Turning past failures into present success: Finding international markets for mangoes from The Gambia

Momarr Mass Taal

In 2014, seasoned entrepreneur Momarr Mass Taal launched Tropingo Foods, a food processing and exporting company that adds value to local crops for export.

Today, Tropingo Foods is one of the largest processors and exporters of processed foods in The Gambia, creating employment for over 250 women and youths. It processes and exports dried mangoes and groundnuts from the Gambia to different places around the world, but mainly to Nigeria, Senegal, the Netherlands, and China.

The majority of staff are women earning an income and developing themselves professionally.

How did this all start?

Mangoes liberally grow everywhere in the Gambia but the majority of the yearly harvest goes to waste due to lack of market opportunities.

Taking the lessons from his previous failed ventures, Taal established Tropingo Foods to create sustainable market access for local produce by developing value chains and producing value added goods, mainly for export.

At the moment we are a strictly export-focused company because the Gambia is a small market,” says Taal. “We have had quite some success in the last two years and have impacted the lives of rural communities where surplus mangoes are grown.”

Over the years, Taal has been able to increase Tropingo Food’s production efficiency without affecting its quality. For instance, he has moved the company’s production from manual slicing on cutting tables, to a slicing machine with conveyor belts. This increases the quantity of mango slices per minute, gives a uniform quality product, and saves cost in terms of labour hours. The company is also utilising and converting its waste to energy, unlike before when they had huge waste from getting rid of the groundnut shells. “Now we convert that into biogas to power our mango facility,” says Taal.

How did the company grow into the business it is today?

Tropingo Foods works with thousands of smallholder and commercial farmers, as well as traders in The Gambia. In the mango programme alone, it works with 290 orchard owners.

“When we started the factory, we were producing three tons of dried mangoes per year. Now, we are at 50 tons capacity. We are hoping to expand our production capacity to 100 tons in the next two years.”

Taal’s effort hasn’t gone unnoticed. He has received several global awards and recognition for his business and community involvement, but he shies away from talking about his achievements.

Surely there must have been challenges

Taal says agribusiness is a capital-intensive venture and money is a big part of moving the business forward.

“Starting a business is a very expensive proposition and doing business on little money may not get you the result you need, especially in the agriculture sector where the upfront cost is usually high,” says Taal. “You may have the skill or the technology know-how, but without money or knowing how to generate money for your business quickly, you are unlikely to go very far.”

Another challenge is the technical capacity of staff. Currently, in this part of Africa, people are more services oriented, he says. “We had to get the technical capacity we need to run our factory from abroad, because the vocational training is not available here. We are currently pressing the government to address this problem as the needs of the economy are shifting and there is more need for technical competence.”

Value addition and processing in Africa, where supply chains are still largely informal, is another challenge. This makes it difficult for processors to have consistent supply of quality raw materials, because a farmer cannot predict how much yield he will be able to supply. “You basically have to go and buy whatever quantity they have,” says Taal.

He believes African agricultural sectors needs to be organised in a way that is more conducive for processors. “We need to look at the entire value chain in a more systematic way whereby a farmer can give a certain guaranteed amount of tonnage at a time to inspire investment in the sector. For your factory to be profitable you have to be producing at a maximum capacity and you need bulk buyers who can buy all your production.”

Within the next five years, Taal hopes to invest heavily in the Gambia by increasing the factory’s production capacity, while making Tropingo Foods one of the largest food processing companies in West Africa.

To attain this, the company will have to partner with the international agricultural sector and wants to increase the number of farmers they work with.

Anything we can learn from his experience?

Taal says the best way to learn is through failure. “The reason I know, and I am as conscious as I am now, is because I have failed spectacularly in this sector before. I lost everything I had at one point but it taught me a lot of lessons.”

Nevertheless, Taal says honesty and trustworthiness should be the watchword of any business person. “I think people underestimate how far your reputation will take you in business. You can be the smartest business person, but if you don’t have integrity and the humility to know when you are wrong, or when you don’t know something, you may not succeed.

“Before starting a business, the most important thing is to do your research. Know your business. Know the business environment and how to operate in it. Consider where your revenue is going to come from and if your idea is bankable. No matter how experienced you are, each country is different and has its own dynamics. You need to be familiar with those dynamics if you want to thrive.”