Zambia: After failure of agri platform, entrepreneur targets poultry industry

Gilbert Mwale

Interview with Gilbert Mwale

Lives in: Zambia

In 2016, Zambian entrepreneur Gilbert Mwale founded eMsika, an online marketplace where farmers could buy inputs such as seeds and fertilisers. However, this platform has since failed, and Mwale has pivoted to a new venture catering to Zambia’s poultry industry, called Farmhouse.

We spoke with Mwale about the lessons learned from his previous platform and why he is now focused on the poultry industry. Below are slightly edited excerpts.

You pivoted the business in its sixth year after the initial platform failed. What aspects of the original approach were unsuccessful?

Our business struggled in 2022: we lost our leading salesperson due to a motorbike accident; forfeited $4,000 due to currency devaluation; and experienced low income due to the seasonal business structure in the maize and legume production sector.

Our core business was connecting farmers to farm inputs such as crop seeds, fertilisers, and agrochemicals. These products are only purchased during the rainy season. We struggled to have enough cash flow in the periods before and after this farming season.

We also felt that the marketplace model – where we brought local suppliers onto the platform to sell by themselves – was a bit difficult as most of them lacked expertise and did not understand what this demanded.

What lessons have you learned from this failure?

  • Push your solution or product to market very fast (less than a month) and get a lot of customer feedback.
  • Until you have product-market fit or repeat customers who are inviting their friends to meet you at the price you are happy with, do not waste time scaling or marketing your product.
  • The majority of companies in Africa will not start out as unicorns as is often advocated for in the West. However, if we concentrate on the fundamentals and develop a steady product or service, we will still have a big and great company. This realisation led us to step back from the tech-first approach and open an agrovet shop where people can walk in to procure things while we introduce them to our digital channels.

Give us an overview of your new venture focused on the poultry industry.

We are now retailing farm inputs such as day-old chicks, feed, vaccines, and equipment via a physical store and the Farmhouse app. Customers have the option to come and pick up their orders, or we can deliver to their farms. We also provide advisory services to farmers at the store and on their farms.

Why the emphasis on poultry?

For farmers, it is one of the most climate-friendly sources of protein in the livestock group and very affordable to start, making it more rewarding for them.

For us, we noticed the challenges experienced by more than 5,000 chicken rearers who cannot easily access farm inputs and expert advice, hence they keep losing their hard-earned investments. It’s also more sustainable for us as it is done throughout the year.

What are the biggest challenges faced by poultry farmers?

We have done surveys and worked with more than 100 poultry farmers to establish their challenges, and they are numerous. I will narrow it down to one of our clients, Lucy. She is aged between 20 and 55, works a day job from 8am to 5pm, has an income of $350, and can access a loan of up to $3,000. Lucy has a side hustle of keeping 300 chickens at her farm outside town where she lives. Her challenges are that she has unskilled labour managing her farm, and because she is busy at the office (remote farming), she is experiencing a loss of more than 25% of her chickens each cycle. Also, due to having no records of her business activities, she is struggling to access finance, which would help her business grow to an exporting level.

Explain the revenue model for this new venture.

This time, we primarily generate revenue through sales margins when customers purchase via our mobile app or walk into our physical store. We also generate income when farmers subscribe to our membership programme … In this programme, we conduct monthly farm visits to equip and educate the farm workers (farm manager as a service).

Who are your main competitors?

We don’t look at other players as competitors but as potential collaborators. These include brick-and-mortar agrovet shops and suppliers.

Can you share some figures on the traction the new business has gained so far?

We have 1,800 organic downloads of our super app, Farmhouse, and have trained 9,000 farmers online. We are targeting 100,000 downloads by next year. The app features a social networking community for farmers, video training live or on demand, a poultry manager, and the ability to request technical support.