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Sir Richard Branson is on the hunt for the Usain Bolt of Jamaica's entrepreneurs

The Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Jamaica
The Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Jamaica

The air is full of pale yellow butterflies when Debbie Turner, founder of Turner Innovations, pulls up outside the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in her pickup.

It’s the end of August in Kingston, Jamaica. This phenomenon will take place for just two weeks, as the cloudless sulphur butterfly emerges from its cocoon in the lignum vitae, Jamaica’s national tree.

It’s 30 degrees in the shade – there will be no sign of Hurricane Irma for another fortnight – and Turner rushes into the air-conditioned building. She opens a bag of small, red and dried fruits and hands them around.

Everyone will want my machine. It reduces labour by 95pc and increases production five-fold

“This is sorrel,” she says. It is this unusual fruit that first brought Turner to the Branson Centre in 2012. “My husband’s friend had abandoned a field of sorrel because the cost to reap was greater than the crop was worth,” she explains. “It was left to rot.”

Sorrel, which is also known as hibiscus, is primarily used as the base for herbal teas around the globe. With a flavour similar to cranberry, yet even more nutrient dense, it is grown in 22 countries but is complex to harvest. This is because the fruit, which looks like a rose, contains a seed that must be extracted manually.

“One evening, my husband came in, and he was holding the seed in one hand and the fruit in the other,” Turner says. “He’d invented a machine that could do it automatically.” The 43-year-old Turner, who is dyslexic, came to the centre seeking access to its entrepreneur training programme, determined to create a business plan for her husband’s invention. “The centre helped me to understand that our idea was feasible,” she says.

Turner Innovations
Debbie Turner, founder of Turner Innovations, speaks to Sir Richard Branson

The market for Turner’s machine is vast. According to market research firm Mintel, hibiscus is one of the world’s top four floral flavours, alongside jasmine, elderflower and rose. China and Thailand are the largest producers. “Everyone will want my machine,” Turner says, simply. “It reduces labour by 95pc and increases production five-fold.”

It is this kind of business, one that could appeal to a massive addressable global market, that the Branson Centre was created to incubate. The organisation aims to stimulate enterprise and support local start-ups by training entrepreneurs in essential business skills, as well as providing access to finance.

“Jamaica is brimming with hungry entrepreneurs with a sense of passion for business,” Sir Richard Branson, the chief ambassador of the centre, explains. “Jamaicans have a strong sense of creativity and entrepreneurialism.”

Sir Richard already has one such centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Caribbean outpost was launched in Montego Bay in 2015, before moving to Kingston earlier this year. Mo’Bay – as the locals call it – is home to many of the island’s resorts, but Kingston is the heart of Jamaican commerce.

According to Sir Richard, his organisation is having an “immediate” effect on the local economy. “On average, each entrepreneur who leaves the Branson Centre generates four new jobs that support four new families,” he says. “That grass roots impact of job creation cannot be underestimated.” It is crucial that more entrepreneurs like Turner are helped to flourish in Jamaica. Its economy has been stagnant for decades, growing less than 1pc per annum for the past 20 years.

“The economic crisis in the Nineties sent many people and businesses bankrupt,” says Lisandra Rickards, chief executive of the centre. “Interest rates remained high for a long time. People became very risk averse, and there was real trauma among the entrepreneurial class.”

Jamaica used to mine bauxite, the raw material used to make aluminium, but the industry was crippled by the last financial crisis. Business process outsourcing is a fast-growing new sector but the economy depends heavily on the 3.5m tourists that descend on the island each year.

necker - Credit: Virgin.com/PA
Sir Richard Branson's private island, Necker, was badly damaged during Hurricane Irma Credit: Virgin.com/PA

But it is hard to rely on tourism when your country is prone to natural disasters. The recent hurricane that battered the Caribbean – severely damaging Sir Richard’s island home, Necker – bypassed Jamaica, but only just. “Hurricane Irma has had a devastating effect on the wider Caribbean community,” says Rickards. “Thankfully, Jamaica avoided the path of the hurricane.” She is concerned about the future, however: “This season has been unprecedented with more intense and more frequent systems.”

The Branson Centre was created, in part, to reduce Jamaica’s reliance on tourism, which represents 50pc of GDP. Yet it is funded by one of the biggest travel operators in the region: Virgin Holidays. Joe Thompson, its managing director, is aware of the irony. “We want to highlight that tourism can be a force for good,” he says. “We’ve pledged our support until 2021.”

On average, each entrepreneur who leaves the Branson Centre generates four new jobs that support four new families

Sir Richard Branson

Virgin Holidays donates £1 for every adult and 50p for every child who visits the Caribbean. This represents a rolling donation of about £200,000 per year, and the business has invested £1.2m in total, to date. Sandals, the leisure giant, is another backer.

Rickards, a 33-year-old Harvard Business School MBA graduate, became chief executive of the centre in early 2017, after working her way up the organisation over four years. She moved back to her homeland following a successful career in strategy, working for consultancy giant Bain & Co. “My mission here is to solve the economic growth challenge,” she says. “Most of our talent leaves Jamaica, goes overseas and stays there. The brain drain is a big problem. There are 3m of us here, and 3m living abroad. But in New York, I was just a cog in the machine, here I can make an impact.”

The Caribbean centre employs just 10 staff. Some 1,150 entrepreneurs have completed the centre’s basic training programme, either in person or virtually. Some 156 entrepreneurs have been accepted into its advanced programme, accessing its database of 300 mentors.

To try to encourage ambitious entrepreneurs to take calculated risks and develop their ventures, the centre also offers these advanced students two funding streams: loans with 4pc interest, and a grant programme, using funds donated from the Arthur Guinness Foundation or provided by the Development Bank of Jamaica. It has given out $270,000 (£200,000) in loans to 10 entrepreneurs, and helped a further 10 with grants of around $20,000. These businesses have achieved 132pc growth, on average.

Your True Shade
Your True Shade, a make-up brand founded by chemical engineer Dianne Plummer, creates foundations to match every conceivable Caribbean shade of skin

Another business that has benefited from the centre’s support is Your True Shade, a make-up brand founded by chemical engineer Dianne Plummer. Her range of foundations match every conceivable Caribbean shade of skin.  The centre advised her to look beyond her home market, and target Caribbean diaspora worldwide. She has now made sales in the UK and the Netherlands, and is in talks with customers in the US.

As for Turner, she has just received the blueprint that will enable her to manufacture her husband’s machine commercially. She has just sold her first machine to one of the country’s biggest conglomerates: the Jamaica Broilers Group.

Sorrel is remarkably hardy and drought resistant, which makes it an ideal industry for Jamaica. “Lots of land here is not being used,” says Turner. “If we could convince farmers that this is a profitable business, Jamaica could become the world leader in this market.”

Turner not only wants to drive forward her country’s economy, she wants to inspire Jamaica’s entrepreneurs – in the same way that Usain Bolt has inspired its athletes, and Bob Marley inspired its reggae artists. “Jamaicans are no good at sharing their ideas, and that has to change,” she says.

“We call it ‘crab in a barrel’. Have you ever seen crabs trying to climb out of a barrel? As soon as one makes it up the side, the others pull it back down. I want to get out of the barrel and show it can be done.”