Exporting local products, importing love

Nicole James | North Africa

Known for its vibrant tiles and intricate hand-woven rugs, North Africa also boasts a variety of products prized for culinary and skin care purposes. Several workers have started businesses based on these natural resources, allowing them to connect with locals and spread Jesus’ love.

A link in the chain

Even before Jared* and Lacy* left their home country in Asia, a pharmacist friend told them about a North African product popular in high end skin and hair care. “When you’re there, check it out,” he recommended.

During their first year in country, the couple focused on language rather than business opportunities, but they did find a sample of the product in a local market and sent it to their friend for Christmas.

As a pharmacist and business-minded person, he passed the present along to a client, who raved about the product. Then their friend asked Jared and Lacy to ship multiple boxes of the product to him.

Soon they found a reliable supplier and began exporting the all-natural, fair trade product regularly. One woman, who had suffered from a skin condition for years, noticed a distinct improvement after using the imported North African product. Harvesting the product also provides jobs for local women, Lacy noted.

“I see it as a picture of a chain. You have the women who have been doing all this work, our supplier who comes along and discovers this…We come along and we buy from him and we export it,” she described. “It’s like a reflection of the kingdom of God. We all have a different role to play. We all need each other.”

By partnering with another local company to sell the product, Jared and Lacy gained their residency permit through the business. “We don’t see a difference between ministry and work,” Jared explained. “We’re doing business with integrity, caring for local people and caring for local believers.”

The couple regularly shares business insight with their local friends, including the ways they have resisted the country’s rampant corruption. Spreadsheets and sales are “everyday talk that they understand,” Lacy said. “Because the product is a uniquely local product and we are exporting it, they feel that sense of pride and connection.”

Every business owner hopes to be profitable, but many businesses fail. “This business might close after a few years,” Lacy acknowledged. “During the time that it was open, if we have touched lives, if we have shown integrity, paid our bills, paid the staff that we hired and treated them well, we feel that honours God and makes a difference.”

A vehicle for truth

Long-term worker Amos* also heard about a promising natural product from someone outside the country. He started to explore the product with a local friend, Fadi*, who wanted to start a business and beat the unemployment facing many university graduates.

Amos’ business model sells for high profit abroad. In order to tap into the international market, Amos partnered with a pair of wealthy locals well-connected in the export business.

“There’s lots of risks involved in getting into business with locals,” he said. “At the moment there’s no money involved, but it has the potential to make a lot of money. I think the Lord is teaching me to hold it with very open hands.”

Still, Amos saw the venture as a reason to invest in his friend Fadi on a regular basis. “My prayer is really the same for Fadi and for these rich Muslim businessmen that we’re involved with. They’ve never had a Christian in their lives, and now I have a reason to be there.”

In the office and on the 40-minute drives to the area where the product is produced, Amos looks for opportunities to share. “There are not many workers in our community who have access to that kind of circle,” Amos explained. “What the Lord does with those interactions is up to Him. But my dream with this business is that it would be a vehicle for His truth.”

Nonetheless, the everyday motion of looking for openings often seems “ordinary and unsupernatural and difficult,” Amos shared. “Sometimes I think it’s futile to listen to these guys for hours and hours and hours, but if I get to say that one thing…and they spend even ten minutes thinking about what that might mean, I’m happy with that.”

With Fadi, Amos told him outright that he wasn’t interested in creating a successful business together, but discovering, when they died, that one of them was wrong about truth.

“It’s no problem,” Fadi regularly reassured him.

“It is a problem,” Amos countered. “Because when we die, one of us is right and one of us is wrong. It’s more important than building a business. What’s important is discovering the truth.”

Paralleling the gospel

From the beginning of her time in North Africa, OM field leader Marie* knew she needed a clear identity in order to thrive. After four years serving the field doing internal finances, she got a job at a local company, which provided a residency visa as well as a natural way to connect with people.

“I got involved with [the company] because my vision is similar: they’re empowering people, creating jobs for people and enabling them…I got paid by doing the position, and I enjoyed it,” Marie said.

After six years, the company closed, and Marie considered her options. Based on her training and experience, she decided to start her own business focused on training and consultancy. The company provides tourists a deeper picture of the country and gives them insight into language and culture.

“I still believe in the vision of empowering people,” she noted. “My approach has always been holistic. I wanted to be able to naturally connect with people, not just present the gospel in the spiritual sense but give people a tool to help them in their living. If someone comes to know the Lord and they don’t have a job, they’re going to struggle. We need to be able to help them both in the spiritual and in their skill set.”

Marie’s business is self-sustaining and employs locals. Some of her former staff started their own businesses after working for Marie. “They have transferrable skills because of their experience with us,” she said.

Involvement in business has seeped into Marie’s view of missions. “I really see a parallel of bringing the message to the people and marketing a service or a product to your audience: ‘Who are the people who are ready to pay?’ It’s the same with the gospel: ‘Who are the people who are looking for the truth?’” Marie explained.

In both situations, perseverance is key, she added. “There are many times I have wanted to walk away from [the business] because it’s challenging, but that’s the same with the gospel…I haven’t seen anybody come to know the Lord. A lot of friends have heard the gospel, but God keeps reminding me, ‘You’re in the right place. Just keep doing what you’re doing.’”

Building up believers

In this North African country, business is not only important for workers but also for believers. The high unemployment rate makes it difficult for people to find jobs, Lacy said. In addition, local believers might face discrimination and persecution for their faith. “If they can be encouraged and upskilled into ways that they could do their own small business, that would help them be more independent,” she stated.

At a business conference for like-minded workers in the host country, a speaker asked the audience what the greatest need for local believers was. Bible studies, discipleship, theology, the audience ventured.

“No,” the speaker said. “The greatest need is a house.”

“It is illegal to meet as a group in any [public] place to worship God as local believers,” he explained. “They can’t go to the community centre to rent a room. They can’t meet in their father’s homes…The only way they can meet is in a private setting, most likely in someone’s home.”

To get a private home, local believers need sufficient money to rent or buy. “To have money, you need a job.” He explained about this area with such a high unemployment rate, “That is why teaching people how to have jobs is so essential for church growth.”

*Name changed

Nicole James is a journalist, ESL teacher, and adventurer. As a writer for OM International, she’s passionate about publishing the stories of God’s works among the nations, telling people about the wonderful things He is doing in the world

Published: Wednesday, 15 February 2017
Credit: Nicole James
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