The farmers connect to Selina Wamucii via USSD. Their information is collected, including produce type, location, availability dates and projected volumes during the growth period and then entered into the company’s mapping system.
Currently, the company works with over 3,000 farmers spread across Kenya whose produce is sold in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. John Oroko, co-founder and COO of Selina Wamucii, spoke to How we made in Africa.
What inspired the business?
Our passion for empowering smallholder farmers drove us to this business. My co-founder, Gaita Kariuki, and I were raised in smallholder families where we grew to love working in our parents’ small family farms. We experienced first-hand the immense opportunities that family farming presented and the challenges that have consistently hindered the true realisation of the opportunities that can lift smallholder families out of poverty.
While still in the engineering school at the university, we found ourselves enjoying working on a project for smallholder farmers where our passion for smallholder farmers grew even more. The project was run by a popular enterprise club for students then known as Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE). In 2015, we came together and resolved to start Selina Wamucii – the company that is now empowering smallholder farmers.
How did you get started?
We started the company together with my co-founder by pooling together capital from our savings. Since then, our operations have been funded entirely by internally-generated cash from sales.
We started by opening an account at trademap.org, a market analysis and research tool by International Trade Centre (ITC). Shout out to ITC, because back then they had an offer for people from developing countries to open the account for free. We crunched and analysed all the fresh produce trade data we could possibly lay our hands on relating to fresh produce currently grown by smallholder farmers in Kenya. From the analysis, we discovered that avocados had an insatiable demand (and a growing one) across Europe, Middle East and Asia. That is how we settled on our first produce to market and sell – avocados.
After working out ways of eliminating the numerous links and inefficiencies between the farms and the packhouse, we arrived at a price that importers could not resist and approached them with this price for the avocados. We then hired our first employee who had decades of experience in sourcing produce from smallholder farmers and embarked on mapping out the farmers, working out the costs and applying for the necessary licences.
Our growth, both on the farmer and buyer side, has been by word of mouth: from happy farmers and people seeing our produce on shelves across the world.
The nature of your business is very intensive in terms of the managing logistics, warehousing, quality control and costs. How do you work around this?
This is the most challenging part of our work, especially given the fragmented nature of smallholder-sourced produce. Our approach at the moment is to, as much as possible, and in an optimal way, utilise the existing network of facilities and equipment across the country by way of lease. This has its limitations and currently we are only able to accept slightly over 30% of orders requested. Cold room facilities are extremely important and we are looking at setting up our own network of cold rooms in key production areas. Quality control with proper handling and training is okay for now and our losses are under 10%, which was previously unimaginable for smallholder-sourced produce.
What opportunities in the market are you capitalising on?
The agricultural population in Africa stands at 530 million people, and is expected to exceed 580 million by 2020, with almost 70% of people in East Africa relying on agriculture.
We are betting on the power of the mobile phone to help us shorten and transform the agricultural supply chain and pass the benefits of an efficient chain to both the farmers and fresh-produce buyers.
With a year-on-year increase in world food demand, how technology is used to efficiently integrate Africa’s land resource and labour force into global food supply is the next frontier in matters of food security. This is a great opportunity for us and we are more than ready to seize it.