“For intra-trade to develop within the African region, we have to focus on value addition,” says Jennifer Bash, the co-founder and CEO of Alaska Tanzania Industries Limited, a company involved in the sourcing, processing, packaging, distribution and marketing of food products in Tanzania.
“When we started, most of the products that could easily be sold in Tanzania were imported,” says Bash, a marketing graduate from Baruch College in the US. “We had eggs coming from the UAE and the UK and it is not because we did not have eggs in Tanzania, it is because the eggs we had were sold locally without being packaged and branded.”
Living in the US exposed Bash to how food and other commodities are packaged and branded for sale in supermarkets.
“When I came back, I saw things differently. I came with that… knowledge and exposure you get from other countries. I visited supermarkets across Tanzania and I realised packaging and branding is one of the biggest challenges facing locally-produced products.
“Producing is not a challenge because we have a lot of organic food and a lot of well-processed foods, but when it comes to packaging and branding, that is where most fail.”
Seeing opportunity in branded food
Bash’s interest in business began as a child. She grew up helping her father sell grains as a commodity in the market.
“Of all his children, I was the one who had an interest in business. When I started Alaska Tanzania, I told him I’m not doing something completely different from what he was doing. He was trading in commodities but I am selling branded finished goods and adding value. I am focusing on creating a brand with a view that in years to come it will become a household name.”
Before Bash and her husband left Tanzania to study in the US in 2008, the couple launched a poultry business – supplying the meat to hotels and supermarkets.
“At first, we were raising chickens for meat purposes and adding value by cutting the chickens into pieces. But we experienced a lot of challenges. The market demanded frozen chicken. We battled with unreliable electricity and we didn’t have investment like cold rooms. We later switched from rearing chickens for meat, to producing eggs.”
When the couple relocated to the US, they left the business in the hands of a manager. But by the time Bash returned in 2012, she discovered the company was running at a loss. So she fired the manager and re-launched the business at the end of that year. This was the foundations of Alaska Tanzania.
“We started with eggs, but after expanding our market reach, we decided to add another product which has a big market in Tanzania – local rice from the Mbeya region.”
Currently, Alaska Tanzania offers four products – eggs, rice, maize flour and sunflower oil – which are packaged in different volumes and sizes according to market demands.
To source its products, the company works closely with small-scale farmers. “Our partnership with farmers is a win-win situation. We provide farmers with market access, which they could not access before. That way they are able to increase their productivity and earn an income. On the other hand, we add value by processing, packaging, branding and distributing the produce to our market networks.”
In 2018, the company plans to start exporting to other East African markets. It is also looking for partnerships to grow its product line.
“We want to expand our network and focus on the export market. This means we have to increase our volume of production and also sensitise farmers to farm more quality products,” Bash says
“We are going to work more with farmers and provide them with linkages to tools, inputs and finance. We will create a cycle so that we will have control over the whole value chain, and this is specifically so that traceability is easy wherever Alaska products are sold.”
Rolling with the punches
Bash’s entrepreneurial journey hasn’t been without mistakes. For instance, some years ago, she took out a bank loan to construct a factory, without doing a proper feasibility study. After spending money on the construction and machines, she realised that the community where the plant was situated did not have electricity. Powering the factory proved very expensive. It took her a year to get another operating site for the machines.
“Entrepreneurship looks easy from the outside. People will think, ‘If she can do it, I can do it’ – not knowing that there are lots of sacrifices that have to be put in,” explains Bash.
“I never had the misconception that it was going to be easy. I knew it was going to be tough but not this tough. Sometimes, I ask myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ But I knew what I wanted, and I knew I have to work hard and make sacrifices to grow bigger.”
Over the years she has learned to be disciplined, work hard, set achievable goals and harness the power of networking, which has enabled her to meet the right people. Her greatest weakness as an entrepreneur is being a perfectionist.
“When I hire people, I expect them to be on the same level that I am. But I have learned along the way that we are all wired differently.”
Her advice to others hoping to venture into entrepreneurship is to think big and start small.
“There is always a starting point. Allow yourself to start small and use the available resources to get to where you want.”
Bash was recently named the East Africa Young Business Leader of the Year at the 2017 All Africa Business Leaders Awards. She is also a recipient of the 2016 Women’s Award of Excellence in the Agribusiness Sector and a member of The Africa List, a select community of next-generation CEOs.
“I never knew I will be getting these recognitions. I was just focusing on growing the business. Now, we are at a good place and considering the year we started, we have been able to grow quickly. I have very good support from my husband and I am pleased that I was able to create employment and market access for the farmers while enjoying the growth of the company,” she says.