Nearly six years ago, Elitza Barzakova joined the USAID Trade Hub as its Home Décor & Fashion Accessories Advisor. In 2009, she became Market Linkages Manager, based in New York City. Now, she’s taking her wealth of experience and insight to the Master’s of Business Administration program at the University of Michigan. Unfortunately, this means she is leaving the Trade Hub. Elitza’s West Africa experience began in 2003 – as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Segou, Mali. She worked with handcrafts producers to improve their business skills, training business managers in accounting and management. As Market Linkages Manager, she helped exporting companies participate in more than a dozen international trade shows and conferences annually while providing support to international buyers looking to source from Africa.
Elitza's broad knowledge and on-the-ground experience led to impactful outcomes for exporters.
: Elitza, you’ve seen and done so much at the Trade Hub! What stands out?
Elitza: I’ve had so many wonderful experiences, it’s hard to pick just one! The most memorable thing to me is the fantastic team of people we’ve put together at the Trade Hub itself. There’s tremendous chemistry, and a highly motivated team. And it’s not just the staff but the producers – who are so persistent and face such issues exporting their products, but are able to put them on the market. I’m also including the incredible buyers – the really good things they do by sourcing from Africa. They also surmount incredible challenges to make it work. It’s people on all sides who make it happen. The teamwork really sticks out to me over those six years – everybody’s dedication, creativity and how we surmount the challenges.
TW: Can you give us an example?
Elitza: The Hallmark project. That was something I never thought would come to fruition and it took the entire team and the Peace Corps and incredible suppliers and a great team from Hallmark. All sorts of people were involved to actually make it happen. I think Vanessa (Adams, USAID Trade Hub director) was the only one who thought it would come through! But everyone got into it elbow-deep, the nitty gritty of production management and quality control. There were so many problems, so many reasons that it shouldn’t have happened. Just getting the raw materials was a huge challenge. It took some incredibly creative thinking to get things done – from finding enough raw materials to actual production. Tailors worked with weavers and dyers from all over the country. Supply chains were set up to get materials to everyone and collect products from dozens of sewing shops. The financing of it was a big challenge, too. There were handcrafts producers who had never gotten financing from a bank before. That was another miracle. And then the language issues – Bambara, French and English – thank goodness for the Peace Corps Volunteers on the ground and Hallmark’s patience! And then the work to get this done under AGOA. Abou (Fall, USAID Trade Hub AGOA Services Manager) was up there for over a week, basically sleeping outside of a custom agent’s door to get him to sign this form. It was incredible!
TW: How did you get into the Trade Hub? What was your path?
Elitza: I was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali 2003-2005, in the small enterprise development program. I did business consulting for microenterprises – teaching companies accounting and IT skills, project management – in Segou. That was really where I learned about the handcrafts sector and working with small businesses in general. It was an incredibly insightful experience. The challenges they faced in Segou were the same ones they faced when they get bigger – the cultural challenges, understanding why certain things are difficult. The experience gave me irreplaceable lessons, without which I could not have done any of the work I did.
Elitza led countless training workshops for exporters across West Africa.
In late 2005, I moved to Ghana as handcrafts advisor. I drew on that experience in Mali. I learned so much from Vanessa and from our team about specifically exporting handcrafts products and what the market was like for those products, and we had some great successes during that time, like the Hallmark order in 2007. I started on Market Linkages in 2009. It was a big shift – working less on production side issues to buyer side of things: How buyers understand the cultural differences, helping them find the right supplier for their needs for the product and market that they serve.
TW: Let’s talk about handcrafts for a minute. Every year we look at all of the value chains and analyze them. When you look closely, though, handcrafts is actually several value chains – it’s complicated!
Elitza: That’s what makes handcrafts so interesting. Handcrafts is essentially 8 or 9 value chains – from ceramics to wood to glass to leather. Any one of these materials is essentially its own value chain. What makes it interesting and difficult is that they all come together at some point to make say, a leather bag with glass beads or, perhaps, a wood mask with metal embellishments. Mixing materials makes the craft and product so special and draws people. But it makes it difficult from the production side – you have a lot of issues, from obtaining raw materials to manufacturing.
TW: The market linkages work you’ve been doing is similarly complicated – your working in all of the sectors, effectively. And when we say the Trade Hub’s work is market-driven, it seems you are really doing the work that lives up to the essence of what that means.
Elitza: Being a market-driven project – that defines our strategy and how we work with producers in so many ways. What the market wants and needs is vitally important. Knowing what consumers are going to buy and be interested in allows you develop a successful product: a specialty sauce that is ready to eat for the specialty foods market or shea butter at the right quality specifications. Unfortunately, the more common approach with anymore supplier is different: to make what you’re familiar with. In some cases, the market is interested, but it’s hit or miss – you don’t know if the market will buy it or not. It is a big investment risk in both time and money to penetrate a market without being sure that the product will sell! My advice: learn about the market first and adapt your product to that market. That has a higher percentage chance of working, even in the uncertain market climate that we are in right now. We see consumer buying patterns shifting. It’s even more important to take a market-driven approach because the economy is shrinking, consumer interest is changing quite fast. Still, the US economy is enormous and there’s plenty of opportunity.
In 2009, Elitza led the launch of the AfricaNow! brand, which has raised the profile of handcrafts exporters' products in major international markets
: So of all the sectors, which do you like the best?
Elitza: You’re asking me to pick favorites! That’s not fair! I love food – and I love African food - so it’s awesome to go to the food shows and sample everything. And handcrafts will always have a place in my heart because it’s what I know most, and the products are so beautiful and creative. But, every single sector has interesting aspects that I’ve had a privilege to get to know better. It’s been fascinating to get to know the issues involved. The deeper you get into it and the more you learn about the value chains, the more interesting it gets. I only wish I had more time to learn more.
TW: What advice would you give exporters now, after your experiences and lessons learned?
Elitza: The main thing is knowing your market – knowing your consumers’ wants and needs. Find your place in the market where demand will be strong even when the economy isn’t so hot. The most common mistake I see exporters making across all sectors is not following up with contacts. Whether you make contacts at trade shows or from visits – there is just some sort of tendency to not follow up. The supplier needs to proactively follow up and make sure they stay on that buyer’s radar. This is where so many companies do not see the results they expect from trade shows and conferences. It really takes a lot of persistent following up and calling and emailing until eventually a buyer does place an order.
TW: Let’s talk about the Trade Hub’s other work. It’s not always obvious to people that what we do with exporters is actually important to reducing transport costs, increasing access to finance and improving the implementation of regional trade policy.
Elitza: They are all very interconnected – it’s all part of the value chain. Market linkages is the front end – it’s very visible to the market, to buyers definitely. But it’s like an iceberg – behind the visible tip you have the whole machine that gets that product to the point where it’s ready to sell – that includes infrastructure, business environment, which affect the movement of goods and services; and, of course you can’ t do anything without financing. All of these things are in the background and make up the meat of getting a product to market. Market linkages is the last link – but you definitely cannot underestimate the importance of these other cross-cutting issues.
TW: So, what’s next?
Elitza: University of Michigan. I’m getting my MBA in management at a great school, one of the top 10 in the U.S. for business. It’s a school with programs in sustainable business and emerging markets – where they spend time looking at bottom of the pyramid issues, how to access emerging markets, how to access the consumer power that is there. I’m really excited to take my experiences from Africa and apply them. I’m sure I’ll be back in Africa before you know it!