Opportunity is often revealed by seeing ways in which old and proven techniques can be applied in new formats, variations, or places. When Mike Sehzue made his first trip to his father’s home country of Liberia and the village of Sangarplay, he had no intentions other than to discover the place that meant so much to his family. The trip was a way to provide context to the feelings that had been fostered through stories he had been told as a child…in some sense, it would be a journey of self-discovery.
Liberia, like all countries, is continually trying to settle itself amidst the rolling seas of modernity. The last few decades have brought about a handful of crises, including a civil war and an ebola outbreak in 2014, the rumblings of the former being the catalyst for which Mike’s father left in the mid 1970’s. Through it all, the Liberian people have remained resilient even when there has been no firm footing on which to build from. Specifically, the community of people in Sangarplay possess a spirit of unity and proudness that was very apparent to Mike and it was this spirit that awakened a vision of opportunity.
In Sangarplay, people have been using sugarcane (which is a native crop) to make “moonshine rum” for quite some time. The local product may have very little similarity in taste to typical rum but the base ingredient provides all the commonality which is necessary. Mike had no idea how to make rum, but he soon realized that sugar cane was a great place to start and from there he used his entrepreneurial proficiency to build out an initial business model for making rum in Liberia.
Mike sorted out all of the basic requirements: he could source ample amounts of sugar cane from local farmers and he also had people who would help with the rum making process. But how to make quality rum? It was a spot of chance that Mike met Cynthia Blandford, “Honorary Consul General of Liberia” in Atlanta, who recommended he speak to Erik and Karin Vonk of Richland Rum. Cynthia had met Erik and Karin through various Georgia business functions and knew that they were always kind with their time, especially in providing supportive knowledge for innovative ideas. Mike reached out to Erik and Karin and they quickly arranged a meeting for him to visit the distillery in Richland.