Dried mango for the export market: Zambian entrepreneur’s agro-processing bet pays off
Dorothy Eriksson and her husband Rolf, who is originally from Sweden, ran a successful commercial farm, Chankwakwa, in Kabwe, Zambia, from the 1970s through to the 1990s. But towards the end of the ‘90s, the economy faced severe challenges and the family struggled to keep the farm. One day, Eriksson visited the local fresh produce market. Many of the mangoes that vendors were trying to sell were about to go rotten as the supply far outstripped demand. She realised there was an opportunity to process the fruit into different value-added products. The dream for Chankwakwa’s agro-processing factory was born and today, the company exports dried mango to Europe and supplies jams, sauces, dried fruits, honey and soya products to various supermarket chains throughout Zambia, including Shoprite and Pick n Pay. Jeanette Clark spoke to her about the growth of the company over the years.
Finding opportunity in a crisis
Eriksson recalls the late 1990s and the challenges Chankwakwa had to overcome. “We were ‘big’ farmers; if you lost money, you lost big,” she says. At the time, the 1,224-hectare farm focused on cattle, maize and soya beans. With customers struggling financially, the farm found itself in a position where it was being paid in promissory notes.
“Instead of getting cash for our harvest and meat, these notes indicated we would be paid the following year. This led to such financial debt, the bank even decided to take us to court,” she says.
That pivotal visit to the fresh produce market made it clear there was an opportunity to process fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste. “That’s where it started; getting a clear vision and working on it. I began to dream about building a really big factory. In 2000, we put this into action and started building,” Eriksson says.
She appointed a full-time bricklayer and, using the little bit of income from the farm’s cattle business, the first bricks were laid.
Eriksson’s daughter, Nicola, was working in Zambia after finishing her studies in economics. She helped the company to apply for a grant from the Norwegian embassy. The application was successful and the building could be completed. “We started processing on a very small scale late that year,” Eriksson remembers.
Chankwakwa began by drying mangoes. One of the initial investments was to procure solar dryers for the dehydration of the mangoes, and later for tomatoes, with funding received from the Danish International Development Agency.
Eriksson and her team quickly learnt some of the mangoes were not suited to drying. They used this leftover fruit to produce jams.
In the beginning, the big retail clients weren’t lining up to buy; Eriksson and her small team had to take the products to the local markets and sell there. “We did a lot of cash sales. My father was a businessman, in retail, so it is in my blood. Once we started producing, we took what we had and went to Saturday markets and into Lusaka to individual shops. We targeted them because they make their own decisions after looking at your product, without having to convene big meetings first,” she says. “We also attended expos and agricultural trade fairs.”
It was at one of these fairs that a visitor to the stall asked why the company didn’t export its dried mango.
Certifications that opened the market
To scale exports, Eriksson realised the company and its factory would need certain certifications in place.
With assistance from a programme backed by the Danish embassy, the factory made the necessary changes to get HACCP certification in 2011 and managed to organise the small-scale mango farmers – from whom it was procuring – into co-operatives that could be certified by both EcoCert and Fairtrade.
“It was a challenging process but we were provided with a mentor who walked us through every step. We had a food technologist who worked with us at the factory to get all the documentation ready, for example,” Eriksson adds.
“In the beginning, we did our research and went to courses to improve our skills for agro-processing. It is amazing how, when you have a vision and a dream, and you are willing to talk about it, there is suddenly help available.”
In the spring of 2011, the company began shipping sun-dried mangoes to Hansen’s Ice Cream in Denmark.
Supplying to retailers and the distribution challenge
Chankwakwa landed bigger retailers, like Pick n Pay, in the same way it did the first small ones – visibility at local markets. “This is why I say businesspeople should not disregard being present at these. We didn’t go to Pick n Pay, they found us,” she says. “At the moment, Chankwakwa products are sold in 39 Shoprites and all the Pick n Pays in Zambia.”
Getting the products to the retailers remains a challenge. There is no central warehousing where the company can drop its products; Chankwakwa has to supply every store individually.
“A very big load falls on us but with the help of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Commerce and different NGOs, we have managed to get funding to get the job done,” she notes. The company has an eight-tonne, three-tonne and one-tonne truck and two drivers doing country-wide delivery. It has also added a third-party company as a service provider to assist with the transport when its fleet cannot manage all the orders.
Chankwakwa works with small-scale farmers in both the Central and Luapula provinces. All the farmers are grouped into co-operatives and they follow Fairtrade and organic practices.
Eriksson attributes the success the company has achieved to the strong relationships built over time with the contract farmers. Chankwakwa goes the extra mile. During harvest, it employs casual labour to get the mangoes off the trees as fast as possible and supplies the transport for the mangoes to the processing facility. “In the beginning, when we went out there, they didn’t trust us. The relationship and commitment from our side have been most important and it has paid off,” she says.
The company has faced challenges with contract farmers who supply other crops, like tomatoes, as they often sell their harvest to the highest bidder. It does not have these issues with the mango farmers, explains Erikkson. “As a result, we recently started taking the required tomato production in-house, to our farm. We are focusing on our network with the mango farmers now.”
“Some of our mango farmers are 700km away from our factory. They have problems with the transport of their crops and are grateful they have a buyer who is committed.”
Matching products to markets
Right from the start it was clear that dried mango did not have a large domestic market, being better suited for export.
“The market in Zambia was very small and we could sell only 200kg to 300kg a year. It does not matter what quantity you are selling, you still need the same certifications,” she says. Adding the export market helps to push up quantities, which then helps to justify the certification costs.
“We haven’t even looked at exporting any of our other products. There is a large local market for those. We are making 10 tonnes of tomato sauce monthly and 10 tonnes of jams for the local market.”
If Chankwakwa wants to supply the jams, for example, into the export market it would need to change its production process and swap the current plastic containers for glass. “We don’t have that kind of manufacturing here, we would need to import from South Africa,” Eriksson says of the decision to produce certain products solely for the domestic market.
The company is currently in negotiations with an American buyer that does not require organic certification; it has updated its packaging to comply with US standards. “The African Growth and Opportunity Act provides an opportunity for export into the US and this is where we are now looking at possibilities,” she says.
Chankwakwa founder Dorothy Eriksson’s contact information
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