There are trade missions, and then there are people, like Bruce Bradford, for whom trade is a mission.

The son of a career diplomat, Bradford, 33, spent his childhood in Sierra Leone, the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and Chad, where he gained an appreciation for what he calls the "heart" of Africa's people. Once he started a career of his own, he said, he wanted to work with them.

After almost 10 years as a trader for such companies as Associated Metals and Minerals Corp. of New York, which stationed him in Johannesburg, and WJS Trading Inc. of McLean, Bradford opened BTB Trading in McLean in January 1989.

His goal, he said, is to foster trade agreements with small businesses and entrepreneurs in Africa, selling them used or reconditioned industrial machinery to improve the quality and productivity of their businesses. In return, BTB looks for opportunities for them to export their products to the United States.

Pursuing contacts made by word of mouth, through his father or with African delegations to their Washington embassies, Bradford has completed deals in Cameroon, Ghana and Zambia, and has projects pending in Chad, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Angola.

He usually buys first from his potential clients to establish a relationship and then extols the benefits of better, newer machinery. In some cases, he also will supply training on the equipment he sells.

Business in 1989 was "exceptionally good," Bradford said, with revenue of about $100,000. So far this year Bradford has completed five deals, has 13 more in the works and two dozen leads. He has a head start on credibility with Africans, he said, because of his father's reputation.

Except for part-time help from his wife and parents, Bradford works alone, getting a 6 percent or 7 percent commission on sales, which generally run from $10,000 to $100,000 and sometimes more. Forty percent of his business comes from equipment sales, and 60 percent from importing fabric and yarn. Bradford said he soon hopes to import wood products as well.

Bradford specializes in textile, woodworking, agricultural and food-processing equipment.

"In the textile area there are warehouses full of machinery," he said. "It's just so frustrating seeing machinery sitting in a warehouse in North Carolina and knowing how valuable it is overseas."

The largest markets in Africa, Bradford said, are for textile and agricultural equipment. He said many African businesses create printed and batik cotton garments, but, lacking equipment to produce their own cloth, are importing material from the Far East, which increases the final price of the product.

The result is twofold: African businesses cannot easily export their high-priced goods and Africans pay too much for even the simplest garments.

"People are getting charged $15 or $20 for a $4 to $5 shirt," Bradford said. "And in a country where it can really least be afforded."

He said the same problems plague the agricultural industry in Africa.

"There's more money in the ground in Africa than there is in any of the banks," Bradford said of the continent's resource riches. But the technology is lacking to take advantage of them, he said, and it is especially difficult for farmers to get loans from African banks because "they don't consider land an asset."

"Most of the deals I do the commercial trading {companies} would scoff at," Bradford said. "But the developments in Eastern Europe have got a lot of African ministers worried that America is not going to be interested in Africa anymore ... That's why it's so important that small people get involved."

"The potential for small- and medium-size industries {in Africa} is tremendous, but the means to get them to grow is really lacking," said Mark Chona, a native of Zambia who is working in Washington with the Overseas Development Council on a study of economic and political reconstruction in Africa.

"The future small-scale and medium-scale industries will come from that pool of people who are ready but don't have access to the type of information and training and equipment {they need}," Chona said.

"By increasing the capability of the general population -- that is when growth will come," he said. "That is our hope."

Bradford doesn't mind that this could be a long time coming.

"Certainly there might be easier places to do business, but Africa comes from the heart," he said. "There's so much good that can be done there, that just doing a little bit, you feel a lot better about yourself."