Investing in people: the key to African start-up success
After many years of wading through the start-up phase for our hatchery to supply fingerlings for the aquaculture industry in Malawi, we are now at a point where we can enjoy the fruits of our labor. To succeed in Africa, you need a broad knowledge and support base– AND people that are convinced of how important it is to do what they believe in. This is hard- it is either possible to find someone skilled, or someone willing to subject themselves to the rigors of working in less-than-ideal conditions, but few nowadays have the required pioneering spirit to see through tough projects, and it is so much easier (on yourself and your family) to just get a well-paid job in an environment that offers access to the things that make life easier.
But, you do find individuals: few and far between, who are not generally team-players. Generally, they have developed highly individualistic approaches, and are not “naturals” when it comes to working in a group. Our support base in South Africa– technologically as well as in networking with skilled people of like mind, is what saw us through the start-up phase of our business. Without the knowledge that you have a fall-back position should you really need it, people are often prevented from taking the risk required to make a success. In short– the main reason for success in Africa, is to know when to stop: some stop too early, others hang on for much too long…
I grew up on one of the pioneering subtropical fruit farms in the (now) main Macadamia nut production area in South Africa. My grandfather ran a farm here, my dad planted his first Macadamia trees in 1961. From being one of the poorest areas, this project developed to become one of the most prosperous farming communities in the 1970’s. The 140 farms (ranging in size from about 27 hectares to over 200 hectares) provided employment opportunities for over 10,000 families.
It took 17 years from the first plantings of Macadamia, before the first economical harvests were realized. During this period, close co-operation between NISSV (Research Institute for Citrus and Subtropical Fruit), now known as the CSFRI (Citrus and Subtropical Fruit Research Institute Institute of Dept Agriculture) and my father was taking place. He received the latest imports of graft-wood of HAES-cultivars (Hawaii Agricultural Experiment Station) of Macadamia, and developed his own methods of grafting, tree-spacing and irrigation by micro sprinklers – all pioneering work. The CSFRI assisted with leaf analysis, soil analysis, pest control methods and general moral support. You see, my dad, who held but a high-school diploma, had a love for trees, and believed nuts would be a “big thing” in the future.
In 1989, I founded my first own business, a plant cloning laboratory, that was instrumental in establishing blueberries and raspberries as new crops in South Africa, as well as several horticultural and floriculture crops. We ventured into cut-flower production, and were the biggest producers of Gerbera in 1998. I eventually moved back to the family farm in Levubu, started a new plant cloning laboratory, and produced cut-flowers. During flooding in 2000 from a cyclone in the area, we were wiped out in the cut-flowers. I was experimenting with aquaculture in self-designed CRAS (Closed Recirculating Aquaculture Systems) and producing ornamental fish commercially. The waste water was used to irrigate high-value fish which we sold to the upmarket supermarket chains. In this period, I was chairperson – for several terms- of the Northern Aquaculture Association, and designed and built a CRAS system for the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) for evaluating extruded fish feed from agricultural waste.
So how does this all relate to investing in people? Well, the original labor force on the farm my grandfather, Piet le Roux, bought in Levubu, consisted of famine-induced, low-skilled migrants from Mozambique. Their children stayed on with our family on the farm, and from then, my father, Bertie le Roux, trained people in producing grafted and air-layered trees, tractor drivers, welders, builders (bricklayers & tiles). Most of the trees grafted in the Macadamia orchards of Levubu were either grafted by George and Andries (two of the earliest employees) or by people trained by them. They later made lucrative extra incomes from continuing with the nursery when my dad had no further use for it.
I then worked with their children who helped me grow cut flowers, build hothouses, and produce fish in CRAS systems. Now, remember, these people had only been able to go to school in the third generation in this rural community: they had basic literary and arithmetic skills from adult education classes. BUT – they consistently outperformed university graduates in the field, when it came to practical implementation of what they learned. I worked with two of the sons of George and Andries, who as children accompanied me in my forays into the bush, searching for orchids, which I grew as a hobby. These guys put a MSc graduate of the local university to shame, when we were doing a collection expedition for the local herbarium, by continuously finding more orchids than him, and correctly distinguishing between orchids and other plants – through training they got through me as children. The same held true for their ability to identify problems in the fish farm, and cut-flower operation. At that stage, I did not realize the significance of this all, that the families were associated with our family for three generations by then.
In 2006, I was visited by the Consul of Malawi, Ben Mbewe, on a trip to see what we were doing with aquaculture: he was very impressed, and invited us to look at the possibility of setting up in Malawi. Here I met with Sloans Chimatiro, who arranged for a visit to several projects and facilities of the Department of Fisheries. In 2007, after a few visits, and having been told that well-trained, eager-to-be employed workforce was available in Malawi– I talked a few small-scale investors into setting up a hatchery to supply in the perceived shortfall of fingerlings for the aquaculture industry in Malawi.
This is where the reality set in: the project was well designed, I was experienced, the climate was good, the need existed, BUT I had to start from scratch with training people. The technology was foreign and the concept of farming fish in cages was not known at all. The few attempts by local groups were met with failure – and this all worked together to make us totally rethink what we are trying to do. In order to have a successful project anywhere, you need people who have the skills to adapt technology to be locally appropriate.
The best project, or business plan, is bound to fail if you do not have the personnel who can implement and train others. It has taken us 10 years to achieve what should have been possible in 3.
So, in the end, investment in people is your most important investment. Technology can be bought, transferred and adapted, people have to be nurtured and valued.
My message is: Invest in people, not projects.