Perez Ochieng, Sacoma, Export Champion Interview

Perez Ochieng, CEO

Perez Ochieng, CEO

Why does SACOMA place a strong emphasis on encouraging entrepreneurship and not just buying and selling products?
SACOMA pursues financial returns through impact investments in trade in sustainable food and agriculture with improved entrepreneurial development and capacity building. We provide very customized services for the farmers and the supply chain clients because that’s what they require. They require a lot of education.

When we prevent physical waste, increase energy efficiency or improve resource productivity, we save money, improve profitability and enhance competitiveness for our final products in the markets.

How do you measure the success/impact of your educational programme.
We have designed our performance management system to align to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): It is a useful framework for communicating and articulating the impact.

SACOMA tracks Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) and Impact performance against a set of nonfinancial and financial metrics tailored to the specific impact themes. We have appointed All Africa Advisors and EBS Advisory Pty Ltd to facilitate a better understanding of our risks and performance the non-economic problems.

For example: How long should we wait for that impact to take hold, let alone a profit stream?  The tension between the need for profitability or cost reduction and the need for customization?

Five main Impact Indicators are: Improved livelihoods, Education, Wellness, Climate Smart practices and partnership for the goals.

• Improved livelihoods through job creation, business development and improved access to inputs and markets.
• Improved education and skills through technical (capability building) and business training of Farmers, supply chains, employees and entrepreneurs.
• Improved wellness through improved productive use and food security.
• Improved climate adaptive and sustainable natural resource use practices.

What has been your most successful/memorable moment so far on the SACOMA journey?
To be selected as CommonwealthFirst Export Champion presents to us the greatest success because of the opportunities it presents in accessing new export markets and diversify the market risk.

The other most memorable moment is the day we presented a pot of sweet potatoes to the HRH Duke of York during our pitch at Pitch@Palace. Because that day presents the moment (a life time achievement) we demonstrated to the farmers that sweet potatoes is not a poor man’s food (as is the notion in Africa) but a valuable commercialisation of the crop.

The other most memorable is the day the Msc food science students at the university developed and showcased the products that they developed out of  sweet potatoes and demonstration just WHAT IS POSSIBLE much could be done to develop innovative food products

How did the idea for your business come about?
In the year 2008 I was driving through Western Kenya and saw a group of African women farmers trying to sell their crops (sweet potatoes) standing by the roadside. And somehow this image stuck in my mind and has been my major motivation and deep desire to provide solutions for some global issues faced by small holder-farming communities such as post- harvest handling, food losses and a lack of access to markets to guarantee those incomes in rewards for their hard work.

I spotted a gap in the market for and the opportunities in increasing in healthy eating trends and demands for vegetarian, Gluten Free and ethnic foods. Sweet potatoes is an attractive crop due to associated health benefits:- Sweet potatoes are a natural source of Vitamins A, B, C,D, are potassium, manganisium and anti-oxidant and low in sugar suitable for people with diabetes.  Healthy eating trends and national efforts to eat healthier in schools to reduce obesity have led to a larger consumption of sweet potatoes in the UK.

My dilemma was how to adopt appropriate technologies and modern agriculture practices and skills to produce, process, preserve and market high quality products from these sweet potatoes that could be demanded in the global markets?

So in the year 2010 we started the business in East London (UK) that would add innovation to my motivation; becoming a catalyst and pioneer a business model that would be innovation-led and have  social impact on producers and health benefits for the consumers.  I started by Inspiring UK Universities to Partner with me in Transferring Knowledge and share UK advances in Research and  Development  in Food Science and Technologies to develop a variety of healthy sweet potato products, Free from Gluten, Allergens and Sugar.

What difficulties have you encountered setting up your business?

•    Finding the right R&D partners.
•    Getting the business model right (with  minimal business support and Mentors) •    Financial modelling , opportunity sizing (consumer research), FX management
•    Getting the buy-in from stakeholders and the proof of  concept
•    Marketing  and Branding with tiny  marketing budget
•    Managing of shipping costs (Efficient management of the supply chain and assuring the sustainable supply of the raw materials )
•    The cost of meeting the rigorous UK/EU Food standards and implementing Quality Controls.

What are the biggest trade and export challenges you face?
•    The beigest challenge is raising the capital required to scale  up
•    Building  the right Team
•    Managing FX as an exporter
•    Looking into exporting, Export financing and conducting due diligences
•    Exporting is essential for ensuring our business growth.

What are the most crucial things you have done to grow and develop your business?
•    Adding innovation to my motivation (Just being inspired despite all the challenges)
•    Actively implementing a push-pull marketing strategy  to enter the market
•    Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP)  with  UK universities
•    Continuous R&D on Consumer palatability, acceptability  and pricing
•    Promotions through events and exhibitions (Allowing first hand interaction with and direct feedback from consumers)
•    Integrating farmers/producers into the supply chain as supplies and part of the business (for raw materials Quality controls and sustainable supply )
•    Punching above my weight (basically, aiming very high and unwavering belief in my products)
•    Challenging the proof of concept and proving its commercial viability
•    Creative Public Relations and  raising profile of the products with no budgets
•    Building a motivated, committed, efficient  and experienced team members
•    Networking and good relations
•    Engaging  and securing commitment of various stakeholders
•    Set up a challenge… to educate the UK consumer about the benefits of sweet potatoes, of their value and nutritional punch, and to demonstrate how versatile the vegetable is, in terms of ease of preparation and range of uses for healthy eating.

What comparative advantages do you have over your competitors?
We are a UK Company with a strong social returns and a business model which produce positive environmental & social impacts and focus for profitability and poverty reduction through increased opportunities for TRADE (rather than AID) and strong capacity building and capabilities support to growers.  We have a strong partnership with UK advanced technologies, research and innovation to add value.

How did you hear about the CWF programme and what made you apply?
I had taken some samples of the sweet potato snacks to a meeting at the Commonwealth Foundation. They asked me if I knew about the export champion’s programme. So they referred me to the programme website and gave me some brochures. I read through the whole brochure, the criteria, etc. and decided to apply.

What are you hoping to get out of the CWF programme?
Support with unique access and support to win new business in the Commonwealth markets,  supporting SACOMA’s  plans for international expansion by providing local knowledge and contacts in key target markets including staring with , Australia and Canada.

Mentoring:- The depth of knowledge that we will gain from mentors, technical experts and training,  will provide our company will help us improve the business performance/strategy and build capacity and brand for the expansion into the commonwealth markets.

We will greatly benefit from the networking and high-level introductions and the operational guidance required building the capacity to manage the next stage of our business development and growth.

Trade Missions to the target markets will be very helpful to us to showcase our products to potential buyers and the in-market briefing and improve our knowledge of the markets.

Networking opportunities and support in finding further markets with Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

What is a typical working day for you?
Start very early at 6.30am finish after midnight. No typical day (every day is different with its ups and downs.) Activities include communications with customers, supplier, a visit to the processors as part of quality controls/assurance, international phone call to producers, negotiating new freight charges with shippers. A call to influence a government stakeholder, a catch up with the university and product developers (technology) , skills sharing Worksop or speaking at event to share our experience.  Phone calls and a short staff meeting and delegation. A quick check on health and safety in the office. Catch up with other directors. Email and calls, brief online research.

As busy business owner and mother, I juggle my time between business and family and ensure hot meal/dinner is cooked for the family. Always have a pot of sweet potatoes (marsh, fried, soup etc). Followed by a prayer with family and back to catch up on emails and proposals.

Where would you like your business to be in 5 years’ time?
We are aiming to build SACOMA food products business into a £6 million business within the next 3 years, with overseas export sales the key driver for future growth. Exports’ share of total turnover has almost doubled over the last year, to 11%. The company has now set itself the target of increasing this to between 20% and 25% by 2020. Have a local partner in each export country, and a first point of sale in a supermarket. Our vision is to lead the UK sweet potatoes snack and healthy foods industry by establishing the benchmark for innovation, quality, and well packaged healthy sweet potatoes products for the health conscious consumers locally, regionally and internationally and for the growing vegetarian consumer market in the commonwealth.  We are focused on specializing in own premium sweet potato foods in variety to suit the different needs of customers (to include Retail, Food Service and Food Manufacturing sectors).  Creating addition 25-40 f/t jobs in the technical and administration roles and 5 food artisan enterprises. We have ambitious plans for growth through distribution and export food products as well as UK skills and technology. We have a number of exciting products in the pipeline. The company has recently received Word Food Innovation Award in response to its creativity and innovation for ethical and healthy snacks. There is a growing demand of exotic foods and innovative healthy premium food products by European supermarkets; this is estimated at 50% increase yearly for last 5years.

What advice would you give to anybody looking to set up an SME?
•    Best ideas come from solving common problems .Seek advice and help. Make time continuous R&D
•    Being an SME is very fulfilling as you get to learn to do a lot of things and understand various business processes. There is no time to idle as the challenges keep you on your toes (but makes you a better person with better understanding of how to deal with issues and people and the world).
•    Dream Big. Aim to be a lasting business and start to apply the principals and polices you will need in a large corporate. And allow yourself and your team to grow into this.
•    Be a great peoples-person. Because when you have good relationship with people, they are more readily willing to link you in their networks and certainly open many doors. Manage your relationships with people well. Give them opportunity to connect with you and your business aspirations.
•    Have self-confidence and belief in your own visions (do not be swayed by easy options)
•    Aim to be the best at what you do. Be  a problem solver  (the solutions is always somewhere round the corner)
•    Build in CDP for yourself and your team. Allow room for flexibility for your team.

 

View Sacoma’s CWF Profile

This interview was conducted as part of the CommonwealthFirst Export Champion interview series. Apply now to become an Export Champion.

Share:  

Leave A Comment