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Female agri-food entrepreneurs share tales from the trenches

As Published in The Marketplace magazine

Female entrepreneurs are making great strides in raising living standards for farmers around the world, but still face challenges getting financing and other resources to expand.

That was the message of a panel discussion featuring three women who are doing innovative work in the agri-food sector. women farmers Mutuku Kessy Hess resizedRose Mutuku, Sarah William Kessy and Lali Hess

Two African business owners, Kenyan Rose Mutuku and Tanzanian Sarah William Kessy, along with Indiana entrepreneur Lali Hess, shared stories about efforts to do business in challenging environments, at MEDA’s annual convention.

Mutuku’s Nairobi-based Smart Logistics sources beans from 10,000 small growers, 70 per cent of whom are women, farming about one acre. The firm has 17 full-time and 130 seasonal workers.

The biggest hurdle Mutuku faced was getting financing for equipment to process beans. Men in her marketing team did the original negotiations with a lender, and things were looking promising. But when the banker met her and realized the head of the company was a woman, “that was the end of the financing.”

That barrier faces many African women who want to start businesses, she said. “We have no collateral. Even if you have collateral, you have to get your husband, in Kenya, to sign to agree that the collateral should be used.”

Hess owns the Juniper Spoon, a full-service catering company serving central Indiana. Juniper Spoon features farm-to-table menus and serves groups from 20 to 500. She also faced challenges in dealing with banks.

A loan officer, after reviewing her business plan, pushed the document back across the table and said: “This will be a very nice hobby for you to have, but we won’t fund it.”

Undeterred, she called her parents to borrow several thousand dollars. “For every doubter, there’s always a cheerleader too to support you.

“Maybe I had doubters, but the people I surrounded myself with were supporters, even though what I was planning on doing wasn’t something there was a business model out there for.”

Kessy is founder and managing director of Halisi Products in Tanzania’s Arusha region.

Her firm mills nutritious flour, makes soy drinks, dries spices and packages honey and peanut butter.She started Halisi in her home in 1999 after a career teaching women tailoring in her backyard.
She began manufacturing flours in her kitchen, products which soon gained a strong local following. A skeptical local store owner reluctantly agreed to carry her products. Halisi products are now sold in over 200 stores.

She sources raw materials from 500 women growers, some of whom farm only half an acre. Halisi mills between two to three tonnes of flour a week. Mutuku’s interest in helping subsistence farmers grew out of her life experience. She was raised in a family that farmed a small plot of land and struggled to pay its school fees.

Hess chose to become a subsistence farmer. After living in Ecuador at age 19, she took an internship at a farm in the US. She rented a small piece of land and sold her produce at local farmers’ markets for three years.

In 2001, she started working for catering firms in Lancaster, PA. Three years later, she and her husband moved to the Indianapolis area. Working with local farmers, she helped them grow products she wanted.
She buys from about 80 farmers and food producers in central Indiana, people who make BBQ sauce, grow potatoes, livestock or other products she can use.

Hess knew nothing about business when she started out. Realizing she needed help, she asked six people at First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis to provide free counseling regarding finances, management and development.

The council met quarterly for three years, by which time she felt comfortable in her role and could afford to take them out for a farewell meal at an Indian restaurant.

“They really gave me the confidence to keep going.”

Prior to starting Halisi Products, Kessy faced doubters of a different kind. She wanted to “help school dropouts and young women who were staying home, without any contribution to their own lives or their families.”

She began training people so they could employ themselves but lacked a proper venue. She arranged a shelter to become a classroom, so “instead of keeping chickens, I’m starting the training.”
Some students didn’t like the rustic space and dropped out. The students who remained were able to create their own jobs. The dropouts, after not managing to find work, returned to her.

By that time, she had built a proper shelter in her backyard.

Kessy and Mutuku credit MEDA for helping them to expand their reach and help suppliers earn better incomes.

Kessy compares MEDA’s first visit to Halisi with the Old Testament story in Genesis of Abraham and Sara receiving visitors at their home. “Eventually, after the visit, they received the blessing of a child. When MEDA came to me, I had some blessings which I didn’t even think of.”

Financial assistance has helped Halisi to scale its operations and work with more subsistence farmers to get quality raw materials, she said. Halisi now has five silos at its factory that allow for storage of five tonnes of maize. Kessy also has integrated machines for speeding up operations and moved to using gas instead of firewood for boiling and roasting, benefiting both her bottom line and the environment.

Halisi went from producing 130 cartons of soy milk to 230 cartons per week because of new machinery supplied through MEDA’s matching grant initiative, she said. MEDA support also helped to hire three professionals at the firm.

Support from MEDA helped relieve Mutuku from the burden of supporting farmers financially until their crops have been sold. That helped her to redeploy capital in other areas of Smart Logistics, buying equipment and hiring staff. “For that, I say thank you to everybody in this room for just being a MEDA supporter, because you have supported my business indirectly. I owe you so much for what I am today.”

“Farmers have a problem,” Mutuku said. “Sometimes they grow what the market does not need.”

She gives them direction on the products she wants, the variety they should grow, and how they should grow it. Additionally, she hires some of these same young women and men to become distributors of her products.

Kessy also praised MEDA’s lead firm model of investing to strengthen growers. When she works with small farmers “they have gained a hope from what they are doing.”

Having assured markets for their products means that “now they are sure of taking their students to school, they can afford to pay the fees, and also they are sure of their daily bread.”

Many of the farmers Mutuku knows live in mud houses with thatched roofs because they can’t afford anything else. One day, a farmer called her to say that money she received from selling produce to Mutuku helped her afford a proper metal roof for her house.

Mutuku’s work with young men has led to transformed lives. They quit sitting at home drinking bad alcohol, and “get the courage of being a man again and looking after their families again (after they get reliable work).”

“That’s what makes me go everyday to work, just to make that difference.” ◆