Creating a global marketplace for African produce
A conversation with Baraka Jeremiah, founder of Kilimo Fresh and winner of MEST Africa Challenge 2020
The MEST Africa Challenge is Africa’s biggest tech startup pitch competition offering entrepreneurs and young businesses the opportunity of a lifetime; $50,000 in funding, a space in one of MEST’s Hubs, support from MEST’s Portfolio team, and amazing prizes from a diverse pool of ecosystem partners.
Over the course of three months, the Challenge held riveting country-level competitions featuring over seventy-five startups from Ethiopia, Kenya, Côte D’Ivoire, Rwanda, Ghana, Tanzania, Senegal, Nigeria, and South Africa.
For the live finale, each of the nine-country winners pitched in front of leading tech executives and entrepreneurs including MEST’s very own CEO and founder — Jorn Lyseggen, Senior Director for Software Partnerships at Microsoft — Chris Lwanga, the Founding Principal of Imaginable Futures — Teresa Mbagaya, and Partner of TLcom Capital — Andreata Muforo.
Kilimo Fresh emerged as the overall winner, walking away with the grand prize.
In his first interview with MEST since winning, Baraka Jeremiah, the founder, and CEO of Kilimo Fresh, shares his experience in the competition and his thoughts on creating a global marketplace for African produce.
Where were you born? What are some of your fondest memories?
I was born in central Tanzania in Kongwa district, a beautiful village and farming area 400 kilometers from Dar es Salaam. My mom and I left when I was a year old and moved permanently to Dar es Salaam where I spent the rest of my life.
Some of my fondest memories were from Christmas holidays, where every year in December, our relatives would gather at our grandmother’s home in the village and we would celebrate Christmas together. The food was always good and it was always a time to meet my cousins and other families from different parts of Tanzania. We would always chase the biggest chicken on the farm for a Christmas meal and eat fresh food from our grandparents’ farms. We always live our days looking up to the Christmas holiday. :-).
Are there any hidden talents or interests you can share with us?
Apart from entrepreneurship, I’m a big fan of art. Since childhood, I have always been drawing and painting. Growing up, I participated in and won several painting competitions at the primary school level in Tanzania. My mother has always been a huge supporter in this, she always made sure I had enough supplies of pencils and crayons and whenever we met people she always bragged about how good I was at drawing and painting, this really encouraged me to keep up with it.
If you could be any fruit or vegetable in the world, what would it be?
I would probably be a date palm. They survive in extremely high pressure and temperatures, and regardless of the condition, dried or freshly picked, dates are sure to be sweet and healthy for you.
Tell us a little about how Kilimo Fresh started.
Kilimo Fresh is a Tanzanian based B2B produce distribution platform that connects smallholder farmers and produces buyers to a fair and reliable market. The company enables buyers to access better-quality and fresh produce directly from the farms at affordable prices delivered directly to their locations.
Kilimo Fresh is co-founded by 3 energetic entrepreneurs, myself (Baraka Jeremiah), Justice Mangu, and Faith Pella. Justice and I went to the same university in Tanzania and studied business administration and entrepreneurship development. Due to a common interest, we went into farming, growing tomatoes, capsicums, and watermelons, and were selling to middlemen who sold to wholesalers in Dar es Salaam. During this time we faced major frustrations resulting from low margins, lack of market information, and demand visibility as well as a lot of food waste.
We met our 3rd co-founder, Faith Pella in 2017 in a pitching competition in South Africa, I was referred to her by one of my mentors. Faith has 9 years of experience in the fintech and agritech industry and she has worked with MNOs in East and West Africa and has successfully helped to launch 2 startups in fintech in Nigeria. Together, we have a shared vision to create a global marketplace for Tanzanian farm produce and eradicating post-harvest loss in Tanzania leveraging technology.
We formed Kilimo Fresh in 2018 to help solve this problem for other farmers in Tanzania. Today, the company has 10 full-time employees.
What is a typical day at Kilimo Fresh like?
Well, usually our warehouse and logistics teams are the first to report to the office, mostly around 6:30 am. By this time they already have the list of orders sent by the customer from the previous night. At this time, goods from the farms are already in the warehouse, usually arriving between 3:00 and 4:00 am every day. When the team gets to the office, they inspect the inventory and start separating as per orders received, this usually takes 2 hours approximately. By 8.00 a.m trucks are already on the road to different customer destinations.
The operations manager always follows up with the delivery team to make sure all orders have reached the customers on time and all documentation is done properly.
After this, depending on the day of the week it, we have team meetings on Mondays and brainstorming on Saturdays. Apart from this, everyone can go on with their daily routines to make sure our company serves our customers best.
As C.E.O my job is to make sure everyone’s actions are aligned towards reaching our company’s goals and objectives. Normally the workday ends at 4.30 p.m and any order received after this time will be served the following morning.
What motivated you to compete in the MEST Africa Challenge?
I have always been a fan of MEST and for the past 2 years, I closely followed the competition. In their previous call for applications, however, Tanzania was not included in the list. When we realized that we could compete this year, we jumped on the opportunity and it has been an amazing journey so far.
MEST is a large organization and the fact that they have been working with startups in Africa made it even more attractive to Kilimo Fresh because they understand the African Tech market. It was our dream to be part of the MEST community and we made a promise to do whatever it took to be part of it, even if it meant sacrificing sleep just to finish the application. In truth, we were only able to submit our application a few hours before the deadline and it still amazes me that we made it all the way.
Were you expecting to win or to come this far?
For us, every startup could have been a winner, they all had amazing tech solutions that are really needed by our society, so we didn’t think we were very special.
However, we decided we were going to make the most of each opportunity we get to tell the world about the amazing solution we’re building for African farmers and how it’s going to impact them positively.
How did you feel when you heard your name called as the winner of the 2020 competition?
I was very excited, it was such a journey and all startups had amazing businesses. For Kilimo Fresh to be named a winner, it really meant something to us. We were really hoping to win so that we could get MEST support to grow our company as well as secure the funds to help scale our operations. Winning the MEST Africa Challenge 2020 is a big step closer to achieving our dream.
What was it like to be pitching in the finale, especially considering it was virtual?
Pitching has never been easy, especially during the grand finale of the competition when we knew the prize on the table. Despite the fact that it was virtual, I was still a little nervous knowing that a large audience from all over the world was viewing.
But I was so happy that everything moved smoothly, the slides transitioned came on time, and there were no breakdowns. I’d like to congratulate MEST for such a great and well-organized event.
What was the overall MEST Africa Challenge experience like?
From the day I was selected as Tanzania’s country winner to the moment we won the finale, it’s been an exciting virtual journey. This was my second virtual pitch but MEST’s sessions were so engaging and interactive and attracted a much larger audience from different parts of the world. Even though it was online, I was still a little nervous in the beginning, but after pitching and winning the MEST country finals, I got a little more comfortable.
Apart from this, I have been in touch with the MEST Team from the time of selection to the grand finale, through webinars, interviews, pitches, and e-mails, and I must say, despite it being virtual, their hospitality and friendliness made me feel a part of a big family in Africa. I’m so happy that I made the decision to apply.
How has COVID — 19 affect your business?
We’re among the companies that were hugely affected by Covid-19, both positively and negatively. We lost 80% of our customers, including schools, restaurants, and catering companies. This was largely because public gatherings were limited and schools were closed down for an unknown period.
We sat down as a team and drafted a plan B to stay in business. We knew that we had to rely even more heavily on technology to be able to supply fresh produce, especially as people were going either online or to supermarkets to get their fresh foods and groceries. So we decided we were going to be in the top 5 online food deliveries in Tanzania as well as partner with the top 5 supermarkets in Dar es Salaam.
I’m proud to say that Kilimo Fresh has achieved 98% of this goal and the adjustment allowed us to keep on supporting farmers through ready markets for their produce. Consumers also get fresh food affordably from farms while staying at home and protecting loved ones from being exposed to COVID-19.
What are your plans now that you’ve won the challenge and funding?
We’ll use part of the fund to finance our farm expansion and engage out-growers as part of plans to meet our current demand for habanero chilies. We’re currently supplying only half of what the market demands.
The investment will also go a long way in helping us finalize the development of our mobile app and USSD for informal fruits and vegetable vendors and smallholder farmers.
What do you think the African tech ecosystem needs in order to become globally competitive?
First, I think we need daring entrepreneurs who are willing to leverage technology to bring innovative solutions to Africa despite how slow the market adoption rate can be. As entrepreneurs, we need to increase awareness of different ways technology can solve our problems.
We also need to build trust by delivering to our customers what we promise to build. Customers are more likely to return when they have had a good first experience with your product. That’s when they make referrals which ultimately leads to a stronger reputation and more business. Being daring also means not giving up the first time you get punched in the face by the market.
Second, we need investors to be open to funding these startups. There are so many great ideas that die because they didn’t get that first investor to support them in the early stages.
Finally, African governments should create a better operating environment for startups by improving policies and laws related to taxes and investments.
Tell us about your leadership style and what you think are the key elements to succeeding as an entrepreneur?
Our leadership style is guided by our vision. As founders, we have a plan of what we want to achieve long term, and we encourage every team member to share their ideas on how they think we can best get there.
Management has always been proactive in making sure that we include the views of our team members in decision making regardless of their age, experience, or background. This helps every member of the team feel entitled to the company’s success and has contributed so much to the success of Kilimo Fresh as a company.
Can you share a few key lessons you’ve gained through your entrepreneurial journey?
It’s quite simple but I’d say that find what you love to do and do it with all your heart. I have known so many entrepreneurs who try different things and drop them when they don’t show immediate results, only to jump into something else. Building a successful company takes time and it can’t happen overnight. Whatever you do, make sure you choose the right business and if you have an experience/background in what you want to do, then that is an added advantage. Put all your effort into it until you see results.
How have you dealt with obstacles to your entrepreneurship journey and business?
In 2017, when we were still farming, we lost a big percentage of our investment due to food waste and unstructured trading systems. At the time we were five (5) co-founders. The loss was so big that we had to reduce the number of acres we cultivated the following season.
Three (3) of our co-founders decided to quit and focus on something else. This was a huge obstacle; the majority of the team left, it was down to just 2 of us, and the temptation to quit was stronger than ever. The journey was not easy. My partner and I decided to take a (two) 2-day break for each one of us to decide for himself if they wanted to go on with the journey. We then met and both decided that we were not going to give up on our dream. I and my current partner (Justice) held on and went on to start Kilimo Fresh for the sole purpose of solving the challenges we were facing that made our friends give up on their dreams.
What would you say to young entrepreneurs looking up to you and hoping to follow in your footsteps?
To succeed as a young entrepreneur and leader, young people must find mentors, put themselves in situations that encourage growth, and take themselves seriously even in the face of opposition.
I believe that we’re in a time where the people who work hard, who believe in themselves, and who don’t give up on their dreams no matter how many times they fall down are the ones who are going to be successful.
How has your life changed after winning?
Winning the MEST Africa Challenge has really brought us opportunities that we couldn’t have imagined before. We have been approached by several investors who wanted to discuss investment opportunities for Kilimo Fresh.
We have also been featured in different articles worldwide which has really increased our exposure to the world and put Tanzania on the map.
Lastly, we closed 2 major deals locally because we were published in one of the top newspapers in Tanzania and some of the customers whom we have been chasing for quite some time read the news and called us to congratulate us and discuss how we can work together.
What would you tell your younger self if you could go back in time?
Early in my career, it was difficult not to compare myself to my peers and classmates who had chosen employment while I was farming, especially in this era of social media where it can seem like everybody is more successful than you in some way. I spent some time very early in my career worrying about how I was being perceived, versus focusing my energy on being the best at what I was doing and gaining confidence through experience.
I’d therefore tell my younger self to believe in myself, believe in God, keep going, and work hard on my dreams because I’m on the right path and things will definitely turn out well. I’d tell myself to spend the time in self-development through reading more books, trying new things, stepping outside of my comfort zone, and forming meaningful relationships inside and outside of work.
Read the full story on MEST Africa Challenge Finale here.