–the inspirational story of a Guyanese entrepreneur
WHEN construction worker Lawrence Braithwaite lost his sight to glaucoma in 2007, the road ahead was a prospect filled with misgivings and uncertainty. He had to find something else to do to make money and maintain his family. Little did he know that he was about to embark on a new path in life that would lead him to overcome immense challenges, achieve triumphs and become an admired entrepreneur with innovative products produced under the company name ‘Braf’s Manufacturing’.
Looking back on how it all started, Lawrence remembers being told he would never see again. But even more, he remembers that the news made him aware of a steely inner resolve that he never knew he possessed. “It hurt, yes; but I told myself it was not the end of the road. This is not the end of my life.” Indeed, it was the beginning of a progressive chapter in his life.
Totally uncomfortable about accepting charity, the first major decision he made was to rely on his own wits and abilities to earn a living. His second decision was to open a small chicken-rearing business. It was a big mistake. He soon found out that raising chickens and selling them, which is not easy for persons with perfect vision, is an ordeal for sightless folk because they are easy prey for thieves. It was not long before some of Lawrence’s chickens were being stolen, forcing him to shift to producing salted fish. But this did not work because thieves were stealing some of the fish that was being dried and cured.
These setbacks might have broken a lesser man, but not Lawrence. He was more determined than ever to succeed. The big question was: What business to do next? His bad experiences taught him that outdoor ventures were more vulnerable to thieves. “So I decided to do something that would be processed indoors,” he recalled. Lawrence decided to experiment with making plantain flour and selling it. He bought five pounds of plantains and ground them into powder using a hand-mill borrowed from a friend. He was able to get one pound of flour. “This has potential,” he said to himself.
He bought more and more plantains and used his borrowed hand-mill to make increasing amounts of flour. He would put the flour in bags and walk around in his community of Buxton and sell to his neighbours. In almost no time at all, he had a growing number of satisfied customers. However, his troubles were not over. One day, while walking through the neighbourhood and selling his products, Lawrence accidentally walked into a trench. It was a stark reminder that life was tough without sight.
Then his bad experiences being a target for thieves continued. He bought 200 pounds of plantains from the market once, but a man he asked to help him take the load to a vehicle made off with the entire amount. Lawrence was discouraged but quickly regained his cheerful personality, determined to press on. “I never gave up,” he said. Instead, he borrowed money from his friends, bought more plantains and continued with his business.
His products had to satisfy Food and Drug certification requirements before he could go further. As a blind person, it was extraordinarily difficult for him to handle the running around and paperwork required, but he did what he had to do and his products are fully certified for both quality and hygiene. Meanwhile, Lawrence ‘beefed-up’ his entrepreneurial skills by attending workshops, and he learned quickly how to market his products more effectively and operate a small business more efficiently. He was able to benefit from a special training programme for disabled people, conducted by the Small Business Bureau. Around that time, Lawrence moved to East Ruimveldt in Georgetown. Through his participation in the Small Business Bureau programme, he was able to secure funding to buy dehydrators and electrical mills. In this way, he was able to produce a wider range of products, including barley flour, tamarind balls, and instant porridge. Lawrence specialises in quick-preparation foods suitable for folk who are unable to spend much time in the kitchen.
For example, his flavoured instant porridge mix—made of whole wheat flour and milk—requires only the addition of warm water to be table-ready. Besides this, his fish-cake mix—made from potato flour, fish, oats and seasonings—only requires being mixed with water, left to rest for 10 minutes and fried for one minute. Lawrence’s never-say-die attitude has paid off as his business continues to grow. His long term goal is to set up a factory and create opportunities for employment. He is seeking land to achieve this goal.
Always keen to explore new opportunities, he is one of the innovative Guyanese manufacturers who will put their local products on display at the ‘Marketplace UncappeD’ exhibition hosted by the Guyana Manufacturing and Services Association (GMSA) on Sunday, December 8, 2019, at the Guyana National Stadium, Providence, East Bank Demerara. This is not his first time at Uncapped. According to Lawrence, “A friend encouraged me to participate in UncappeD, and I have no regrets.” He said his products gained great exposure at the event and many patrons had complimented him on their quality and presentation.
Lawrence has a treat in store for persons who visit his booth at the upcoming UncappeD event. “I will introduce a special dip made of tomatoes and bilimbi,” he said, noting that his various products will be on sale. Right now, Lawrence’s preparations for the event are moving into high gear and, amazingly, he is putting everything together using a computer and a touch-screen smartphone. He is looking forward to meeting customers and making new friends at UncappeD, particularly those of us who are intrigued by the incredible story of this indefatigable Guyanese entrepreneur who lost his eyesight, but never lost his inner vision. (Feature provided by GMSA Marketplace Uncapped)