leone. We had noticed beautiful fabrics in the markets we visited. One day, Grant returned from a trip with some particularly beautiful fabrics.  We asked if our local could craft a belt from the fabric to replace a frayed cloth belt of mine.

The result was overwhelming. When I wore the belt, people kept asking me where they could get one themselves, both in Sierra Leone and abroad.. We asked our tailor to make more belts, and we also enlisted a blacksmith shop in Sierra Leone to fashion buckles out of salvaged car parts and other recycled metals.

We recently raised more than $10,000 for Bureh—the company takes its name from a legendary chief, as well as a pristine beach in Sierra Leone—on the crowd funding web site indiegogo.com. With this money, we can contract with the tailor and blacksmith shops each to dedicate at least one person full-time to our belts. We hope to step up production as marketing proceeds. Many colleagues at MIT’s Sloan School of Management have been instrumental in the crowd-funding and the marketing plan

Bureh is a small company. We will never provide jobs for the hundreds of thousands of people who need work in Sierra Leone. But the jobs we do create and the local businesses we support will be important to the individuals involved and to their families and villages. The capital we invest in local businesses will spur more growth in communities in Sierra Leone. Bureh is a for-profit company, but we have pledged to invest half of any profits in start-up businesses in Sierra Leone.

Market-based approaches to development have certain strengths. If an initiative succeeds, it is self-sustaining. Infusions of aid from governments or charities are not required. And like other for-profit organizations, socially responsible companies have built-in incentives to grow. All of those involved in Bureh—from myself and my partners to the tailors and blacksmiths in Sierra Leone to those who funded us on indiegogo—have good reasons to want this enterprise to succeed.

We’re excited to share Sierra Leone’s beauty with the world.

Daniel Heyman is an MIT Sloan MBA, Class of 2014


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