Emelia Etse, known to one and all as Nana, had a dry foot problem that gave birth to a company, a factory in Africa, and a living wage for a number of people in her hometown of Kumasi, Ghana.
Etse, who worked for Bloomberg as an equity analyst before becoming an entrepreneur, tells the story of her company, JoeNana, at a meeting of the Princeton Circle of Entrepreneurs on Friday, September 15, at 7:30 p.m. at Panera Bread on Nassau Street. E-mail Helen Fazio at email@example.com for more information.
Six years ago, when she was working as an equity analyst for Bloomberg, Etse, having tried a number of local cures, found relief for her dry skin when a friend brought her shea butter from Ghana. There was a problem, though. “I didn’t like the scent,” she says. Shea butter, she explains, is made from nuts, and retains a strong nutty aroma. In addition, pure shea butter has a butter-like texture, rather than the creamy texture most people prefer in skin products.
Etse enlisted the help of her husband, Joseph Etse, a scientist with a Ph.D. in natural product chemistry, who works for Novartis in East Hanover, to help formulate a more appealing shea butter cream. He in turn received help from friends who also work as chemists. The result is a cream that contains 50 percent shea butter and that, says Etse, is pleasantly fragrant, having shed its strong natural, nutty aroma.
JoeNana shea butter cream made its official debut at the Princeton YWCA Crafters’
Marketplace in November, 2004. Etse sold some five dozen jars and decided that the product was ready for prime time. The company she and her husband formed to manufacture and distribute JoeNana is designed to make a profit — in about two years, Etse estimates — but it has a larger goal as well.
“My husband and I had been thinking of what to do to pay back our country,” she says. Both were born and grew up in Ghana. Etse’s father and his family owned a number of cocoa farms, while her mother raised a family of six. Etse, who was “always interested in finance and accounting,” earned a degree in accounting from Rutgers in 1993. She and her husband had immigrated to the United States when he was offered a job working on an aid project for the University of Georgia. They came to New Jersey in 1989 when he took a job with Carter Wallace.
After the idea for a shea butter product was conceived, Etse made a trip to Ghana, to the villages where the shea butter seeds are cooked and made into a cream. “I got so interested,” she says. “I wanted to support the women who do it.” She has made several trips since, and now employs eight people in Ghana. They prepare the raw shea butter and send it to her home in Belle Mead, where she turns it into JoeNana cream.
That manufacturing scheme is soon to change. She has built a factory in Kumasi and plans to employ 200 people to turn out her product there. The factory manager is her brother, Kwabena Asante, who oversaw construction of the facility. She says that she will pay her factory workers at least twice the prevailing wage in Ghana so that they will be able to raise their standard of living.
Etse now sells much of the JoeNana cream, along with black soap, another product using ingredients from Africa, via her website, www.joenana.com.
She was forced to design the website herself when her younger son, her computer consultant, left for Cornell. He is now a junior, studying computer science and business, and his mom has learned to program a website. “It’s a good thing,” she says. “I was so dependent upon him.” (Her older son graduated from Ursinus in the spring with a degree in biology and is now working for Bristol-Myers Squibb.)
In addition to building and maintaining the website, Etse does all of the graphics for JoeNana’s labels and marketing materials.
With manufacturing about to go into high gear, she is still struggling with distribution. Most sales now come from the company website and from craft fairs like the one the Princeton YWCA holds each year. Etse has also lined up distributors in Turkey and in Trinidad and is in the process of signing up a distributor in Japan. She is actively looking for more distributors and is in the early stages of trying to get JoeNana products onto store shelves. It’s been hard sledding so far. “I’ve written to Whole Foods,” she says. “I haven’t heard back from them. I’m now writing an inquiry to see what they want.”
Representatives from the big chains are not returning calls, and visits to smaller stores have not been terribly successful. Part of the problem in placing the product with retailers, says Etse, has been that “we didn’t have the facility in place.” Now, with the factory ready to start turning out product, she is confident that stores will be more receptive. “It’s all a matter of getting to the right person,” she says.
There is a long road still to be walked, but Etse is confident that JoeNana will make it, and will enrich the lives of hundreds of poor Ghana residents along with the way.