Photo Credit: Omia Agribusiness Development Group
When President Museveni of Uganda announced a lockdown on 31 March in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19, restrictions in transportation and social distancing measures presented enormous challenges to all across agricultural supply chains. The lockdown came at a critical time in the agricultural calendar – at the peak of the first planting season. While agriculture has been considered an essential service, the strict measures on private and public transport and travel continue to pose challenges for both buyers and sellers of agricultural products.
Twenty-eight-year-old Omia Iganachi started his agro-inputs business based in Arua (a commercial centre in Uganda’s Northern Region) in July 2018, and has been steadily growing since. Just like any other agribusiness person, he is aware that the business is seasonal since most sales are made at the beginning of the planting seasons, from March to May and September to November. When the partial lockdown was announced, he had to act quickly to ensure that his business continued to operate, albeit with a few differences.
Not surprisingly, his walk-in customers have reduced greatly, from 30-40 people visiting per day to 15 or less.
“The first thing that was affected was the number of people who come to our shops,” says Iganachi. “They have greatly reduced because of restrictions on public and private transport. We are located in town and most of our customers live far from Arua town and rely on public transport to pick the seeds and agro-chemicals.”
Only buyers from Arua town and those who own motorbikes are able to come in during the lockdown. Inputs dealers face difficulties accessing suppliers since most shops in the Kampala are locked down, and when supplies are available, transporting them 500 kilometres to Arua has become another, very expensive hassle with buses and other public transport out of operation.
“We used to rely on public transport to bring supplies,” Iganachi describes. “We would call our people (suppliers) in Kampala to make orders, pay using mobile money, they would load the orders on a bus and we would get our supplies in a day. That flexibility is now not there.”
All of these factors have led to increased costs of doing business and a substantial slowdown in sales.
Amidst these challenges, Omia Iganachi’s business has adapted quickly to continue operating and reach more farmers, making the following changes to stay afloat through the uncertainty:
Leveraging informal networks – The business has taken advantage of its informal networks to solve the current transport hurdles of getting inventory. Iganachi says he has people in Kampala who know which trucks are travelling to West Nile and when. These have enabled him get supplies to Arua in time even if they are more expensive than using a bus. (For instance, transporting a 50kg bag of fertiliser used to cost UGX 5,000 and now costs UGX 10,000 to get the same bag of fertiliser to his shop.)
Deliveries – Iganachi started making deliveries to his customers at no cost. This was so successful that farmers are asking that the deliveries continue even after the lockdown due to the convenience. He is working with his team to see how to best charge delivery fees going forward.
Radio talk shows – One of the ways that Iganachi was able to capture the market despite being young in the business was through regular farmer trainings and extension services. Now that it is not possible to conduct trainings or move around to provide extension services to farmers, the money was put into radio talk shows and the company has been able to reach even more farmers through weekly interactive broadcasts.
“We were on radio before the lockdown, but we never did it weekly or took it that seriously. It was twice a month or even less but now we have signed an agreement with the station, and we are doing it every Saturday for a year. We took advantage of the pandemic to get a good deal for a one-hour uninterrupted interactive talk show.”
In addition, they placed daily announcements for two weeks to specifically inform the public that Omia has a team of qualified extension staff that can be reached by phone if farmers can’t get to the shop. They also promoted delivery services for agro-inputs.
“By the time a show ends, you find more than 10 missed calls and they keep calling throughout the week. These are the people who used to come to shop and refer other people to us,” Iganachi explains.
COVID-19 Preventive measures – The business employs nine people and in order to prevent COVID-19, they work in shifts to ensure that work continues while limiting staff exposure. They wear masks when attending to customers both at the shop and when out in the field. They have also set up a hand-washing station in front of the shop. On the phone, they urge their customers to remain home and observe the national guidelines as Iganachi will deliver all the inputs they need.
Farmer database – According to Iganachi, it’s important to have your own farmer database as a business. Since they opened shop, they have registered about 2,500 farmers from across West Nile region, and use this list to call and follow up with individual farmers. At the beginning of the lockdown, the company started giving staff airtime to make calls and in the first couple weeks they called about 400 farmers.
Iganachi’s advice to agribusinesses is to take advantage of the lockdown to prove to farmers that they can be trusted. In crises, it’s important to remain affordable and genuine because farmers are watching.
“If you cheat them during this period, you could lose them even after,” Iganachi cautions. “This crisis is not really going to stop people from eating food, and that means that there will be demand for farmers’ produce so it’s a good opportunity for people to go into farming now. It’s also a good opportunity for people selling inputs like us. But then we need to have a way of reaching people remotely without having to meet physically.”
In Uganda as in other countries, businesses that survive the COVID-19 crisis must be flexible, willing to change the way they do things, and quick to identify opportunities in difficult times.
Omia Iganachi is supported by NU-TEC MD (Northern Uganda – Transforming the Economy through Climate Smart Agribusiness Market Development), managed by Palladium and funded with UK aid from the British people.