Manka Angwafo, founder and managing director of grain handling company, Grassland, outlines the challenges of taking a business to scale, particularly for women, and offers advice to other women entrepreneurs about scaling up.
Taking a business to scale can be a challenge. Why is this even more the case for women?
It’s impossible to scale rapidly without financing, and women face significant challenges in getting financing to start and scale businesses. Women often face ridiculous questions from investors such as, ‘What happens if you get married and start a family?’ or ‘Are you sure you can actually build this business?’ These questions are never asked to men and, sometimes, these questions come from women investors too! So, it’s not just men who are biased, we all are biased and have to work against the bias we’ve all been raised with.
I also think that men are more aspirational when they pitch their businesses and that women are more realistic. We pitch what we know is possible, and men pitch what they wish were possible.
Do you feel that men have more opportunities than women to scale their businesses?
Absolutely! Men have more access to capital to start businesses. Women have to prove their models and then prove that they can do the job and finally prove that they’re the right person to lead the business to scale. The gatekeepers to capital are mostly men and it makes sense that they understand each other. Women present things in a different way, so it helps that there’s now more programmes (e.g. Cartier Women’s Initiative Award, Women’s Startup Lab, etc) providing training and coaching for women to be able to speak the right language to get financing and be taken seriously.
I also have to say that if you have a good business that is generating cash, you won’t have issues finding the right partners to scale; a good business is a good business regardless of gender. My company, Grassland, leverages innovative financial tools and UAS (unmanned aerial systems) data to increase productivity for African farmers. Our solution significantly reduces farmers’ production costs while doubling their yields. To date, we have worked with just under 1,000 farmers, who have seen their yield increase from under 2 t/ha to almost 5 t/ha. Our vision is to scale to 100,000 farmers across the Central African sub-region by leveraging technology and partnerships to reduce our farmer acquisition costs, and optimising our packages per farmer.
What advice would you share with other women agripreneurs about scaling up?
Getting ready to scale has been incredibly challenging for us; the two biggest challenges we have faced are getting the right kind of financing and talent. I cannot over emphasise the need for an HR strategy that recruits people with the right mindset and engages all team members; I spend at least 40% of my time on recruitment and training. Also having processes that are built for scale – it is difficult to scale if you don’t have the right financial, procurement or inventory management systems. Finally, on a personal level, I don’t ask to be taken seriously. You can write me off, but I’m not going anywhere. I think once people realise that you're in it for the long haul, they’ll either have to deal with you or get out of your way.
What steps would you like to see being taken to better support women agribusinesses?
I can only speak from the context of being a black, female, African entrepreneur in a market with no start-up ecosystem. However, I think there’s a role to be played by everyone. Governments need to make it easier for women – who make up the bulk of agriculture sector in Africa – to be able to rise above subsistence farming by providing a better enabling environment for agribusinesses. Banks generally don’t understand agriculture and that it is a long-term play both in the production and the supply chain side. No one should go into agriculture expecting quick returns because it’s a science that requires a lot of trials and it is dependent on multiple and ever-changing variables (soil, climate, seed variety, pests, etc) for it to be successful.