It has been such a pleasure to meet and interview Hadija Jabiri, founder of GBRI (EatFresh Tanzania). I have discovered a very humble, strong and resilient lady who, I’m sure, will arrive much further than where she has already arrived. Thank you, Hadija: the conversation with you has inspired me in many ways.
Why did you choose the horticulture sector and how did your business start?
I never thought to start a farming business: I have always looked at farming life like something not attractive and none in my family is engaging in agriculture. I just decided to get into it because I realized it would have brought back a good return on the investment: someone can decide whether to buy or not a t-shirt, but he/she will definitely need to eat. So let’s say that my main driver was money, but if I have to describe how my business started, I will say it started with failure. Before launching GBRI, I had initiated another farming business dealing with onions, but I was not directly managing it: I was based in Mwanza and someone else was working on my project in Iringa. Everything fell apart and we lost almost all the money we had invested, but in spite of the initial discouragement, we decided to go back into horticulture after watching a documentary about greenhouses on the TV: it immediately clicked in my mind that it was the right business idea.
How did your previous business failure help you to succeed with GBRI?
When you fail and you start something over, you begin with a baggage of experience and learning lessons. The first lesson I had learnt from my previous failure is the importance of a good management and of directly taking care of your business in the first stages of development: you can’t start up an activity by completely delegating it to someone else; you need to take care of it constantly, to make sure that internal controls systems and operations are well implemented. The second lesson I learnt is the importance of identifying and defining your market and your customers before starting your business, which is the opposite of what I had previously done. If you start to find customers at the harvest time, you’re not going to make any profit, because you are dealing with perishable items and you are just going to sell at whatever condition. A real-business approach would require detailed and deep market research before any production starts. First, you need to know who are your customers, what they want and how they want it and only after you can start the production to satisfy their needs.
I actually read somewhere that, before launching your business, you passed one whole year to study, research and learn from other farmers
Yes, it’s true. I was using any learning platform possible: books, websites, videos, visits to other farmers and business people. My aim was learning as much as I could about farming and about how to manage a business, because the more information you have and expertise you gain, the higher are the chances to make properly informed decisions.
So, I think you have learnt personally the importance of sharing knowledge with others. Now that you are on the other side, how are you giving back knowledge to others?
I participate in seminaries or public speaking when they invite me, I share some stories from my experience through social media and – as a company – we also organize “farm tours” when people can come, visit our farm and our production center and have space to make questions and learn.
What do you think are the main features that a successful business should have?
A strong and competent team: when people think of GBRI they think about me, but there is a team of forty people behind what we do. You definitively need people to succeed, but more importantly, you need to be able to retain them. I also have learnt this by experience in a hard way: my first work, after university, was as operations manager for a printing company. I had no real job experience at that time and I found myself to manage a business, young and fresh from studies. I failed to manage the staff: I was trying to be respected by imposing myself and this, of course, didn’t work and I decided to quit. From that time I learnt that behind each worker there is a person, who needs to be respected.
What are the secrets to retain competent people?
A style of leadership that recognizes their value and makes them feel part of the organization, together with opportunities of professional growth.
I know that you have started GBRI with your own capital. Do you think that access to donor-funded projects and grants from donors discourage youths to take entrepreneurial responsibilities?
Yes, GBRI was started with a small personal investment only, less than fifty million shillings, to quantify. When we reached the moment of expansion, on one side we re-invested part of the income, on the other side we applied for loans and grants. When you seriously need to enlarge your activity this becomes unavoidable. In general, however, I would say yes, access to grants may kill the entrepreneurship spirit, especially because many people think that donor-funded money are free money, only because they do not have collaterals and other conditions like loans, but they are not for free. Donors have their own goals that may not correspond to yours, as an investor or a company and, if you do not pay attention, becoming a “grant-preneur” can actually push you away from your objectives. Moreover, the big numbers, usually related to grants, turn off the real entrepreneurial capacity of thinking on how to start and grow with a small initial investment.
Are you able to measure the externalities that GBRI has brought to the surrounding communities?
The impact that GBRI has brought and still creates in the surrounding community is very big. First of all, we have motivated many people to invest in farming; we have been and we are an example and a benchmark for others: they look at GBRI and they think that successful farming businesses are possible. Another positive impact we have brought is contributing to bring abroad a different and positive view of Tanzania and this is something I am very proud of. Lastly, GBRI gives work and employment to many people: besides forty employees, we cooperate with more than two hundred local farmers, who grow the sixty per cent of the products we sell.
I know you started by selling internally at the corporate market (supermarkets and hotels in Tanzania) and now you are exporting in Europe. Are you currently serving both the markets or only exporting?
Currently, we are only exporting in some EU Countries (mainly UK, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands). The choice of abandoning the corporate market came from the different approach it requires, compared to export. Tanzanian supermarkets and hotels require the supply of a high number (around ten/fifteen) of different crops, while the export market expects a huge quantity of few identified crops. That’s why we decided to concentrate on the EU market, where the demand is very high and specialized in the production of baby corn, french beans, snow peas and sugar snaps. However, for the next future, we are planning to go back and serve both markets.
What do you think are the main challenges and opportunities that food production businesses have ahead, looking at the projected population growth for Tanzania and Africa in general?
The potentiality of the market is very huge, not only for the population growth per se but also because Tanzanians and Africans are becoming much more health-conscious, so horticulture and healthy-food production are definitively sectors to be explored and expanded more. The main challenges, in my opinion, concern the use and the integration of technology in the value-chain, to produce at high standards and to be competitive in the global market. For example, some months ago we had a problem with one of our export orders, which got spoiled due to temperature leaps: this brought us a loss and, generally speaking, it’s something with a high reputational risk. To avoid this problem again, we are now using a specific phone-based technology that allows us to constantly monitor the temperature of our goods, from our production center to the customer warehouse. In this way, we can intervene immediately, if possible, or we are able to know exactly which part of the logistic chain has caused the damage. Also, since we collaborate with more than two hundred external growers, we are using specific technology for the traceability of the items produced and sold.
And what about the free trade agreement recently signed among the African Countries? Is it also an opportunity?
Sure it is an opportunity for our Country: Tanzania is among the African Countries with the widest land availability and the greatest weather and environmental conditions for agriculture. To tap into this opportunity, what we really need is a change of mindset: we often continue doing things in the same way, because that’s the way it has always been done and this is a big limitation to our potentialities.
What are your future plans for GBRI?
Firstly we want to expand our exports in other countries of the EU and also enter the US market. Secondly, we want to expand our production, by extending to a wider geographic area, including also Njombe region and all the Southern Highland in general. Lastly, we want to integrate more the technology in our value chain.
What do you think is the most common mistakes that entrepreneurs do when starting a new business?
For me the most common mistake is starting something new without proper study and preparation: before launching a business, you must get deep knowledge of the sector you are going to operate. And, apart from getting personal knowledge, you will also need prepared people with technical skills in that sector. This will make you avoid to lose time and to repeat mistakes that other people have already overcome. Another common mistake I notice is not being aggressive enough to penetrate and expand the market.
What would you suggest to another woman who wants to start a business?
My first suggestion is: surround yourself of the right people, inside your business but also outside. You need good employees and prepared technical people, but you also need inspirational mentors, because you can’t go far alone. My second suggestion is: become very competent in what you are doing and learn as much as you can. My last suggestion is: build your brand and use at your best the potentiality of social media.