Each year NABC has the honour to hand out the "Doing Business in Africa" Award to one of its members. This award goes to a company whose activities in Africa in 2015 stand out in terms of innovation, sustainability and profitability, and provide a good example of Dutch business in Africa. During our yearly Ambassador’s Dinner in December, two pre-selected companies were given the floor to pitch themselves and their successful business activities in Africa. After these presentations, the audience voted for their personal favorite to win the trophy: the well-known award shaped like a white elephant. We are proud to announce that during the annual Ambassador’s Dinner in December the ‘Doing Business in Africa’ Award for 2015 has been awarded to seed-company Bejo!
Bejo is one of the leading companies in breeding, production, processing and sale of premium vegetable seeds. Bejo's offers over 1000 varieties of vegetables – representing over 50 crops- suitable for various markets and climate zones. About five years ago Bejo Zaden decided to join the African seed market. Following the fast development seen in the agricultural sectors of many African countries over the past few years, the company decided to start focusing on this new and challenging market. The most popular seeds for the African market include onions, cabbage, carrot, eggplant and hot peppers.
We had the pleasure of discussing Bejo's move to Africa and their work in the continent with André Dekker, Bejo's Business Manager for Africa and the Middle East & Pacific.
Q: Tell us a little about Bejo’s work in Africa?
Ever since our move to Africa, we have been working intensively in various African countries. In 2015, we set up an office in Morocco, a regional center for the North African region. We are now developing similar initiatives in Senegal and Kenya. We have been busy setting up trail stations to screen all our seed varieties coming from our research stations. Those seed varieties are developed especially for African conditions and the trials help us to see how it performs under local circumstances. We also invest in projects to help the farmers make better use of our seeds. A good example of this is our onion project with Beemsterboer in Senegal, which played an important role in winning the White Elephant Award.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about this onion project?
Well, we adopted a variety of onion seeds to the West African circumstances that can be stored a lot longer than the local varieties. By helping the farmers setting up simple storage buildings and in combination with our varieties, the onions can be stored months longer than local onion varieties. This enables the farmers to supply locally produced onions to the local market for a much longer period than they could in the past. The onion season in countries such as Senegal normally stops in August when the rainy season ends. From August to February is a period when there are no locally produced onions available. The local market is then saturated with imported, expensive onions. The quantities of imported onions are growing annually as the population size increases and people spend more money on food. So what we are trying to do is enabling local farmers via quality hybrid seeds, advice on cultivation and the use of various techniques to meet the demand. Even though our seed prices are slightly higher in price compared to the local prices, farmers still increase their income or profit, as the price they receive for their product is much higher than during the traditional season.
Q: How are your products received by the African market?
In principle, our varieties are accepted very well because they are uniform and of high quality. The challenge we face is that the hybrid seeds we provide are more expensive than the seeds that are traditionally used. Via trial stations we demonstrate to farmers that the advantages of hybrid seeds are greater than the additional costs. The trials are also used to educate and assist farmers.
Q: Are there any plans for expanding such projects?
We have projects in West and East Africa. We are currently working in Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Angola; and are expanding our operations in Mali and Senegal.
Q: Was there a different business model you took to enter the African market?
We had to learn the hard way and we made the mistakes many others did. We thought we could copy the system we used in Europe, but that didn’t work. For the last 5 years, we have been working intensively and learnt a lot. In fact, through our experience, we are in the process of developing a separate business model for Africa. This model will focus on small growers and farmers, smaller packages and a different distribution method than used in other countries. We try out these different models and new business approaches in countries like Senegal and Ghana. We are still discovering which one works best for the African market.
Q: What was your positive experience working in Africa in the past few years?
In the beginning, we were seen as enemies. We came from a western capitalist company that was only in Africa to earn money. We explained that we are indeed a commercial company, but we could also help provide a product with added value which allow farmers to earn more and increase their living conditions. That is when business picked up. We started cooperating with local organizations and together we developed a model that was suited for their market. These organizations also explained the models to local farmers. From that moment on, things started to go a lot faster and smoother. That was a real positive experience.
Q: You mentioned that seeds are expensive, it is sometimes even suggested that ‘tomato seeds cost more than gold’, are Bejo’s onion seeds that expensive?
[Laughter]. True, seeds are expensive but our onion seeds aren't nearly as expensive as gold. I don’t know the current price of gold, but onion seeds are €100 a kilo and you need a few kilos per hectare. Farmers also need to spend money on the production. However, in the end, Bejo seeds will earn back the money they cost and some more!