Gemeh Kromah (2016) spent 15 years of his life in refugee camps, at times surviving on leftovers from customers’ plates in a makeshift restaurant. He was just five when he and his family fled war-torn Liberia and headed to the border of neighbouring Guinea. At 12, he was separated from his mother and for the next eight years lived in three different camps.
Kromah describes the camp where he spent most of this time, and which housed 2000 refugees, as “no different to a prison”. “It was terrible; life was inconclusive,” he says. Kromah was finally offered refuge in Australia in 2005, arriving in Melbourne with some of his non-biological ‘family’.
“When I came to Australia I said, ‘This is heaven for me; I need to make use of the opportunities here’.”
He embarked on a Bachelor of Counselling at the Australian College of Applied Psychology, before completing a Bachelor of Social Work at Monash University.
While working as a social worker, Kromah noticed a lot of the women he was dealing with were from non-English speaking backgrounds and unable to find work. They were also staying at home to look after children.
He set up a unique business where mothers with limited English could work as childcare workers in their homes, looking after other people’s children, as well as their own.
A year later he enrolled in the first cohort of the University of Melbourne’s Master of Entrepreneurship, a one-year course that equips students with mentoring and networking opportunities, as well as the practical skills needed to create and grow businesses.
The experience was “amazing”, he says.
“Before the course, my business was at a grass-roots level; we were stuck in terms of financial growth. On completing the Masters, we went ‘boom!’”
But his entrepreneurial drive had been ignited: while studying, Kromah picked up on another business opportunity. He noticed some of the women working for him were bringing beauty products back from Africa when they visited, on-selling them to friends in Australia.
Using his new research skills, Kromah identified a gap in the Australian market and has since found suppliers in Indonesia and Ivory Coast to help launch an online cosmetics company later this year that specialises in products made for black skin.
The 32-year-old’s ventures do not end there: he is also a freelance business consultant, recently opened a West- African restaurant and plans to open a massage parlour. His ultimate goal: to set up an entrepreneurship training institute in Liberia.
“The problem for Africa is unemployment and lack of entrepreneurial skills,” he laments. “Africa needs entrepreneurs that build wealth for themselves and create employment for others.”
Originally published on the University of Melbourne’s 3010 magazine.