How this Tanzanian entrepreneur built a business that exports vegetables to Europe

Hadija Jabiri

Hadija Jabiri (30) never dreamt about being a farmer. In fact, when she was at boarding school for her secondary education, working on the farm situated at the school was dished out as a punishment. However, she knew she would one day run her own business, already dabbling in entrepreneurial activities as a teenager to make extra money.

Jabiri has always been a fan of Aliko Dangote, the Nigerian billionaire business magnate, reading books on his ventures and following the growth of his empire. She wanted to achieve what he had achieved.

In line with her master plan, Jabiri proactively registered a company, GBRI, in her first year at St Augustine University in Mwanza, Tanzania, where she was studying for a bachelor’s degree in business administration and accounting. The intent was to open a manufacturing business as soon as she could. This planned venture did materialise, with GBRI originally making soap products but, in 2013, she was forced to re-evaluate when she couldn’t find any finance for the acquisition of machinery needed for expansion.

While studying, Jabiri watched a television programme Amka Badilika which showcased the success of local farmers. This sparked her interest in farming. “I decided to use the savings and resources from my manufacturing business and channel it into a new one, horticulture,” she says. For two years she planned and looked for opportunities, learning as much as she could about farming practices. Then, in 2015, when visiting a friend in the town of Iringa, she put the plan into motion.

“Land in the area was quite cheap at that time. The weather was good, so I thought I would give it a try. The money from my previous venture was not a lot, around 2 million Tanzanian shillings ($862), so I had to negotiate for everything. For example, I made a deal with the landowners to pay for the original eight acres of land outside Iringa in monthly instalments over two years.”

Jabiri did not want to repeat mistakes from previous ventures. This time, she wanted to have the right expertise to ensure the business was a success. “When I started manufacturing, I was afraid of hiring people. In some way, I believed I could do everything myself. Even when we needed a chemist, I would push myself to learn about it and try it. That didn’t work,” she recalls. “For the horticultural business, I found an agronomist with 25 years’ experience from a neighbouring country and offered him a certain percentage from our proceeds to join the team.”

Sorting of harvested french beans at GBRI’s packing house.

The company erected greenhouses on the land. Even before planting the first crops, Jabiri signed purchase agreements with corporate customers including hotels, supermarkets and one distributor that supplied vegetables to a company preparing meals for airlines. GBRI began farming with crops required by these customers. During 2016 and 2017, tomatoes, leafy vegetables, capsicums and onions were cultivated. The proceeds were ploughed back into the business.

For Jabiri, however, the business was not growing fast enough and she investigated how they could diversify and expand their market.

Finding new markets

She believes in shouting your vision and story from the rooftops, expanding your network and ensuring people know who you are and what you want to achieve. GBRI needed external funding for growth and when the banks would not grant her a loan, she targeted development institutions through her network connections.

“In the early days of the horticultural business, I was constantly out there, knocking on doors, looking for stakeholders in the agricultural network so that I could connect with the head of that organisation. The company became a member of the Tanzania Horticultural Association and we formed ties with the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania. These organisations were publicising what we were doing and connecting us to other stakeholders, decision-makers and funders,” she says.

Jabiri would set up meetings with policymakers and government officials to share her vision and the impact she believed GBRI could have on the community. At one such meeting, she managed to convince the deputy minister of agriculture that she would one day export from Tanzania to Europe. He, in turn, committed to sharing her details with anyone who would be able to provide funding. These efforts paid off and GBRI’s first development funding came in 2018 from an organisation in the Netherlands.

“It was around $100,000, followed soon after by another grant of the same amount from USAID. With this, we could build our asset base and obtain a loan from the local banks.”

The company changed its production focus and approach, looking at crops in demand in the European market such as snow peas, sugar snap peas and French beans. It also signed agreements with smallholder farmers to ensure consistent supply to satisfy the demand it believed existed.

French beans packed for export.

GBRI established the brand EatFresh, under which it exports its produce across the borders of Tanzania. The company set up the necessary infrastructure such as a packhouse with cold rooms and procured a large refrigerated truck to transport the vegetables to the nearest international airport in Dodoma. It then searched for export clients.

“I always say we Googled our way into the export market,” Jabiri laughs. “We did not have the money to attend exhibitions or go abroad to meet prospective customers. So we searched online for a marketing platform. We found a company based in Pakistan and had to make an upfront payment. We took a leap of faith. Luckily everything worked out well and we got our first international client through that platform.”

Poised for further growth

Before Covid-19, GBRI was exporting to the Netherlands and the UK as well as to a distributor for some of the other EU countries. It also entered the avocado industry and was steadily growing its smallholder farmer outgrower network and the land it was cultivating. “We started with three hectares and increased to 15 hectares. We also acquired another 200 hectares but have not yet utilised it.”

When the pandemic put a strain on export growth, GBRI looked inward at the local market. It currently acquires bananas in bulk from about 100 smallholder farmers near Iringa, ripening them in its temperature-controlled cold rooms and delivering daily to local vendors to diversify its income streams.

“As much as we are waiting for things to improve, we will not return to be a 100% export business. It is a sustainability decision as a result of Covid-19,” explains Jabiri, although, she is still optimistic about the growth potential for the export of fresh produce to Europe.

“We have good weather and plenty of available arable land. We have enough water. In terms of production, everything favours Tanzania.”