“A thousand miles journey begins with a single step” an old Chinese proverb says. The Bahsoon family, one of the prominent Lebanese trading families in Sierra Leone came to this country almost a century ago. Through hard work, determination and resilience achieved great success in the business sector both private and public. Like the Latin maxim which says “I came, I saw and I conquered” (Venae, Vide, Vici), this industrious, enterprising and ingenuous family is an epitome of this timeless expression.
This story is told with great dignity, admiration and pride through the eyes of Walid Bahsoon, the grandson of Hassan Bahsoon whose brother Ali was the first of the Bahsoons that worked the lands of the Lion Mountain. The generations that came after them intermarried with the citizens and today their progeny are proud Sierra Leoneans that are contributing immensely to the socioeconomic development of the nation. As a special feature, looking at businesses that have thrived since independence to date we shine the spotlight on this entrepreneurial family.
The migration to Sierra Leone:
“Bahsoon is a very big name. My grandfather Hassan his brothers, Ali and Mohamed came to Sierra Leone by ship in the early 1900s to escape the human exploitation and forced labor that was prevalent in the Ottoman Empire. They settled down in Rokupr. At the time Sierra Leone was considered a haven in Africa” explains Walid Bahsoon, an innovator and founder of Premier Enviro Solutions, a company that has constructed the first plastic dwelling house in Sierra Leone.
However, my grandfather Hassan did not stay long and returned to Lebanon. But Mohamed stayed in Rokupr and Ali moved to Freetown to settle down. They started their families and receiving relatives who initially came to work for them and later were given the opportunity to set up for themselves.
My father, Khalil, came to work for his uncle Ali at 5, Sani Abacha Street, formerly Kissy Street in 1957 and after three years developed his business skills and started his own venture at Fourah Bay Road, commonly known as Fire burn.
In 1963, Khalil married Ambra who was the granddaughter of Haja Yapette, daughter of the Paramount Chief of Port Loko, the cousin of S. I. Koroma, (Vice President under Siaka P. Stevens). In 1964, they gave Walid Bahsoon, the plastic waste innovator.
Ambra’s brothers are the famous Kadi family; Nahim Kadi, Mamoud Kadi, Ghazi Kadi
Business Development and expansion:
In 1962, Khalil started his business enterprise at No. 8 ECOWAS Street (formerly East Street). At the time, PZ (Patterson Zochonis) and CFAO (Compagne Francaise de l’Afrique Occidentale) were the major importers in the country. He would buy different goods imported from these wholesalers and retail them. My mother Ambra joined him in the business as soon as she got married and lived on the flat on top of the shop. At that time trains were still operating and they would pass in front of the shop. In 1966, my father setup a Cosmetic and Perfume factory at 9 Mallamah Thomas Street, formerly Little East Street. Perfume brands included, Bissimilaye, Dunia, Dan Goma, Allah Allah, Nagir, Channaz, Sonia and Salome. He also manufactured Vaseline popular during the Harmattan and Cusson’s Baby and Talcum Powder, Sea Word company that also produced Vaseline.
People came from Conakry, Monrovia, Bamako, Ivory Coast, to buy their products. He also imported from Russia, alarm clocks, saltwater, Kerosene lamps, Kerosene stove, bicycle parts and tyres of different specifications both inner and outer from Czechoslovakia and sold to buyers within the sub region. In 1977, they acquired a property at Kingtom to build a battery factory with a French multi- national but ministers at the time demanded shares in the company which discouraged the investors and forced them to pullout of the deal.
Inter War Period and business diversification
When the Civil War broke out in 1991, people’s choices for cosmetics declined as it was not as important as getting food on the table and due to the challenge of getting foreign exchange (Forex, the business diversified into Procurement for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to supply relief items for the war victims. The factory space in Kingtom was converted into warehouses and rented out to relief agencies such as ICRC, UNHCR, MSF. UNDP, CARE, CRS, Concern Universal amongst others. The business became the biggest company for relief supplies in the country involving in cross border food distribution and repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees from Guinea, Liberia and Ivory Coast by sea and air.
End of the war and other business activities
At the end of the Civil War in 2002, the NGOs folded and the warehouses at Kingtom were rented out to the private sector. At this time Khalil Bahsoon was aging and his entrepreneurial sons Walid and Mahmoun bought lorries to do haulage services for the mining companies. Walid also undertook some overseas travel venture of his own in 2008 and later returned to Sierra Leone in 2014, his beloved country. Khalil Bahsoon died in January 2020 after a long successful business life.
Other Bahsoon Businesses
Over the nearly 100years, the migrant Bahsoon family tree has grown and integrated into the Sierra Leone community, and being the highly entrepreneurial breed have been involved in many many businesses. The first attempt at producing locally ground and packaged Coffee, which still goes on in the East end was and is still managed by a Bahsoon.
Another of the Bahsoon family were in the Agro-business: They were heavily involved in procurement especially buying seed rice from local farmers for NGOs to redistribute to farmers in other regions of the country. The Benni Mix Factory owned by Zed Bahsoon which has successfully developed and continue to market the baby food supplement. There is also Seed Tech, which is a seed rice procurement and packaging company at Makeni owned by Mohamed Bahsoon.
The Bansoon s also went into manufacturing Soft drinks through Sierra Leone Enterprises Ltd, which was owned by the late Abass Bahsoon family. They produced 7UP, Pepsi, Mirinda, Apple Cidra etc. The Company folded up during the war and siblings have moved into printing, Nabs Tech digital printing company and Romarong. They specialize in printing billboards, posters, books and large digital printing, owned by Nabil Bahsoon.
There was the original City Pharmacy, which was owned by the late Joseph Bahsoon. The current City Pharmacy is under a different management.
Walid says, “the road has not been easy. They have had their fair share of struggles but they have handled them with unity and family spirit. During the independence era, things were easy in the country. The Leones was competing with the US Dollar and British Pound Sterling. No evidence of Poverty, people were smartly dressed and street trading was virtually non-existent. Things were organized and there was the rule of law. Freetown was vibrant up to the 1980s. The war changed the landscape of the country as the fighting forced many people to move from the rural to the urban area and created overpopulation of the city.”
Future of the Bahsoon family
They are moving with the trend and set to do something with plastic waste recycling. The first plastic house is an example of their evolution. “We hope that our children will continue with the trend of being patriotic to the development of Sierra Leone. Happy 60th Independence anniversary to you all”, Walid Bahsoon said.
By [email protected]