By Allison Olcsvay
The Mountaineer, Waynesville, N.C.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A North Carolina woman is taking the leap into entrepreneurship with the goal of inspiring women in Africa to do the same. Her exporting business, “Wema Global” takes clothing that is still in good condition that might otherwise end up in American landfills, and ships it to Africa. Once in Africa, women entrepreneurs there can resell the clothing in their market shops, thereby creating economic impact on both sides of the ocean
When it comes to empowering women, Francine Popular, of Waynesville, has learned a thing or two in her life.
She was born in the African nation of Congo and learned that women can and should make a way for themselves in the world.
She met and fell in love with her husband Gordon Popular when he came from America to work for Chevron in the 1980s as a medical advisor in Congo. When the nation fell into civil war, Chevron sent its employees’ spouses and children back to the United States and Francine and her young son, went to live with her husband’s family in North Carolina.
Gordon soon joined them when the danger became too great for him to stay. The young family settled in Waynesville in 1991 to raise their son. Gordon, and later Francine attended college at Haywood Community College.
Their son, Gregory, went on to become a nuclear machinist in the Navy.
Francine eventually took a job at HCC, but when she lost that job in 2014, she knew it was time to make another big change in her life.
In September 2014, she followed her dream and opened an exporting business, Wema Global. It was her intention to not only provide for her family, but to help better the lives of women in her native Africa.
Her idea was simple, take clothing that is still in good condition that might otherwise end up in American landfills, and ship it to Africa, where women entrepreneurs there can resell it in their market shops, thereby creating economic impact on both sides of the ocean.
The clothing Francine gathers is from second-hand shops that have overstocked, boutiques that have items they can’t sell and donations from all over Western North Carolina. Beth Israel Temple in Asheville donates clothing left over from its fundraisers.
Since 2014, she has built a network of stores, organizations and individuals who donate clothing to her.
She and her son, who is now vice president of the company, along with a cadre of volunteers then sort the clothing and spend weeks bundling it for shipment.
One of the main challenges Gregory said the company faced was sorting out the logistics of getting the clothing bundles into the hands of the women on the other end.
First, the clothes had to be packaged properly to fully take advantage of the shipping container space.
They purchased a used compacting machine that could accommodate the bundle size they needed. One requirement was that the final bundles not be too large for a single person with a hand truck to manage. When the containers arrive in Africa, there is no guarantee that large forklift equipment will be available, so each bundle needs to be small enough to manage by hand.
The next step was learning how to make the bundles tight enough, which simply took some practice.
Then, they had to have their process approved by customs inspectors, who would monitor the shipment of the goods for compliance with customs regulations.
Finally, Francine used her connections in her home country to set up a distribution network of women who would be prepared to receive the goods and sell them on the other end.
Once everything was in place, it was a matter of time before they could prepare the first shipment for export.
On May 23, Wema Global sent its first shipment, 3.8 tons of clothing and shoes, to Congo.
The long road
Getting to that momentous occasion, however, took more than just careful planning and business know-how.
Before starting Wema Global, Francine had never been in business and like many other entrepreneurs just starting out, she needed a lot of help to get off the ground.
The word Wema means kindness in Swahili, Francine’s native language. The word also happens to be Francine’s middle name. It perfectly represents what her company is all about, as well as the steps it took to launch the fledgling business.
With nothing more than a great idea and courage, Francine began to approach people she thought might be able to help. She turned to Jill Sparks, executive director of the Small Business Center at AB Tech Community College, looking for direction.
There, she says she found a family, a business family with the resources to guide her along the right paths.
“Jill Sparks and her team were very supportive,” said Francine.
She was rightly afraid that no bank would lend her the money she needed to get started with no job and an unproven plan.
“Jill put me in touch with lenders who were able to look past my bank account and see the potential of my idea,” she said.
With the backing of The Support Center at the Western Women’s Business Center, she was able to find the funding she needed to get her enterprise underway.
By selling the clothing to women in Africa, who can then turn around and sell it to their own customers, Francine has created a supply chain that is much more than a handout, it is an opportunity for economic development.
“My goal has always been to help other people, to give them hope and opportunities,” she said.
Wema Global also helps people in its home community by providing job opportunities and training.
Gregory is in charge of training employees and oversees the process of preparing the clothing for shipment.
When enough clothing has been gathered, Wema hires temporary employees to prepare the clothing. In the near future, the company hopes to hire full-time staff to help manage what they hope to be regular monthly shipments.
The company hopes to send out two more shipments before summer ends.
Wema Global is flourishing, thanks in part to the excellent assistance it got at the incubation center.
“It’s very easy to make mistakes. Even with plenty of resources, without good information, anyone can fail. That is why their help was so vital,” Francine said.
In the just two years since it opened Wema has been the recipient of multiple awards. The Western Women’s Business Center gave it their Mountain Climber Award for the business that overcomes the most obstacles to success.
Francine was awarded the Minority Enterprise Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year and has been invited to share her success story at this year’s upcoming Western Women’s Business Conference in Asheville.
With its first shipment, Wema is closing the first chapter, but opening the door to rest of its journey.
Unlike in America, in Africa there is no start-up culture, no framework for small businesses to succeed. Francine hopes that her work can be an inspiration to others, here and around the world.
Wema is open to clothing donations or assistance in the way of volunteers. It has its own truck and would be happy to arrange pick up of donated goods.
It is also recognized by North Carolina as a recognized recycling facility.