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“You have to be trained to start a business, then have regular guidance”

Mentoring by a business professional can make all the difference for young agribusinesses

© CTA

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So you have what you are convinced is a winning idea for an agribusiness. What happens next? Obtaining advice and guidance from someone who has trodden the same path may pay dividends, especially for young entrepreneurs with little business acumen.

Mentoring by a business professional, or someone else with first-hand experience of the potential pitfalls of launching a start-up, can make all the difference between success and failure for young agripreneurs, particularly in the early days.

Participants at a workshop organised by CTA to explore youth entrepreneurship and job creation in agriculture have described how supervision and guidance can help to equip young people with the skills needed to set up and manage a profitable agribusiness, which in turn may create jobs for others. Support may cover a range of areas, including drawing up a business plan, product development, finance and market access.

“Starting a business can be difficult, and many young people have good ideas, but to have that transformed into a viable business you need certain skills,” said Tony Nsanganira, who works in Ghana for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)’s Reducing Rural Poverty programme, with a special focus on promoting the creation of decent jobs for rural youth in Africa through agribusiness. “You have to be trained to start a business, then have regular guidance. You need to be helped to manage the finance and business management, but you also need incubation, to give you practical exposure, so you can continue on your own.”

Practical advice brings concrete results

In Kenya, a group of young women entrepreneurs who have received support from professional mentors as part of the FAO programme have been helped to develop and revise business plans and access finance and markets for their agro-processing start-up. Advice on issues ranging from adding value to packaging and labelling their fruit-based products has helped them to develop a successful small agribusiness.

Ideally, support should be ongoing, and involve meeting regular targets, say those who have benefited from such backing. Litia Kirwin has been the recipient of a number of mentorship initiatives, which have been critical in helping her to launch her sustainable development start-up, Loving Islands in Fiji, which specialises in securing market access for local island communities and their products, including organic virgin coconut oil, cosmetics, candles and woven homewares.

“Personally, I found mentorship really important, especially at the beginning of the business, when it helped to validate my ideas. It’s extremely valuable to have confirmation of what you are doing,” said Kirwin, 30. Now in its second year, the business has already taken on three members of staff, all of them young, and Kirwin is mentoring a fellow Fijian agripreneur, a university student who is trying to set up a small-scale forestry nursery in Suva. The Loving Islands Farmer Enterprise (L.I.F.E.) Network, a producer network linked to the start-up, provides organic farm training, business development support and market access to rural island communities.

Shadowing agripreneurs to offer support

At Kenya’s Ustadi foundation, which takes its name from the Swahili for ‘skilful’, Head of Programmes Lilian Mabonga makes a clear distinction between training and mentoring. This Nairobi-based NGO, which supplies capacity development to rural youth and women across a range of agricultural value chains, offers mentoring in the four key areas of business planning, finance, marketing and customer care.

“Many businesses started by young people fail, because their owners have received training but not mentorship,” said Mabonga. “Training alone is never enough. You need to have practical follow-up as well.” Mabonga makes a point of visiting young agripreneurs in their shops or other retail outlets, and sitting in to monitor their engagement with customers. She also shadows them as they develop their products, from start to finish. As a result, several thousand young entrepreneurs have managed to secure finance for their agribusiness initiatives, which span 23 counties in Kenya, and sectors that include poultry, pineapple, cassava and cashew value chains, as well as waste-to-energy.

Although a mentor may be an older person with long experience in business, young entrepreneurs can have valuable knowledge to pass on to each other, says Michael Sudarkasa, founder of the Global African Agribusiness Accelerator Platform (GAAAP), an initiative that is helping to drive business development for youth agripreneurs in four African countries.

“I believe in both cross-generational exchange, but also intra-generational knowledge transfer,” he said. “That may involve bringing together young agripreneurs from different parts of Africa, whether it be through Snapchat, Instagram or WhatsApp, to share solutions that have been proved to work.” 

One good turn deserves another

In Namibia, 30-year-old Eva Ndamono Shitaatala’s experience of setting up her own small business has convinced her of the importance of receiving advice and support.

“Mentoring is critical when you are starting a business,” said the young agripreneur, whose start-up sources fresh oysters and fish from the coast and sells them to supermarkets in the capital of Windhoek. “If you have someone who has gone through the same process, they can help you to avoid making mistakes and give you the strength to carry on.”

Now employing four staff of her own, Shitaatala is also offering business guidance to a group of ten women through the Namibian Chapter of the African Women in Agri-business Network, which she recently launched. The women, who grow vegetables, are being helped in areas that include adding value and finding markets.

“We are taking them through the whole process, and helping them to get on board with their agribusiness, giving them the necessary knowledge to move ahead,” said Shitaatala. “The whole idea is to learn from each other, share stories, and help each other to succeed in our businesses.”

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