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Making Ice Cream, Making Disciples in Central Asia

James admits, almost as a confession, that he does enjoy a bit of number crunching… “I love taking an idea and turning it into reality,” he says, “I really enjoy the whole process of researching a business idea, doing feasibility studies, analysing the data, crunching the numbers and really trying to figure out whether a business will work!”.

James is the co-owner of an Ice Cream Manufacturing Business in a large city in “Byghistan”, a country in Central Asia. Although James grew up in a family that owned businesses, he didn’t see himself as a business person until recently and has discovered this innate passion for business as he has gone along.

Beginnings

James and his family moved to Byghistan in 2006, with a desire to work for the Gospel amongst an ethnic group indigenous to that particular city. Initially they focused on language learning and becoming established in the country. As their 2 years as language students came to an end, James and his wife began looking for opportunities that would enable them to stay longer. At first they saw running a business primarily as a way to get a longer-term visa and stay in the country, however right from the start they knew the business must be credible.

James shares, “I knew that if we did a business it would have to work and be able to grow. We were looking for a way to be in that community that was believable because it was real, and it had to be something that was sustainable too.”

Making ice cream began as a family hobby since James’ daughter has a dietary intolerance but loves ice cream! This, coupled with the lack of good quality ice cream available in the city, prompted James’ family to get their own ice cream maker. They started exchanging recipes and ideas with another ex-pat family, who were considering the idea of an ice cream shop.  As they shared ideas with one another, James’ new friends and soon-to-be business partners proposed they work together to investigate it further.  Gradually the idea of a small scale ice cream making business took root and James and his wife formed a partnership with the other family in order to start the business.

Good Foundations

Although James has no formal business education, he knows enough about business from his family background to know that good planning is essential. The business partners did a large amount of research in preparation, reading everything they could find on the history and science of ice cream manufacture. They started with a hunch that the market could use a good quality ice cream, but to support that they did extensive market research. They used existing national data for ice cream consumption, but also conducted their own research in the local area, surveying potential customers about products and pricing and sourcing equipment and raw materials from suppliers.

James says, “I analysed the data and crunched the numbers so many different ways until I was sure the business could work…. but we also were praying a lot throughout the process. In the end we felt a sense to ‘go for it’”

The two couples launched the business in 2009 after a year of developing ideas and thorough planning. They established a 50-50 partnership, capitalising the start-up of the business with their own money.  James shares, “We knew that this was a completely new kind of product for the market and that we had no experience in this context – it was a high risk venture and we wanted to put our own ‘skin in the game’ – we wanted to use our own money and not risk someone else’s!”.

Making Ice Cream!

The US$30,000 of start-up capital was invested into the set up of a small production facility, purchasing the three separate machines necessary for ice cream making and purchasing a delivery vehicle.  They started with a retail window selling ice cream right out of their production facility and worked from an office at home.

Starting small in business like this really went against the grain of the local business culture. James says, “In Byghistan businesses are supposed to start on a large scale, with lots of fanfare and prestige… we really didn’t fit that model! We had to spend time convincing local government officials that we were for real. There is a concept in this culture of an ‘experimental station’, so we used that. We told them we wanted to start small, to reduce our risk, that we wanted to start an experimental station as a stepping off point.”

However, the business team realised that to be credible in the long-run they needed to be able to grow the business. “We couldn’t remain in that small stage for very long, after 4 or 5 years people would have been wondering, ‘why are you still here for such a small business?’ We wouldn’t have been believable in that situation.” says James.

Preparing for Growth

The business has started successfully and as a company they have been operationally profitable from the first month. As well as their retail outlet, the company sells wholesale to local restaurants and hotels and they have had to slow down on sales because of their production limitations.

As the business team looked at the future of the company, they saw that they needed to grow the wholesale and distribution side of the business. James observes, “We noticed that an ice cream retail outlet might thrive for 5 or 10 years before customers lost interest in the brand… there were not many enduring ice cream retail businesses”.  Selling wholesale to supermarkets offers a higher profit margin and access to a bigger market, so adding supermarket sales to their existing wholesale business with restaurants and hotels will provide a greater opportunity to become sustainable. It will also make the business more stable year-round in a climate which experiences a cold winter. “People still buy ice cream to take home with their groceries in the winter, when they might not buy it in another context,” says James.

In May 2010, with further investment, the company rented a factory to prepare for larger scale food production. As well as increasing their production capacity, this will also enable them to meet Government regulations applied to foods sold in supermarkets. In early 2011 they are undergoing the final inspections from the Food and Health Department, the last hurdle before moving production into their new facilities. The new production site should allow them to increase profits significantly.

Broader Impact

James and his wife originally regarded business as a means to a long-term visa, but it was not long before they were struck by the much broader benefits of being in business, especially with regard their call to mission in that region. “We started thinking more about the idea of ‘business as mission’,” James says, “Really we were figuring out how to bring biblical principles, ‘Kingdom of God’ principles into the business and through our experiences we have realised how significant our business relationships are. Right from the beginning relationships with staff, clients, suppliers and others we encounter in business seemed to have a deeper quality, a more long-term feel, than the relationships we’d experienced as students. The context for relationship is natural and people accept us into their lives much more readily.”

James and the business team have found that they are able to be a witness to biblical truths in an every day context as working together in the business with others provides a natural environment for sharing their lives. James says, “Conversations about deeper things happen as issues come up, working things out in the business together roots the principles that we are trying to pass on”.

The business started with 5 employees, with 3 more already added and there will eventually be 15 employed staff once the new production facilities are up and running. In an area with 30% unemployment, creating good jobs is in itself a blessing to the community.  James says, “These are jobs with fair wages and greater security and it has given opportunities for our employees that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. One employee was engaged, but he couldn’t marry within that culture, since he was an orphan and had no dowry. We started a ‘dowry matching program’ for him that has enabled him to get married.”

Racial tension is part of everyday life in the city where James and his family live, as various ethnic groups coexist somewhat uneasily. Employees in the Ice Cream business come from a variety of backgrounds, with different ethnic groups represented. Although James and his wife have a special concern for a particular people group, they reach out to all their employees and feel it is important that their business is a melting-pot, promoting good relationships across ethnic lines.

Although the business is still young, the team is encouraged by the good progress and is ready for their upcoming expansion. There are plans for the future too. James shares, “We have some broader, long-term plans if all goes well. We will be looking into franchising the production side of the business and expanding into other regions of the country. Our aim is to build a strong brand in this sector.”

Reflections on Business Practice

The experience of James and his partners highlights some helpful principles for business as mission practice. For them the business is not merely a means to an end, but in making ice cream they are doing something they are really interested in. Not only that, they have managed to couple that interest with a viable business opportunity. Early on they realised the potential of the business and have embraced the business context as the primary sphere for their ministry in Byghistan. Making a profit and growing the business is not just essential for the survival of the company, but for the credibility and endurance of their ministry. Their business and mission goals are completely integrated, intentional and mutually beneficial.

James knew that he didn’t have all the skills and experience he needed to start an ice cream business, but he did have an innate instinct for business and set about adding to that with extensive reading and research. The team were market driven, they didn’t produce their ice cream and then look for a market, but instead spent time doing essential research and planning, making sure they could produce the product they had in mind at a cost the market could bear.   James says, “We talked a lot to those in the area and I would very much recommend getting local input into ideas you might have. We also had the benefit of advice from Christians in a consulting company that has a lot of experience helping large corporations come into countries in Central Asia. They really helped us understand how to start a business in that country”.

The team have really thought through how they can be 100% credible and fit well in the local business culture, not just in the start-up phase, but in the long-term with a sustainable model. And with their own money invested, the incentive to make the business succeed couldn’t be greater.

As James and the team are a witness for Christ in the business and in their community, as they create much needed jobs and contribute to the local economy, as they share biblical values  through everyday experiences in the business… they are truly being salt and light where God has called them.

 Jo Plummer is the Editor of the Business as Mission website, with thanks to ‘James’.

Since this story was first published, James and his family have left Central Asia due to ill-health, but the Kingdom-focus of the company continues under new ownership.