Eli Pollak is the founder and CEO of Apollo Agriculture, a company launched in 2016 that uses mobile technology, machine learning and remote sensing to deliver customised packages of seed, fertiliser, advice, insurance and credit to small-scale farmers. The company offers a holistic solution to smallholder needs, with its first product targeted at maize farmers in Kenya.
How we made it in Africa talks to Pollak – previously a Stanford University student who moved from the US to Kenya – to find out how his business journey is going.
Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
In our first season we experimented both with fulfilment through agri-dealers and also with direct delivery, where we hired our own warehouses and trucks and actually set drop-off points and delivered the seed and fertiliser to our customers. On our first day of deliveries, we overestimated how quickly we would be able to serve our customers and we arrived at our largest drop-off site, where we were meant to serve 250 farmers, six hours late…
It was getting on dusk and then it started to pour. So here was a group of customers who had taken a bet on a new company, had waited in the sun for six hours, and then all of a sudden it started to rain and they basically started getting really upset… It honestly got a bit tense. They were really afraid that we were just going to pick up shop and drive away. Ben, our operations manager, and I, as the leadership of this company, went farmer by farmer and apologised for being so late and promised we would be back [in the] morning to make things right. People were upset with us and frustrated, but almost every single one of those customers came back the next day and we were able to earn back their trust.
I think letting down your customers is always incredibly painful and disappointing, but being able to turn around and deliver, and then earn back that trust, is also incredibly inspiring.
Which business achievement are you most proud of?
We are a young company. Up until very recently, we didn’t even talk publically about the business because our ethos has always been to [first] do the work and then maybe… we will talk about it publically. So I am hesitant to trumpet any achievements, but I think at the moment, the thing that I am most proud of, is the team that we have been able to bring together. I think that the combination of deep operations experience and world-class tech and machine-learning experience, is rare, and so I am really grateful about the people that I get to work with and I think it’s the thing that positions us the most for success.
Tell us about your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
I’m getting better at this – but I like to be involved in everything. I love the details, and I think that is a trait that sometimes serves me well and sometimes means that I don’t give the team enough leeway to just run and come up with creative ideas [themselves].
Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
One of the things I try and focus on… is that often, and I think particularly in the Silicon Valley tech world and impact space, there is a temptation to conflate reading about entrepreneurship and going to conferences, with the hard work that comes with understanding your customers, supporting their needs and building your team. I fundamentally believe that the most important work is done in the field with your customers and in the office with your team – not necessarily at a conference. And that is not to say that those things aren’t important, but I think people over index on the importance of PR versus delivering high-quality results to customers.
Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?
I was lucky to be part of a company, that wasn’t my company, [first]. I joined as an early employee and it grew to 700 people, and the thing that I think surprised me – and I have tried to take this to heart in our journey at Apollo Agriculture – is that I watched some of the most brilliant people that I have ever worked with, and are unbelievably amazing at a 20-person company, deeply struggle when the company became a 200-person company.
So I think the thing that I always try and keep in mind is that the skills that make me a good CEO at 10 [employees] aren’t necessarily the same skills that will make me a good CEO at 50. I am constantly evaluating what is my highest impact role to play in this business and how that might be different from six months ago – and whether I might be stuck in how I was doing my job six months ago.
Your job is not static; it is constantly evolving as the needs and scale of the company, as well as the exact product, evolves. If you are not dynamic to the changing things that the company, team and customers are asking as you as a leader, then you will fail. Being a CEO today will not be the same as being a CEO in a year and I have to adjust.
Name a business opportunity you would still like to pursue.
I think access to high-quality affordable mental healthcare is a persistent problem. When you look around the world, we see sadly high rates of depression, anxiety, and drug addiction. I think there are a lot of causes of that but I also think there is a gigantic opportunity for massive social impact as well as a massive business opportunity. In the US we spend more on mental healthcare than any other healthcare I know. Yet people still suffer deeply. I think developing a company that can help people access high-quality and affordable mental healthcare, in a way that really works for them, would be both enormously important and powerful.
But I’m in small-scale agriculture for the long haul, so it’s not like I would [pursue] this – in a different life maybe.