At the age of just 24, Madagascan Heritiaina Randriamananatahina heads up a cheese and syrup processing business that is growing fast. Lacking any formal qualifications, he discusses the barriers facing any aspiring young business man or woman in the agri-food industry.
Raised by his grand-mother, Heritiana Randriamanatahiana dropped out of school at 14 to earn his living as a street vendor for fruit juice and cacapigeon, a popular Madagascan aperitif. Today, however, he is the head of Fiombonana, that produces cheese, syrups and chocolate. Founded in 2012 when he was just 17, the company currently has an annual turnover of half a billion ariary (€150,000), two factories, 47 employees, a network of 500 small-scale producers, over forty mobile kiosks and multiple points of sale, mainly in the capital Antananarivo.
What motivated you to create your own agricultural processing business? How did you spot the gap in the market?
Prior to Fiombonana, I had a small network of customers (classmates, small shops) created thanks to my first cheeses. So my aim was to formalise and expand my activities as a street vendor. Fiombonana means ‘unite’, ‘combine efforts’, ‘to help each other’: it symbolises the approach behind the growth of my work with farmers associations, my workforce and my suppliers. With my mobile kiosk I made home deliveries, but the orders really started coming in once I opened a Facebook account for Fiombonana and registered the brand ‘Fy’Deliko’, which features on all my product labels. Today, I produce and sell 1,200 kg of cheese and 500 l of syrup every week.
Why did you decide to use only raw local products and how have you managed to establish relationships with the farmers who supply you?
I work with nearly 500 farmers who supply me with fresh, good value products (milk, cocoa, peanuts, fruits and vegetables), but most importantly they are organic and natural, which is what my customers are looking for. These farmers represent 80% of the Malagasy population and this is a way to help them and create jobs. I established my processing facilities in the district towns of Antanifotsy and in Antsirabe – which are 140 km and 170 km away, respectively, from Antananarivo- as well ascollection points inrural areas in order to be closer to the producers and create a firm foothold in the area. I sell my products mainly in Antananarivo.
What are the main challenges you have encountered and continue to face?
I have no qualifications and I am very young to be running a business. I am also still lacking experience, funding and materials – much of my machinery has been cobbled together. This means I have to earn the trust of my partners (suppliers and employees) and work within my means. The business has grown but the management methods haven’t developed in parallel. I need technical advisors and people I can trust as I am unable to cover all of the needs for marketing, management and production methods on my own; I am currently planning to hire a technical advisor. This is an ongoing problem as Fiombonana is still expanding.
What lessons would you like to share with other young entrepreneurs?
To be competitive and creative but, above all, open-minded. You need to be committed and never give up. My strong willpower has allowed me to overcome many problems. My starting capital was pitiful, I had only the little that I had earned as a street vendor – 20,000 ariarys (5 €). I did not ask anyone else for financial help. When I say that you need to be creative, I mean that you always need to find a niche, to offer something different, your own added value. For example, the Koba(a Madagascan cake) has completely flooded the market, so I created chocolate and fruit flavoured versions. Packaging is also essential; many cheeses are sold without packaging which is less appealing to the consumer. Finally, you also need to have ambitious goals – I already knew I wanted to be a businessman even when I was in primary school.
In 2016, you were awarded €21,350 as a winner of the Anzisha Prize for youth entrepreneurship by the African Leadership Academy and Mastercard Foundation. How did the prize help you to develop Fiombana?
The award has helped me to renovate some key equipment; a grinder, a mixer and a refrigeration unit but also to build a new processing facility and purchase a car to transport my products. The only problem is that, without a technical advisor, I hadn’t realised that some of this equipment was not essential at this stage. The award also provided me with opportunities to meet foreign technical advisors, but more importantly to raise awareness amongst other local entrepreneurs. The local authorities named me as a ‘mentor’ for a business incubator in Madagascar; being a mentor has given me the opportunity to support other young entrepreneurs.
Two years on from winning the award, how do you plan to maintain the competitiveness of your business?
Firstly, to improve the quality of our current products, whilst continuing to research how we can add further value with flavoured products, improved packaging, and by using social media. We also plan to increase production and sales through personalised visits and advertising. I already have an order from supermarkets –Shoprite and Leader Price –but I need to first show we can guarantee the volumes required. My aim is to address the demand on the local market and then to start exporting.