In the first half of 2017, we are looking at BAM companies in different industries. We are currently focused on business as mission in the agriculture industry, sharing insights and stories from experienced company owners.
We asked BAMers involved in agriculture:
What advice would you give to someone starting out BAM and wanting to run an agriculture business?
The best advice is always to start small. It is easy to scale up as you gain understanding. The greatest cause of failure in the industry is getting bigger than you can handle and overextended financially. All of this can be avoided by being realistic in your expectations from the beginning. It is always better to do a small thing well and scale up as time, energy and finances allow. We must remember that agriculture involves a great deal of waiting and trusting God to bring the growth. It often involves much experimentation to get the right things growing in the right place at the right time. Don’t ever trust that there is a “one style fits all” approach. Every place and every situation will bring its own challenges and its own victories. Remember, our God is a God of abundance and if we do things in His way, He will provide the increase. It is important to get a team involved and a good business plan in place. Even on a small scale, we must concentrate on the business side of things. If we don’t, we may end up with a big pile of cucumbers rotting in the yard. – Carl, Caribbean & Asia
Because of the number of poor participating in agriculture, the market can be extremely competitive, rapidly changing, and dependent on several uncontrollable factors. Weather, large scale farming operations, and foreign aid in the form of food can really keep you on your toes. I would advise to use shared ownership models to keep everyone involved. Farmer’s co-ops have had mixed results, but those who are able to get buy-in and share risk and reward will likely have better success. Additionally, remember that the poor can’t afford much risk. For example, the farmers we worked with grew corn mostly because it could be consumed by the family and was a less risky crop in terms of disease, weather and price fluctuations. To encourage them to shift 100% to a highly profitable passion fruit was too dangerous because if they lost the crop, they lost a year’s food supply. Incorporation of some kind of insurance strategy or encouragement of gradual changes in stages might produce better results. – Brian, Kenya
Ha! There are lots of bits of advice I would give! Inspect don’t expect. Measure everything. Trust and verify. Remember you are in their habitat and they will be there long after you come and go. Farmers are very averse to change and risk. They want you to prove it works first. They need you take on the lion-share, if not all, of the risk and prove that it works. Once you prove it, they will line up in droves if it is worthwhile. Start small but have the ability to replicate the model on larger scale. Larger scale may simply mean involving more people. Lots of small adds up to big so don’t think it has to be ‘one big thing’ only. Leave room for lots of small players as this leads to more influence, wider spread benefits, etc. Know your market and be sure you have a market. Sales solve everything, not cash, not equipment. Business creates business, not just throwing more money at it. – Brad, Southeast Asia
To somebody who wants to start out in BAM and wants to run an agriculture business, I would advise them to do a good research of the area. What do people like and what not? What works and what does not? And then you should start small and grow as your experience in the field grows. – Decent, Malawi
Don’t be so naive that you think you can solve the local agriculture woes just by taking a couple of ag related courses! These farmers have been doing agriculture in their area for generations. There must be some legitimacy in how they are utilizing their resources or they would have all starved years before! So coming in thinking that your theoretical knowledge is so profound and will be so helpful and tossing out their “primitive” ways of doing things could be disastrous. Remember, they need this to succeed in order to live! Introduce some things slowly, test things out, especially if you haven’t had hands-on experience yourself. Things always seem super easy when you read about it, but actually doing it yourself can be a humbling experience. Bringing in experts with years of personal experience can be great, they will see and notice things that you won’t. Retired folks make great resource people, those who might remember how they overcame similar problems with practical solutions, back before technology changed farming in the west. – Ben, Central Asia
In the case of Nigeria and Africa, infrastructural deficiency may prove to be a challenge. Inadequate infrastructure hinders agricultural profits, as many perishable and nonperishable goods are lost in the continuum before they get to the market or the final consumers. Most of the equipment and other resources for improving agricultural best practices that will come from developed nations require foreign exchange. Funding is needed that will not put too much pressure on the young and growing agro businesses with demand for quick repayment or a high interest rate. To develop an export market one needs to be informed about the market and market requirement. Finally do your research well before you make your choice about how to get engaged. If cultivation, land, equipment, resources and market must be taken into consideration. There will be other considerations for engineering, processing or marketing. You need to discover your passion in agriculture and pursue it with every effort. Key into government policies on agriculture nationally, continentally and globally. Above all, prayerfully ask God for direction. – Ibiam, Nigeria
To be completely honest I am quite new to agriculture myself. Although I did grow up around farm life with my great-grandparents having a cattle farm and my father still raising cattle to this day, I only got really interested in agriculture maybe seven years ago or so. My experience as a kid growing up around farming life has ignited a passion in me for agriculture here later down the road, so I would say, first make sure that you have passion for what you’re doing. This is often advised in the BAM community, but it can not be said enough especially to those just now thinking of what area of BAM they would like to move into. If you’re not passionate about it you will be more quick to give up on your business when times get hard. Secondly, approach agriculture as a learner. You can never stop learning in this field and sometimes you are going to have to unlearn some practices as you finally get to the heart of the matter. Sometimes new innovations need to be tested more thoroughly before they are taught. I went along the wrong path for about a year in my sector of agriculture before I finally got to the truth of what God originally designed agriculture to look like in my field of study. So challenge Monsanto’s way of doing things, and challenge all the Organic Hippies like myself, but above all approach agriculture as a learner. Learn it. Do it. Then teach it. – Marcus, East Asia
Compiled by Jo Plummer, with thanks to the BAM practitioners who shared their experiences.
Jo Plummer is the Co-Chair of the BAM Global Think Tank and co-editor the Lausanne Occasional Paper on Business as Mission. She has been developing resources for BAM since 2001 and currently serves as Editor of the Business as Mission website.