Farm23 Strawberry started growing the fruit in 2009 after founder Bupe Chipili Mulapesi, a strawberry lover herself, couldn’t find any on the supermarket shelves in Zambia’s capital city, Lusaka. Using book knowledge only, the company began with 20 plants. Today, 96,000 plants strong, Farm23 provides both the domestic and export markets with fresh Alinta strawberries as well as a strawberry jam. Jeanette Clark spoke to Mulapesi about the steps she took to grow her business.
Deciding on a new crop
Bupe Chipili Mulapesi came into farming through the guidance of her mother-in-law, who was a farmer and was always encouraging her to grow something. A trained social worker, Mulapesi didn’t heed the advice until the family moved to the outskirts of Lusaka where their property had available land for crop cultivation. She planted carrots, tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers.
Then in 2009, after a visit to Australia where she met a fellow farmer who was achieving success with the Alinta strawberry varietal, native to Australia, she ventured into strawberry farming. “Over time, I started understanding the market in Lusaka and the business of farming. I focused on the crops for which there was a demand and managed to get 20 of the Alinta plants.”
Mulapesi could tap into the expertise of her mentor back in Australia and looked for literature from that region on the crop. Her entire current plantation comes from seedlings propagated from the original plants.
Demand did not immediately equal sales
Even though there was a clear shortage of strawberries on the supermarket shelves, Farm23 did not immediately achieve the sales it was hoping for. The local Zambian consumer was slightly sceptical of strawberries grown in the country.
“We had this myth that strawberries cannot grow here,” says Mulapesi. “People still say it to this day but when I studied the botanical literature of the plant, it was clear it was thriving in other African countries with similar climates.”
“We did extensive marketing to convince buyers good quality strawberries could come from inside Zambia. A lot of investment – all from my own savings – went into packaging and branding, to compete with the imported products,” she adds.
The company’s first client was a small supermarket near the farm, still a loyal client today.
“It was only after about a year that we received orders from bigger supermarkets and hyper stores. We also had clients who would visit the farm to buy directly.”
Today, the company provides stores and chains such as Food Lover’s Market, Abo Abbas and Melisa Supermarkets.
When Mulapesi ventured into strawberries, she had some revenue coming in from the crops that were already grown on her land, which helped to establish initial production.
“We have been expanding on an annual basis. From the 20 plants we had, to 50, to 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, etc. Every year, we would expand our production using our existing plantation,” she explains.
The dream was to reach 300,000 plants by this year, but the challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic moved the goalpost. “However, we are back on track with the growth as the local and international export market is opening up slowly. In the past, we would always reinvest or expand if we hit a certain profit margin, and we have not been able to do that in the last two years.”
Covid-19 and the export opportunity
When Covid-19 hit the country, it also hit the pockets of the domestic consumer.
Strawberry buyers are a niche market in Zambia, according to Mulapesi; a portion of the population who have a bit more disposable income. When the economy was affected, so were these customers. “We had reduced demand and found ourselves with a lot of post-harvest waste as we could not sell every strawberry. We had to think outside the box,” she says. “Local supermarkets that used to take around 500 punnets a week, have reduced it to about 100. Some of these supermarkets have even closed down.”
The first thing Farm23 did was to search for buyers outside the border. “We got in contact with somebody from the Democratic Republic of Congo who was interested in buying the fruit from us and started supplying them on a large scale.”
Currently, around 60% of the company’s total production is exported. The Congolese buyer wants approximately three tonnes of fruit a week, but Farm23 can supply just 800 kg.
“You can see the huge shortfall we have,” says Mulapesi. “It meant we had to involve other farmers and become the off-takers for their supply. Our outgrower scheme is showing some potential. We provide seedlings, then train these farmers to grow the fruit organically and manage the plants and the harvest so that we can purchase the fruit.”
Value-addition for diversification
As well as finding the export market when domestic markets were subdued, Farm23 is investigating alternative business avenues and value-addition. The first product is a pure strawberry jam that has no artificial pectin in the recipe. The company is in the process of installing some equipment to ramp up production.
It is also considering adding a dehydrated strawberry product and has approached a local dairy drink producer that would be a willing buyer to use the fruit in its dairy drink shake.
“We are also looking at producing pure strawberry juice, but all of this can happen only once we increase production,” reveals Mulapesi.
The cost of certification
Farm23 aims to satisfy its markets with the best quality, organically grown strawberries. It has organic certification from a local institution, but if it wants to export to Europe or the US and use the organic label, it would need certification from an international body, renewable each year.
“It is extremely expensive. The nearest certification body is in South Africa and it would cost us around $16,000 a year,” says Mulapesi. “For us, that is venture capital that could be used in our business. If we cannot find cheaper sources of certification, it just isn’t realistic.”
Farm23 is not alone in strawberry production anymore, others have cottoned on to the fact that the crop thrives in Zambian soil and climate conditions. “You know how it goes. “As with any business idea, once you put it out there, it looks interesting to everybody.”
Mulapesi adds that she has seen some new players enter the market, some who are smaller farmers the company helped train and set up. “I don’t see it as competition though, rather as a business opportunity. As the market opens up, I will be able to call on them to be my suppliers in future. I know at some point, we have to work together.”
Farm23 Strawberry founder Bupe Chipili Mulapesi’s contact information
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