Sunday, March 7, 2021

Driving Botswana’s agricultural revolution

On most days, the reception area outside Jezer Rampa’s office resembles a doctor’s waiting room. It teems with people of all ages waiting to see him. Some want advice on anything from agricultural machinery to fertiliser and seeds. Others just drop in for a chat and a word of encouragement.

He jokes that since getting into this business, he has had to acquire a taste for the social drink of choice for many of his customers ÔÇô tea.

In the two years that it has been in operation, Rampa’s company, Agri Sales, has become a point of convergence for farmers looking for agricultural machinery, parts, and farm inputs.

It is a success story that defied all predictions of failure. Let’s start with the location. The main branch is in Mmamashia, some distance outside Gaborone. When he decided to set up shop here, popular opinion was that he would not be able to compete with the established big guns that operated from the city centre and its immediate environs.

That observation seemed to make sense because some important emerging farmers, who are Rampa’s primary target market, live and work in the city, and therefore outback. Mmamashia would not be very convenient for them. Right? Well, not exactly.

“With my skills and the kind of service I give customers I knew that this place would work,” he says.

It has not only worked, but he has also managed to save on the high rental in Gaborone, thus keeping his running costs low. With a branch in Francistown ÔÇô “It’s doing well,” he tells me ÔÇô and another being planned for Palapye, Rampa is edging steadily towards his vision of building Agri Sales into a household name that will be passed down many generations.
Part of his plan is to offer his customers an experience that goes beyond just purchase of machinery and farm inputs. He just acquired land not far from his current main premises where he plans to construct comprehensive facilities for an Agri City that will be a complete one-stop shop for farmers across Botswana.

As value addition, the customers will be able to access advisory services on all agricultural matters.

Though he has clearly marked his path to further diversification, the plans will remain shelved for now.

“I have always been of the idea that you need to exhaust the space you are given before you ask for another,” he says. “I feel the scope is there to grow in the same industry I am in, and till then I will suspend my plans to diversify into other industry equipment like mining, and construction.”

Having tasted success so early in his life as an entrepreneur, Rampa confesses to occasional goose bumps whenever he reflects on what he has managed to achieve in just two years. He attributes the accomplishment to a great hunger for success, a strong sense of vision, and commitment.

“Sometimes you find yourself having gone through a rough patch and you don’t know how you did it,” he says. “But when you really look you find that it’s due to hard work, dedication, and honesty.”

He underscores the importance of honesty in his business. “Botswana is a small place, and if you take short cuts you won’t last,” he points out. “If someone pays the last of their retirement package to buy agricultural equipment to better their life, can you feel their pain? If you do, you will give them good service and they will keep coming back, and recommend you.”

The suave looking young man who looks every bit the advertising executive he once was is at home even with clients old enough to be his grandparents. Former President Ketumile Masire is a regular customer, and he never fails share useful advice and insight. On the day of the interview, former Police commissioner Thebeyame Tsimako dropped in.

“Ke ngwana wa Motswana,” he explains how he manages to reach out to his elderly clients.

“Part of my upbringing was in Mochudi, which makes it easy for me to relate to most of my clients who are just ordinary Batswana. Values such as setho and maitseo come very naturally, and this means a lot to them.”

Rampa is frank about the satisfaction that comes with running one’s own successful show. It has liberated him from financial limitations and the spectre of living from pay cheque to pay cheque.

“Most people never do a personal balance sheet, though it’s important,” he states. “Your personal balance sheet must grow. Remember that you are eating into your time bank everyday of your life, and you must work to ensure that you retire comfortably.

For me the great thing is that over the past two years my personal balance sheet has grown, and that’s the greatest satisfaction; that my efforts are bearing fruit.”

It was not a path paved with marble and gold. He has tasted the pain of loss and betrayal.

Even while starting out in the production department of an advertising agency and later as a sales executive at an older firm in the field of agricultural machinery, he was always looking for a business deal on the side.

The first attempt was a tender to supply government. He went in with someone who already had a company and all the required documents.

On the face of it, it all looked legit, so Rampa had no qualms about injecting the mobilisation capital. But as soon as payment from government came, it went into his business associate’s account and “he forgot about me”.

The second burn happened after he met a man of Asian origin who had bought a 500-hectare farm just outside Molepolole. Whatever the man had wanted to use the farm for had not worked out, and he agreed to lease it to Rampa. They settled for a profit share.

“I decided that I was going to plough as much of the land as possible. If I could plough the whole 500 hectares, I knew I would make at least P3m or P4m,” he recalls.

He bought a small tractor and a plough. Challenges came early in the project. Firstly, 500 hectares can’t be ploughed with a small tractor. There were a lot of breakdowns, and diesel was expensive. After the tractor had done 150 hectares, the land owner rocked up one with a different story. Now he wanted the rental upfront and was no longer interested in the profit sharing arrangement.
“I didn’t have that kind of money,” he says. “After all the expenses in food, diesel, and salaries I had to pack up. It was very hurtful. I put those machines for sale. I was in bed for a week.”

Turns out there was no written contract. Terrible mistake to make in business.
“He told me that his word was his honour,” he recalls.

With encouragement from businessmen like Willy Kathurima, he picked up himself and decided he was going to try again and this time he would get it right. He registered a company even though he had no idea what the company was going to do.

He bought a small compacting machine for P15 000, and he rented it out to Chinese companies for P10 000 a month.

“The first cheque of P10 000 was exciting. I celebrated. I went to show the cheque to my sisters, but they didn’t understand what the excitement was all about. I was excited that finally I had made that kind of money with my own hands. I celebrated the ability to generate money without assistance. I said to my sisters that when I looked at that cheque, in my mind I saw another zero, and another zero, and another zero, and yet another zero,” ÔÇô and as if to say that the prophecy has come to pass, he adds: “Now I am signing P1m cheques.”

When the compacting machine broke down and he had no money to fix it, he decided to sell it and go on with his life. In any case, he had a good job, having now risen to sales manager, and being considered for the MD position.

But fate had decided that the first business card that would describe his designation as MD would be for his own outfit.
After some of his initiatives for driving the business forward were not approved, he decided to demonstrate the faith he had in those ideas by jumping ship ÔÇô and Agri Sales was born.

Without starting capital, he spoke to numerous suppliers that he already knew in South Africa, and they were impressed with his vision because they decided to support him. He sold the first consignment of stock under somebody else’s business which was licensed, while he served the mandatory one month’s notice in December 2011.

When 2012 dawned, a new kid was firmly on the block. He was aged just 28.

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