In a period of forced lockdown almost everywhere, many of us are understanding the importance of using social media and distribution services to keep our lives going and our businesses growing, despite the difficulties.
In this pandemic situation, so many times I have also read conversations on how much feasible (or not) are the lockdown measures in the African context.
But a visionary person, like Petronillah John, had identified this market need long time ago and had started a business out of it, here in Tanzania. She connects local farmers with consumers (not only form the privileged classes, but also low-middle income).
Following my interview to this bold, young lady, who decided to leave her “secure” job in a bank to start her journey as entrepreneur and founder of “Petit Food Supply”.
When did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
It was a Saturday morning and I was at work (I was employed in a bank at that time); my colleagues had asked to some guys from the nearby market to bring them few items to buy: some vegetables and fruits, but one of these guys was also carrying a very dirty chicken, messing up all the floor. That scene, that I saw through the glass-door separating my office from my colleagues’, flashed in my mind as an opportunity: I started thinking that I could offer a better service by providing home-delivery of fresh selected, clean and well-packed consumables. Sometime later I talked about this idea to my boss, but she expressed her concern that a service like this could not work in Tanzania, so I decided to start as a parallel activity, while still working in the bank. However, I realized soon that I had to choose whether dedicating myself full-time at it or not.
And what did you choose?
I chose to quit my job in the bank and to become a full-time entrepreneur. In the first months at home I dedicated myself at studying, designing a good business model and preparing to enter into operations. I signed a contract with a well-known delivery company: its customers are restaurants, so they mainly distribute already cooked food. I was the only one distributing fresh consumables through them and this was a huge opportunity for me, but they were very often delaying my orders, causing a lot of complaints from my customers. Moreover, they were directly managing the contacts with my clients and I had no access to those information. I saw these issues as a big limitation and threaten to my growth and I decided to resolve the agreement with them.
Which marketing strategy did you adopt, then?
I printed some fliers and started a huge door-to-door marketing campaign, covering different areas of Dar es Salaam: the city center, the expats areas, the main offices in downtown, but also other residential areas where Tanzanian mid-class live. I was also promoting my service through social media – mainly Instagram and WhatsApp – and started to create a network, by offering discounts to clients and friends who were bringing me new customers. The biggest expansion of my business, however, happened when someone from ITV noticed me through my Instagram profile and made me a video interview.
Where do you supply the goods you sell?
I buy directly from farmers, outside Dar es Salaam, in the most rural areas, to ensure the more I can their quality: farmers deliver their products to me through local transport and then I pick the goods, select them, clean and pack. Every day I collect the orders for the following day, so once I have packed all the goods early in the morning I start the distribution throughout the city.
Who are your main customers, instead?
I serve two different categories of customers: individuals (residents and office workers) to whom I sell at retail price and restaurants, to whom I sell at wholesale price. For private I usually have daily deliveries, while for restaurants I work on weekly orders.
Which value do you add to your customers?
The added value I offer is not only in the products (high quality and fresh consumables directly from the farmers), but also in the related services (they are cleaned, well packed and delivered at the customer’s door).
What are the main challenges that you have faced or still encounter in your business?
When you become a full-time businesswoman, the challenges are many. The first one I had to face was the judgement of people around me (including relatives and friends), when I quit my job to start this venture: very few people understood my decision, but great part of them thought I was wasting the opportunity of a secure job and salary. Moreover, I was starting with no capital, except few personal savings, so my choice looked like a nonsense to many. More related to business, after few weeks of having found a physical office with store and having paid the full rent for it, the local Government office came to communicate to me that the place needed to be demolished, so I had to leave and lost all the money: it was a hard time. Other challenges are the difficulty to find reliable workers and partners (especially when it comes to “bodaboda” and distribution companies, that can ensure on-time deliveries) and delays of payments by restaurants, due to their operations and internal procedures. For this reason I have decided to put in standby the restaurants for some time and to work only with individuals. I need to scale up my business and have a reliable cash flow first, to be able to accommodate their needs.
What are the future plans for your business?
The plans I have to grow are many. First of all I would like to invest in a good storage and I would like to also internalize the farming as part of my value chain, so to have more control on the quality of the products I sell and be able to ensure one hundred per cent organic food. Then, I want to be able to scale up, so to create more impact on people’s life: currently I employee seven people, three workers and four bodaboda, but my dream is to be able to give job to at least two hundred people, so I will begin to feel fulfilled only when I start to have at least fifty people in my company. One of the reasons I chose to start this business is to bring a positive impact in the community and being able to support youths and women through job, especially single mothers, like my mother has been for all these years. Let’s say that I started “Petit Food Supply” for myself, but then I have found in it a life purpose.
If you could suggest something to women who are starting a business, what would it be?
The first suggestion I would give is to have faith. My faith in God has become stronger since I started my business, especially in facing difficult moments and overcoming challenges. Also, women are so powerful and generally are risk takers, but often we do not believe in ourselves enough. So, my second suggestion would be: believe and trust yourself first; do not expect others to tell you what you can or cannot do. If you have a passion, your gender doesn’t matter; develop and cultivate it: do not give yourself any limitation, but start to act.