Francisco Noguera

Guest Post: Cornell Students Working with Natural Food Products Business in Botswana

GretchenWe received the following story via e-mail from guest blogger Gretchen Ruethling, a first year Master of Public Administration student focusing on international development at Cornell University. She has worked as a journalist and for an environmental organization and an agricultural research organization in the U.S. and Latin America. She is interested in the private sector’s role in development and capacity building among small and medium enterprises.

By Gretchen Ruethling

Entrepreneur and self-described “ideas man” Frank Taylor moved from Cape Town, South Africa to Botswana seeking a challenge, trading game skins and leading archaeology, ethnology and botany exhibitions for a museum in South Africa. “I was living on the smell of an oil rag,” Taylor said. “A jack of all trades, master of none.”

43 years later, Taylor still lives in Botswana and recently started a natural food products company called WildFoods that he says is the only company in southern Africa to produce dried snacks made from native foods that are grown in the wild including nuts, fruits and melons on a commercial scale.

With a staff of 11 that has no formal training in marketing or management and no financing but plenty of passion and business acumen, Taylor aims to market these products to the country’s burgeoning tourism industry to improve the livelihoods of rural communities in Botswana.

Cornell GroupFor the next week, three students and an applied economics and management professor from Cornell University will be working with Taylor on developing marketing strategies to increase distribution of the company’s products locally. Cornell’s Emerging Markets program has been organizing such trips for students who are interested in hands on business development experience in southern Africa for the past few years.

Currently, another group of students is working with a chemical inputs company in Kenya on developing strategies to better reach smallholder farmers.

By the end of the trip, the students will have developed a situation analysis and strategic review of the company; a profile that the company can use to market itself to potential buyers; and recommendations about potential marketing strategies and ways to streamline inventory control, costing and bookkeeping. In the coming months, the students will also write a case study about the business to submit for publication.

WildFoods, which was established in 2007, produces jam and snacks made from an indigenous fruit called marula, chocolate covered marula nut clusters, and dried wild cucumber and melon slices, made from fruits that have yet to be extensively exploited commercially and otherwise often go to rot or are eaten by animals.

The products are currently distributed in some supermarkets and craft stores and on two airlines in Botswana and South Africa. Taylor would like to focus on increasing distribution in the tourism industry and has seen interest from lodges in game reserves in Botswana and South Africa.

Taylor buys the raw materials from local rural people, principally women, who have limited income earning opportunities. He opted not to explore the potentially lucrative business of making beer out of marula fruit to avoid contributing to alcoholism in the country. Taylor estimated that hundreds of local rural people have harvested fruit for WildFoods’ products and said many of the harvesters use the income to pay for things like healthcare, school clothes and building improvements.

“We can really have a big economic impact on these small subsistence farmers”, Taylor said. “The more products we can offer, the more people we can employ, the greater economic impact we can have.”

Taylor said he purchases all the fruit a community has harvested even if it is more than he needs. “We cannot refuse to buy because we see what happens when we do that,” Taylor said. “People make all sorts of promises and then never follow through. That’s the worst thing you can do.”

WildFoods is currently in dialogue with a local community development organization that wants to improve local livelihoods through the harvesting of natural products but lacks the technical expertise and facilities to process products, which is where Taylor’s business comes in.

Wildfoods ProdAcording to Taylor the company’s main challenges include a lack of financing and a lack of technical expertise to improve and expand its range of products. Although WildFoods has yet to make a profit, Taylor said he would like to eventually be able to have all workers share in the profits and to be able to set a maximum deferential between the lowest paid and the highest paid workers. “I want to see the workers getting a better deal,” he said.

One of WildFoods’ products, Marula Stix, recently won the 2008 Africa Natural Product Award from PhytoTrade Africa, Africa’s only trade association dedicated to the development of a sustainable natural products industry. The award is given to a business in southern Africa that is committed to ethical and sustainable products that use natural ingredients.

“Frank Taylor has long been a driving force behind the commercialization of natural products in southern Africa,” PhytoTrade’s CEO said in a press release. “He has led by example through his commitment to environmental sustainability and community development.”

Taylor arrived in Botswana 43 years ago with what would be the equivalent of $25 today in his pocket. He initially worked for a trading company and later started a tanning and taxidermy operation in northern Botswana. In 1975, he moved to Gabane, about 10 kilometers outside the capital city of Gaborone, and started Pelegano Village Industries, a non-governmental community development organizations that he still directs. He also established Veld Products Research, an organization that researches and develops uses for non-timber forest products to benefit local communities.

Editor’s note: Also involved in Cornell’s project are Ed Mabaya, PhD, Research Associate in the Department of Applied Economics and Management (leading the group); CaSandra Carter, Master of Professional Studies candidate in Horticulture; and Jack Castle, senior, BS in Applied Economics and Management.