A valued collaboration

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Food processors, tourism firm say MEDA support has strengthened their businesses, improved the lives of their farmer suppliers

Partnering with MEDA has been key to success and providing improved incomes to thousands of people who supply or work for their operations, say three entrepreneurs who spoke at the organization’s annual convention.

MEDA’s convention in early November was held online over two days instead of the usual three day, in-person experience, due to the pandemic.

“We wouldn’t have been able to survive (in) the market without such big support from MEDA,” said Happy Amos of the Nigerian firm Roshan Renewables.

Roshan produces energy efficient cookstoves and rice parboilers, as well as briquet fuel made from agricultural by-products.

Other panelists were Margaret Komen of Mace Foods Ltd., a Kenyan food processor that specializes in spices and ethnic, indigenous vegetables, and Rudaina Haddad of Bookagri, a Jordanian agri-tourism firm. All three companies are lead firms, MEDA partners who provide training and other assistance to the small-scale farmers who supply or work for them.

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Happy Amos built a company around her energy-efficient cookstove.

Amos started Roshan six years ago, after her grandmother become ill and Amos had to go care for her.

Amos had to cook with firewood. She had a terrible experience, both with the smoke and the time it took to cook. “This must be the experience of a lot of women who constantly use firewood to cook,” she recalls thinking.

When she wondered about other solutions to make things easier for women and searched the Internet on her phone, “I got introduced to a world of info about improved cooking.”

Her research led her to realize that she could produce cookstoves locally in Nigeria as a replacement for cooking over open fires. After designing Happy Cookstoves and starting to sell them in the community, she hired “Happy women” to distribute the product in their communities and train women on their use.

The next step for her firm was making briquettes from agricultural waste for fuel.

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Rudaina Haddad’s Bookagri offers farm and food tours in rural Jordan.

Rudaina Haddad started Bookagri – the name means booking agricultural experiences – after doing 10 years of tour guiding in Jordan. The firm, which offers tours that combine visits to farms with gastronomy, developed from an increased demand for tours and a desire of farmers to be included.

Haddad started with two farms as tour sites. With MEDA’s support, that has grown to 30 farms and up to 200 direct beneficiaries of the work. The visits engage local women and entire families in rural areas, she said.

Komen’s Mace Foods was founded in 2002. A fair trade certified firm, Mace largely works in the business to business sector, supplying both bulk and retail markets, domestically in Kenya and for export.

More than 1,800 small-scale farmers supply Mace’s raw materials. Mace provides training so the farmers can supply the desired quantity and quality of spices and vegetables and view their work as a business.

Mace has established demonstration plots and helps women and youth to understand a climate smart approach. The firm takes a train the trainers approach to reaching everyone in its network by targeting lead farmers who then train others.

Helping women learn to do some processing at the village level adds 15 percent to the value of their production, Kamen said. Farmers are also trained to use plant waste as compost.

Mace’s future plans include a focus on drying and storage facilities. Partnerships with microfinance institutions are providing access to finance for women, something that helps them to invest in proposed drying facilities, she said.

The Roshan cookstoves have three major benefits for the women of Nigeria, saving lives, saving money and improving the air quality of the surrounding environment, Amos said.

Stoves are up to 70 percent more efficient than open cooking with wood, as cookstove users spend $3 on briquettes compared to $10 for wood previously. This change increases women’s disposable income, allowing them to cook more nutritious food, send their children to school or buy shoes and uniforms for their children, she said.

Both men and women work on the cookstove production line. Men are employed to produce the metal casing for the stoves.

After stoves are built, women who previously had no income now make money from selling cookstoves.

Roshan also designed parboilers for rice for women cooperatives that are now processing rice and selling it in their communities. “That has opened a whole lot of economic opportunity for people, from the people farming the rice, to people processing the rice, to people selling the rice and also people milling the rice,” she said.

Since its beginnings, Roshan has seen stove sales increase five-fold in Bauchi state, partly due to its partnership with MEDA, Amos said. MEDA provided ideas on microfinance so that customers could afford to buy stoves.

Margaret Komen
Margaret Komen

When Roshan entered the parboiler market, MEDA provided a discount so women could afford the purchase, she said. The partnership has created a market niche “in a place where we did not even have a market share.”

Another agency operating in Bauchi state heard about Roshan because of the partnership with MEDA and has since purchased 700 cookstoves.

Bookagri has benefited greatly both from MEDA’s financial support and its reputation, Haddad said.

She described the partnership as being like a family relationship where there is openness to sharing about challenges and successes. “It’s a beautiful outcome of this kind of interaction,” she said.

For Mace Foods, MEDA’s support has helped the firm improve the efficiency of its raw material supply, increase volumes of products sold, and raise employment levels both at the village and factory level, Komen said.

Mace has grown the number of households it works with from 1,810 to 2,134, introduced new products into new markets and developed an export strategy that it will use over the next five years.

Panelists acknowledged the challenges faced by women in business. “We are always facing one challenge or another as a woman business owner, as a mother,” Amos said, apologizing for a baby crying in the background as she spoke.

As a mother, she has had trouble getting people to take her seriously as a business owner.

Access to finance is also an issue, particularly for women farmers who do not have bank accounts, and in some cases the education required to develop lengthy business plans, she said.

Komen agreed. “The list (of challenges) is endless, she said, highlighting difficulties in accessing technical training and microfinance.

Some of her clients have begun to use table banking. Groups of women gather and put money on tables. That money is then used to finance the business needs of group members, and the funds rotate through the group.

New thinking required for business survival during a pandemic, entrepreneurs say.

Surviving as a business in the developing world during a pandemic has required innovative thinking and new approaches for business owners in Kenya, Nigeria, and Jordan.

Three women entrepreneurs who told their stories at MEDA’s annual convention say the COVID-19 pandemic forced a reassessment of their goals.

For Margaret Kamen and Mace Foods Ltd., the situation required thinking “not outside the box, but without a box.”

Part of adaptation at Mace has been shifting value addition processes to the household level for its Kenyan suppliers. That change has had several positive outcomes.

Mace can give farmers higher prices for the higher value product they supply, and the company has reduced the amount of waste they transport. The waste is now turned into green manure at the farm level.

Happy Amos of Roshan Renewables found that the pandemic “was a scary situation for us when it started” in Nigeria.

Demand for cookstoves plummeted, as sales agents could no longer do community demonstrations to promote sales.

Amos adapted by creating a video in her own kitchen of herself frying fries and promoting the benefits of Happy stoves, then posting the video on social media. The video received many views, leading to both questions and orders.

She dealt with the issue of how to safely get stoves to customers by hiring people to do bicycle deliveries and drop the stoves at doorsteps.

“COVID-19 has given us another entire avenue to market our cookstoves and our products, online.”

For Rudaina Haddad of Jordan’s Bookagri, the pandemic helped to develop local business, as people in surrounding areas who couldn’t travel outside of the country decided to take time to learn more about Jordan. During a three-month lockdown “the only escape was Bookagri, so they tried Bookagri,” she said.

A social media promotion and inquiries from universities and private clubs led to bookings for a number of tours. “This made a big boom in business for Bookagri and all of our partners or farmers.

Now I can really be more than happy for this opportunity that God gave us.”

Bookagri also delivered locally made food products from their farmer suppliers to people’s homes during the lockdown.

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