Agriterra-experience Thomas Welham: 'You really have to have an open mind'

Recently, three ForFarmers colleagues have been on the road for an Agriterra assignment. One of them was Thomas Welham, Marketing Manager Pig, Poultry and Specialties. He went to Ethiopia for a week to help a cooperative with how a marketing and branding strategy can improve their commercial position.

Internationally oriented

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“I have always been very internationally agri business oriented; in my personal interest, in my study (masters in international agri business management) and in my work at ForFarmers. When I heard about the ForFarmers-Agriterra initiative I thought: wow, if I can help somewhere with my knowledge and experience, that would be great.”

Cooperative

Thomas: “South Ethiopia is a very rural area: 90% of Ethiopia’s economy is based on agri business, and the Southern part is densely cultivated with Maize and Wheat. During the travel time I was able to question my Agriterra-contact about Raya Wakena Farmers' Cooperative Union. Established in 2004 this Cooperative Union has 9 primary cooperatives in Dodolla town in Southern Ethiopia. The union has 75 primary cooperative members and more than 33,000 individual farming members. Core business is for example the distribution of fertilizers and seeds, farm services, mechanization services and the facilitation of credit services to its members. The union acquired a wheat flour mill in 2016, and produces high quality wheat flour. They now want to increase the capacity of this wheat flour factory by driving sales.”

Marketing survey

The following days were planned to speak to customers, farmers, flour traders and consumers in the townships. “My assignment was to develop a marketing and branding strategy, focusing on the wheat flour business. In the short time I had to prepare for this trip, I drafted a basic marketing customer survey with questions like: what are the key drivers for buying, what about the locality to the mills, what can the union improve, and are they aware of the Raya Wakena 'brand' and its attributes etc.“

Based on the intake with the Union on the first day and on the volumes they sell to the different townships, Thomas together with his Agriterra-contact, selected the customers they wanted to visit for their research. “These interviews gave me the opportunity to speak to a lot of people and reveal their concerns. The union itself really did not have any idea what their customers think, so this experience was quite revealing to them.”

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‘Word of mouth’

The majority of the selling is done by ‘word of mouth’, there is no proactive selling and many of the traders only discovered the brand by circuitous means. Thomas explains: “Marketing was very much nonexistent in Raya Wakena. However, they know how to differentiate their product in the operations part of the business and they produce very high quality flour. The problem is, they fail to tell people that it is that good. Customers are not aware about what this union does. On top of this the market is saturated and there is lots of competition from private companies who have had private investments and DO use basic marketing.”

Think fast and slow

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So, marketing advice for a company who is not used to marketing. What was your advice? Thomas: “The challenge was to keep the advice simple, so it is easy to implement. For example: applying basic marketing techniques such as the 4Ps (price, product, promotion, place) was a great way to start. Using packing to communicate and brand your quality products, make them different from the competition; and have people from the union talk regularly to traders, so implement a simple sales force. Even if they only implement only one thing it will bring them benefit.”

Personal lessons learned?

“You really have to have an open mind, be prepared to change your own paradigm. Don’t let your Western view determine what you will bring. And you have to be agile; you have to thinks fast AND slow at the same time, and you need to prioritise because there really is only so much you can do in one week time. Personally, it gave me a great respect for this part of the world. The people are incredibly friendly, they enjoy life, and they don’t need and want so much. They are also very resilient. You also visit parts of the country not often seen by tourists and the countryside and wilderness is absolutely stunning.”

Ferenjee and Kevin de Bruyne

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This was Thomas’ first time in Africa. When asked for an anecdote, he tells with a big smile: “In some villages and townships I visited, in some cases I was the first foreigner they had seen, especially for the children.  As you can see I have blond hair and a very pale skin so often I’d hear people shout at me ‘Ferenjee!’ (foreigner) and ‘Kevin de Bruyne!’ after the Belgian Footballer.”