How I went from Pharm to Farm

  Arielle Sandor wrote this on
September 7, 2015 | 1 Comment

…With Yvette Ondachi from Ojay Greene

Yvette Ondachi speaks to Duma Works about how to succeed in entrepreneurship in the agriculture sector

Photo credit: ojaygreene.com

This week for our What It Takes series, we interviewed Yvette Ondachi, the founder of Ojay Greene, and recent winner of Pitch for Impact.

The Duma Works family knows Yvette through our amazing experience at the Unreasonable Institute East Africa this summer. Yvette is one of the most bubbly, positive, and nurturing people I have ever met. If anyone is interested in the field of empowering smallholder farmers through technology and training, I would highly encourage you to reach out to her. Try catching her on twitter 🙂

This post is also unique because it is our first conversation with someone in the agriculture sector. This blog post comes as part of the Duma Works – Agriexperience project to empower smallholder agribusinesses with quality recruiting solutions. Read more about this partnership here.

So Yvette, why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

I wanted to make a change in our country and I was concerned about poverty levels.

I started my career as a sales representative, went into marketing in pharmaceuticals, and amazingly, I got to travel across East Africa. One big thing that struck me was the divide between the rich and poor. There was absolutely no guarantee that the poor could buy good drugs. Less than 15% of people in the country have access to quality medications. So my biggest driving force was when I became aware of big divide between rich and poor in these countries and I decided I wanted to make a change.

What are some of the challenges you are anticipating right now?

Entrepreneurship is definitely not a walk in the park especially because the solutions we are giving smallholder farmers have to do with behavior change.

As we know, that doesn’t happen overnight. The barriers smallholder farmers face to productivity is that despite advances made in mobile money etc., very little advances have been made in agriculture. The techniques used are from hundreds of years ago like horns and waiting for rains. Ojay Greene is trying to make farmers more profitable from new techniques. That won’t always be embraced because it’s new. People fear change the most. So that’s a challenge we are looking at.

We could also get an overwhelming response from farmers that is beyond our capacity to manage. We don’t want to have to turn smallholder farmers away.

The other thing is that from the market side, a lot of people are in business because it is profitable, period. They are not always in the business of changing people’s lives. Therefore there is no guarantee our partners will pay attention to us or buy into our platform, so I’m concerned we might not get the right kind of partners.

Yvette Ondachi speaks to Duma Works about how to succeed in entrepreneurship in the agriculture sector

Photo credit: www.ojaygreene.com

What is your secret sauce that will make you succeed?

I think I am extremely tenacious. I just don’t know when to stop [laughs]. Just joking. But I have a stubborn will and that gives me resilience. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. I could be doing more profitable things.

My resilience has taken me so far because failure doesn’t exist in my vocabulary.

Being someone who has had a career before, do you think your past has shaped your present and future?

It has been very helpful because my career had to do with a strategic, commercial role. I was building companies through sales, marketing, and strategy. So this background makes me understand that my social mission is viable and makes business sense, and makes reasonable margins. My background also helps me negotiate good prices on behalf of our farmers and other stakeholders.

Also helped me build people skills which is not just for entrepreneurs but also for people in general. So my career has played a significant role in that. I guess it gives me business sense.

Do you see movement of career professionals into the entrepreneurship scene?

One factor is age. When people get older, they get more comfortable in their roles. People working in very stable organizations have trouble jumping out of their jobs because entrepreneurship looks like a huge risk.

If we have professionals with a sense of justice and strong sense of determination, they will join the entrepreneurs in trying to shape our society.

The other group of professionals I see that may jump in are people who have reached self-actualization. They have already gotten the t-shirt in their career, so to speak. So they are looking for a new challenge.

Yvette Ondachi speaks to Duma Works about how to succeed in entrepreneurship in the agriculture sector

Photo Credit: www.ojaygreene.com

Why farming for you?

Yes, I moved from Pharm to Farm. I think when farming is channeled in the right way, it’s good for ROI (return on investment) and can get people out of poverty.

What is the biggest challenge facing farmers right now?

Is that they don’t make enough money. They don’t get a viable return for the work the put into production. And therefore, farming doesn’t look like an attractive option. That’s why we have young people moving to urban cities, looking for something more attractive. Farming as it is right now just doesn’t offer the assured return on investment.

What do you think is one of the biggest challenges with the agriculture development sector today?

My challenge with a lot of players in the agriculture field is that they don’t keep sustainability in mind when they come to the market. Or, they focus on one aspect of the problem and not the full problem, so it isn’t sustainable in the long run.

Also, organizations in this sector can be more effective than they are. The biggest challenge is that the agriculture sector is very fragmented at the moment. Dairy farming has paid off and has become the sector that is food secured. It has also been organized well through cooperative movements and other group movements. People in the dairy sector are making money. If you watch the trends, farmers that can get cows go into cooperatives and they do well.

Horticulture (fruits, nuts, vegetables), though, is very fragmented and anything goes, really. If we’re all planting tomatoes, we will all plant. People just plant what they think they should plant. There is no streamlined process pulled from a market need in horticulture.

What do you say about the government role in the agriculture sector?

They focus on more stable food rather than fruits and vegetables. They are mainly talking about maize. Then they will talk about cash crops like sugar cane, coffee. So they go for it in the large scale and not the small scale. People who grow maize need 20+ acres to make a profit. But if you look at the land allotment for a typical farmer, some have as little as an 8th of an acre. If you have a farmer wait for 3 months between crops, that won’t work. Sugar cane is 18 months, though, but gets a good return when it has enough land to grow on. So government is on broader crops. Even if you look at the food security plan for the government, it is also for major crops and staple foods.

Foundations like the Gates Foundations have allied to this broader strategy as well. Yet, it is not as profitable for small holder farmers. So our engagement with smallholder farmers is to bring them to a level of profitability to be able to look after their independence.

You guys have been operating for about 2 years now, what type of successes have you seen that makes you hopeful?

I’ve been able to sell my story to partners who can help. I have participated in accelerators and had funding opportunities. We have secured fundraising for $150,000 in debt. First $50,000 came from Village Capital Accelerator program. That is what enabled us to change our model and grow.

See, when we founded Ojay Greene, we were using our own farms as a testing group because we didn’t have access to other farmers. But now, we have been able to use Village Capital to figure out how to plug in with smallholder farmers. I think that’s how we can relate to the struggles of small holder farmers – because we’ve been there and we know the pains as farmers ourselves.

You have a network of over 250 smallholder farmers in your network, what kind of results have you seen with your service so far?

Some we have engaged 3 months, and some 6 months. Some of the behavior trends we have seen and lessons I have learned from farmers is that not everyone who says they can farm actually can. Usually 2/10 know how to farm. 6 have potential, and there are 2 that definitely shouldn’t be farming.

Our experience so far has also given us insights into training needs and focus areas. It takes farmers that are willing to be helped and it is two sided solution.

Our vision at Ojay Greene is to increase smallholder farmer income by almost 5x in 5 years.

We have tested some assumptions and have seen in certain areas that these farmers may get there faster than we have projected. 2 farmers were able to double the projections we set out for them in a certain piece of land already.

Yvette Ondachi speaks to Duma Works about how to succeed in entrepreneurship in the agriculture sector

Photo Credit: www.ojaygreene.com

What makes a good farmer? How could I become a good farmer?

You have to be bitten by the bug of the soil.

A good farmer is someone who loves the soil. You have to have a love for farming. If you do it because of your circumstances and not your love of farming, the crops can reject you.

You have to have a willingness to learn and try, plus a determination to stand against the odds.

How has Unreasonable Institute EA been for you?

Unreasonable has been great. I have thought hard through ways in which we can scale. 250 [smallholder farmers] is a good number, but we are looking at 20,000 in 5 years. Through the Unreasonable program, we have been able to look through tactics we can use to remain competitive. Because at the end of the day, this is a business. We have looked at it from supply chain, to branding, to strategic planning, and to profitability. We’ve had well-versed mentors who I have gotten a nugget of wisdom from each and every one of them. I have gotten inspiration from all my fellow entrepreneurs who are changing the world in different spheres. The relationships I have formed will carry me far. A lot of my new peers are cheerleaders, and an entrepreneur needs a lot of good cheerleaders.

In my opinion, every entrepreneur should find a way to get into Unreasonable East Africa.

(Note from the editor: I whole-heartedly agree 😉 – check out Unreasonable East Africa here. Applications open a bit later in the year.)

Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs in the farming sector?

There is a trend of urban farmers coming up who look at farming as a side hustle. I say this to them – go beyond the romance of farming and have the staying power. Only those with staying power will reap the true fruits of farming.

The other thing I’ll say is – Join forces with me and let’s make a change. 🙂

And to other entrepreneurs, surround yourself with people who see possibilities and not barriers.


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