When he was 23, Rohan Garg moved from Delhi to Niger to start the mineral water-bottling company, Belvie, after noticing a gap in the market. Garg spoke to How we made it in Africa about what he has learned when it comes to doing business in the landlocked west African country.
Why mineral water in Niger?
I found it interesting to note that consumers in Niger often associate quality with imported food and beverage products. It is an observation that can be extrapolated to many other countries as well. There is a gap between how people view Nestlé or Unilever products – which are mostly imported – and locally manufactured products. This planted the idea of starting Belvie, a consumer goods company based on locally manufactured, international-quality products that will seek to dispel this notion and create their own niche.
In 2013, when we had started to survey the consumer goods market of Niger, the market for bottled water in Niger was dominated by low-quality products that were unnecessarily expensive. Even though multiple locally manufactured products existed in this domain, we spotted a huge gap in the kind of product quality and transparency that consumers were seeking, and the bottled water that was currently supplied to the market. Accepting this challenge as an opportunity, we decided to set up a mineral water-bottling facility that will offer quality assurance and consistency.
Where do you get your water from?
Our source is an underground aquifer more than 200 feet deep, on the outskirts of the capital city, Niamey. The water here has accumulated in an underground pool over hundreds and thousands of years, after passing through natural filtration layers. Our [bottling] factory is right next to the source.
Why did you leave India to start a business in Africa?
It was one of those unexpected turns that life sometimes takes that brought me to Africa. I was working for Deloitte’s financial advisory service in Atlanta. It was definitely a good experience to start my career there, however, about a year into the job I realised that my interests were too diverse for me to see myself continue in an established role with a set structure.
Throughout my college days, I had been reading about the high-growth (but challenging) markets of Asia and Africa, but had never imagined myself being intimately involved in these so soon. Africa seemed like a market and geography that I would consider after getting some experience in India, so there were absolutely no short-term plans to set up a business there.
As I was considering quitting my position with Deloitte, it so happened that my father – who is the founder and director of an engineering business in India – presented me with the idea of helping him run the business in India. I was quick to take the offer up, and moved back to Delhi.
Call it tough luck or my restless mind – a few months into my new role, I foresaw myself heading into the same direction as before, and had started to explore some new venture ideas in India, with an eye on Africa as an export market. An uncle – who had experience with a Fortune 500 multinational with operations in Africa – put me through to his friend who was an exporter to francophone west Africa. Long story short, I was soon on a flight to Niger on my first visit to the continent. I had spent a few months in France and taken up French courses at various levels as part of a study abroad programme in college, but was far from conversing beyond simple greetings. The huge language barrier definitely proved to be an obstacle.
With more visits, I slowly started to get comfortable with speaking basic French, and started interacting with retailers to understand the market dynamics, product value perception and distribution. That initial effort was a very profound experience. At the end of it, I felt a deep sense of connection to the market, and felt confident about producing and delivering a product that could be well accepted. This, in a nutshell, is how I ended up becoming an entrepreneur in Africa. It has been quite an adventure.
Describe some of the challenges your business faces?
The degree of challenges faced by a manufacturing business in Africa can depend on multiple factors – like the geography (does a country have a port or is it land-locked?), investment policies, infrastructure, et cetera.
I would like to point out three critical areas that I feel transcend most geographies and to date continue to make manufacturing difficult in Africa. The first is complex supply chains. Due to an underdeveloped industrial sector, manufacturers in most African markets continue to import critical raw materials. Procurement lead time can sometimes be as much as a few months, adding strains on working capital and inventory management.
The second is a lack of skilled labour. A manufacturing-driven enterprise requires a constant availability of expertise in manufacturing, operations and maintenance. There seems to be a disconnect between current training programmes and the industry. A synchronised effort in this domain is required.
The third is under-developed infrastructure – in terms of energy and transportation, to be more precise. The costs related to energy and in-land transportation vis-à-vis similar costs in other parts of the world, like Asia and the Middle East, are very high. Good quality infrastructure and a constant supply of energy will play a major part in improving the industrial sector in Africa.
Are you looking at new countries and sectors?
Our growth strategy is driven by the dual goals of expanding our product range in existing markets, as well as introducing the same range of products into new markets. In the next short-medium term, Belvie will enter additional francophone markets, starting with the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso. In terms of product-range expansion, we will be venturing into bottling carbonated soft drinks to strengthen our product portfolio in Niger.
What is the biggest mistake – and the best decision – you made while running your company?
Starting a factory in Niger without any kind of entrepreneurial experience was equivalent to taking a plunge into the unknown. One of the mistakes that stands out was how, due to the lack of experience I had, we didn’t account for any contingency during the financial and operational planning of the project. While setting up the factory, we ran into obstacles that dragged the timeline of the project and added to the project costs. As a lesson learned from this, it is always prudent to allot a certain amount of capital towards contingency and delays, as these markets are in essence highly uncertain to operate in.
The best decision that we took was on the positioning of the product as a high quality one. It demanded higher investments and increased manufacturing process complexity. However, consumers were quick to spot the additional value the quality brought to the product, which in turn led to quicker acceptance of a new product. This was interesting as it ran contrary to the belief that consumers in such nascent markets would not recognise the importance of quality assurance and certifications. Our experience and risk proved this notion wrong.
Could you share some of the lessons you learned from running a company in Niger?
I was 23 when I first came to Niger. For me, the most rewarding experiences of the journey of being an entrepreneur have been the lessons that I have learned along the way, often through trial and error. The first lesson I learned was that patience and perseverance overcome mountains. Niger, like some other markets, is nascent and complex. The lack of frameworks, infrastructure and information demands a lot of patience in dealing with setbacks and delays. What truly defines success in such challenging markets is the ability to recreate oneself from one failure to another.
The second lesson is to know your customer. The time that I spent interacting with retailers and shop keepers throughout my stay in Niger was instrumental in developing a deep understanding of their values, preferences and practices. I have a profound appreciation for their business sense, and have learned a lot from my discussions with many traditional traders and retailers that have been serving these markets for generations.
The final lesson was learning that my greatest asset is my family. As a part of my entrepreneurial journey, I rediscovered a strong bond with my family. I consider myself fortunate to have parents and family that have been very supportive and encouraging. In today’s fast-paced world, we tend to overlook the important role our loved ones play in our lives – we don’t realise how precious a resource this can be for strength and support in trying times.