Emerging African Agri Entrepreneurs: Staying Flexible During the Covid19 Crisis

Mommar Taal, is a Gambian entrepreneur and founder of Tropingo Foods, a food processing company based in The Gambia that mainly focuses on export of tropical foods (mangoes and groundnuts) to different parts of the world.

Mommar’s journey started some years ago when he decided to move back to Gambia and join the agricultural sector by finding a way to help add value to local foods. Tropingo Foods started by trading peanuts (the mostly widely grown commodity in The Gambia) and then graduated to an export business.

A major challenge faced was raising finances but luckily, the brand has had support from the Tony Elumelu Foundation and received grant support but has also learnt to be creative in raising and managing finances. Another was building technical capacity, especially because the company’s mango dehydration plant was the first in the country when it started and required technical expertise from expensive consultants. Another challenge is that of logistics – logistics of export within Africa are sometimes more difficult and expensive than export to countries like China. Power supply was also a challenge, because The Gambia has some of the highest electricity tariffs in the world, and the dehydration process is extremely energy intensive. Relying on the national grid would have been unsustainable and unprofitable, hence the factory was designed to use waste from peanuts shells and mango seeds to provide biofuels to power the dehydration plant.

On the role of the government towards businesses in the agricultural value chain, he notes that it is to create foundations for businesses to leverage on, such as electricity and favourable tax regimes. He acknowledges that the Gambian government has been extremely responsive to the agricultural sector but is also facing a capacity gap in terms of funds and expertise, and the private sector must meet the government halfway while still holding them accountable.

It is common knowledge that many Africans prefer imported goods over locally made ones, and Mommar advises entrepreneurs to invest in marketing and making their product quality to meet global standards to drive consumers to their products instead.

His advice to entrepreneurs in managing their business during and after the Covid19 pandemic is to simply survive, use their entrepreneurial instincts to find opportunities that will keep their business sustainable and be flexible to accommodate the changes this pandemic has caused.

Dennis Kakui, CEO of Vert International Ltd

Next, we profile Dennis Kakui, CEO of Vert International Ltd, based in Kenya, an agritech company involved in food production, agri-processing and selling fresh produce to local and international markets that is passionate about integrating green energy using modern farming techniques for sustainability.

Coming from an agricultural community in Eastern Kenya that farms for most of the year, and his experience interning with an employee for a multinational company who also owned a large-scale farm inspired Dennis to look for how to add value to the agricultural sector.

Vert Ltd always aims to impact the communities around their farms, and sources a workforce from these communities and trains for about two weeks on the produce for the coming season. This has benefited these community farmers because they are able to apply this training to their own farms and produce from these areas are significantly improved.

The company has a number of farms, but has had to scale down operations to one 15-acre farm with locally sourced labour because of the Covid19 pandemic, has adjusted working hours to comply with the imposed dusk to dawn curfew imposed on the country, and also had to seek out supply chain players that were accredited as essential businesses to transport their goods. His advice to entrepreneurs to survive this period is to be flexible and tailor their solutions and processes to the unusual times.

The company is passionate about employing renewable energy in the agricultural sector and believes it is important for farmers to embrace because to reduce carbon footprint and their overdependence on fossil fuels. Farmers also rely on the national grid which can be unreliable, and so it is important to have support systems that leverage on green power to reduce overhead costs and provide a lifetime of sustainable income.

There is a prevalent notion that technology is only applicable to large-scale and expensive farms, but he has met entrepreneurs bringing technology-based solutions to small farms, and one of the biggest lessons he has learnt is that technology can be applied to all forms and sizes of agricultural processes. On the need for farmers to collaborate, Dennis notes that many farmers in Kenya are small scale and unable to set up frameworks required to scale up business but can achieve this growth through aggregation.

Dennis believes the Kenyan government has tried to make policies and establish structures to benefit agriculture, but emphasizes that the government must meet with SME players, who significantly impact the Kenyan economy, to make policies that are truly supportive such as single digit loan interest rates and better funding.

The African SMEs Stories series is brought to you by Support4AfricanSMEs hosted weekly on Instagram by Uwem Uwemakpan. Interview edited by Oluchi Buchi-Njere. 

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