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E-commerce meets agriculture: The journey of building Farm Fresh in The Gambia

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Farm Fresh, an e-commerce platform in The Gambia, offers fresh fruits, vegetables, and other FMCG products. Established in 2013 by Modou NSZ N’jie, at a time when internet penetration in the country was below 15 percent, the company has experienced slow and steady growth. Jeanette Clark speaks to N’jie about targeting a unique market in the diaspora, overcoming distribution challenges, and adapting payment methods.

Modou NSZ N’jie has two passions: IT and agriculture. After a career of over a decade dedicated to the first, which culminated in landing the job of head of technology at Guaranty Trust Bank in his home country The Gambia, N’jie saw a gap in the supply chain of agricultural produce in 2013. He believed that farmers would benefit from a system that eliminated middlemen.

“They are often taken advantage of and had prices dictated to them. It was an unfair practice,” says N’jie. These producers also faced post-harvest losses if they couldn’t find buyers quickly, due to a lack of appropriate storage facilities.

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This was the perfect opportunity to marry his interest in agriculture with his IT skills.

N’jie built an e-commerce platform called Farm Fresh, which sells directly to the public, providing a ready market for farmers. These farmers benefit from the security of a guaranteed buyer and receive better prices than they would get from market middlemen. On the other hand, Farm Fresh is able to secure fresh produce at discounted prices straight from the source.

One-man show

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For the first four years, N’jie was the only employee of Farm Fresh. “I would take the orders, do the accounting, manage the marketing, and ensure delivery. It was very challenging, but I persevered and grew the business to the point where I could hire more people,” he says.

Early on, difficulties involved local consumer attitudes towards online ordering and The Gambia’s limited internet access. People in the country were accustomed to hands-on interactions with products at markets, leading to scepticism about purchasing items online and awaiting delivery.

“Initially, we had very few customers, probably around 10 regulars,” says N’jie. “Not a lot of people had access to the internet, and then those who did were not familiar with online shopping. As we were the first e-commerce platform in the country for agricultural produce, I had to do a lot of education on how to use it.”

According to statistics from the World Bank, only 14 percent of Gambians were using the internet in 2013 when Farm Fresh was established. That number has since climbed to over 30 percent, and so have the company’s customers.

A breakthrough came when N’jie opened a physical Farm Fresh store in Bakau, a city just west of the capital of Banjul, where the company’s headquarters are located. “When we opened the store, we became a click-and-mortar operation,” says N’jie. The physical presence immediately helped build trust with customers, eventually translating into more online purchases through the e-commerce platform.

While internet access has improved in the country, N’jie notes that the cost of that access is still a hurdle to growth for Farm Fresh. “To overcome this, we take orders in several ways in addition to the e-commerce platform: walk-ins at our store, via telephone or social media,” he says.

A boost from funding and product diversification

In the early years, Farm Fresh’s startup capital came from the pocket of its only employee, N’jie himself. Then, in 2015, the company was selected as part of the first cohort of startups supported by the Tony Elumelu Foundation.

The US$5,000 Farm Fresh received helped set up the physical store, improve the e-commerce platform, and diversify the product lineup.

In the first year or so, the platform only offered fresh fruit and vegetables. However, it became clear that there was demand for other local produce such as cereals, dried fruits, moringa and baobab products as well as honey. As these were added to the list of items, user numbers rose.

“Today, we’ve grown to around 150 regular customers, and perhaps 250 non-regulars making purchases per month on our site,” says N’jie. In a successful month, the company generates roughly $5,000 in revenue.

Targeting the diaspora

N’jie and his team realised there was a specific customer they needed to target: The Gambia’s diaspora, who are working abroad but want to take care of family members remaining in the country.

“The culture of Gambians includes the remittance of money back home. We saw this as low-hanging fruit; we could promote the use of our platform to these customers,” says N’jie.

The company used digital marketing platforms such as Facebook to get the word out and several Gambians outside the country’s borders have embraced the idea. “The vast majority of the revenue we generate is coming from the diaspora – at least 70 percent, I would say,” says N’jie.

Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, remains the company’s primary marketing platform, with a combined following of over 70,000 across these channels.

Payment options

Initially, the company offered cash-on-delivery as its only payment option. When its diaspora sales started picking up, it added PayPal but re-evaluated that decision when it realised that the charges from the payment gateway were eating away at its profit.

It now offers a mobile money payment solution in partnership with Ecobank and a local payment gateway via Gambian company TaybullPay. EFT payments and cash-on-delivery are still accepted.

“There is a threshold for cash-on-delivery payments. For larger orders we wait until the payment reflects in our bank account after an EFT,” says N’jie.

Navigating delivery challenges and expansion

When N’jie was the only employee, he made the deliveries of all orders himself. As the business and the orders grew, he had to consider a more sustainable solution.

One option was to use local taxis to make the deliveries for him, but that was too expensive, so N’jie, and his small team later on, continued handling this in-house.

Then, around 2018, third-party delivery companies started popping up in The Gambia, providing Farm Fresh with a new approach.

“In the last three years, however, we have realised that these companies are becoming overwhelmed with demand. We were experiencing more and more delays and have now acquired a delivery motorbike and are back to doing our own deliveries again,” he says. “When there is a large order, we still outsource to delivery companies.”

The company applies a delivery fee ranging from $1.50 (for Fajara, a suburb neighboring Bakau) to $11 (for Brikama, situated south of both Bakau and Banjul).

Farm Fresh’s delivery area has grown from a radius of 20km to up to 60km today. N’jie is hoping to expand this radius to 100km within the year. In parallel, the company is looking at cold-chain solutions that would become more relevant if it had to do deliveries of fresh produce to a larger geographical area.

Covid a mixed bag

In 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Farm Fresh was justifiably worried as it had to also shut its physical store.

Nonetheless, during the initial six months, online orders surged considerably due to restricted movement and the growing need for home deliveries. Higher sales from concerned Gambians abroad, who sent deliveries to their family and friends, further contributed to increased revenue.

However, after about six months, the company started seeing those additional orders dwindle. “People were losing their jobs, locally and internationally, and had to cut back on expenditure. We saw that impact on our bottom line,” he says. Post the pandemic, sales have normalised.

Popular products

Farm Fresh stands as one of the few e-commerce platforms in the country primarily focused on agricultural products, according to N’jie. However, new competitors have emerged.

Currently, it offers over 100 products – fresh fruits and veggies, bread, nuts, tinned meat, processed juices, oil, snacks like potato crisps, and even airtime and prepaid electricity top-ups.

“One of the most popular products remains the fresh strawberries when they are in season,” says N’jie. “We cannot keep up with demand.”

Future growth plans

Farm Fresh has registered a subsidiary on the other side of the continent, in Rwanda. It is yet to start operations in the country but has preliminary agreements with suppliers in place and hopes to commence business within the next six months to a year.

“One of the reasons why we have decided to expand is because there is a very conducive business climate in Rwanda. Opening a business does not cost you anything, you can do it online,” says N’jie.

It also has its eyes set on neighbouring countries like Senegal, even though it is a more advanced market that already has several e-commerce players.

In The Gambia, the company is considering vertical integration to venture into actual agricultural production as it believes some niche products, like strawberries, could offer growth opportunities.

Source: How we made it in Africa

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