Everything is still very fresh. It was a Monday morning on 14 August 2017, and I had been working through the night at a water bag factory near Regent. On my way home, I saw ambulances and government vehicles going back and forth, people crying and running.
At that time, I was staying with a friend and his family. My own family lives in Kono. My father died when I was 12 and I used to help my mother in her farm. I decided to come to Freetown for a better life, but it was rough for the first four years. I had nowhere to sleep so I’d sometimes spend the night outside or in abandoned cars. I worked so many odd jobs to survive. During this period, I played street football with a boy called Alex Turray and he became my best friend. One day, he took me home and introduced me to his mother. She was very nice. She accepted me and said I could live with them.
On the day of the mudslide, I stood on the hill and saw that the area where my friend’s house once stood was flattened. His mother, Musu Turray, his father Mohammed Turray, and their five children, including Alex, all died in the disaster. Four of the bodies were never found. It was a very painful period, and once again I had nowhere to live.
Four months after the incident God smiled at me. I’d seen on TV that we generate huge amounts of plastic bag waste in Sierra Leone, and that this contributes to blocked drains that enhance disasters like the mudslide. I started looking into what I could do to help. On YouTube I saw that you can make bags from paper and briquettes for cooking from coconut shells rather than charcoal. I was really itching to start a business. I only had $20 that I had from my factory work. I was going to send it to my mother, but I told her I needed it for my business and I would send her money once I made some gains. She did not object.
So, I bought paper and made paper bag samples that I took around to hotels and supermarkets. Five days later, I got an order for 1,000 bags from Mariam Hotel. Unfortunately, I did not have the money them to produce this order, but told them my company policy [was to get 50 per cent of the money upfront]. The hotel gave me the money to deliver.
I made a lot of money from the first sale. I earned $200, and my profit margin was 50 per cent. I started my company Rugsal Trading with that $20, and today I help other entrepreneurs in Sierra Leone raise start-up capital. We also donate 10 per cent of our revenue to orphanages and [other welfare programmes].
Life has taught me to be very consistent, work hard, and think smart no matter the challenges I face. The street taught me to be strong, to be a fighter, to persevere. I have learned that whatever you want to do you should start small and grow big. There is no need to wait till you get plenty of cash. I don’t have a mentor but a lot of people inspire me, like Tony Elumelu. I want to follow in their footsteps and make an impact across Africa.
I think Africa isn’t poor because we are physically poor. We are poor because we are mentally poor. You don’t need a lot of money to make life meaningful, all you need is a mindset to achieve. Also, many people think that children should go to school so they can get a job. But school is not just about looking for a job; it’s also about letting the children know that they can make an impact and change lives. We also need skillsets and the government’s help to move the nation forward.
Photograph: courtesy Alhaji Siraj Bah