How we made it in Africa speaks to Kwami Williams, CEO of MoringaConnect, a Ghanaian company which manufactures food and personal care products from the moringa tree. Its brands include Minga Foods and True Moringa. The business also supplies bulk moringa oil, tea and powder to brands across the world.
1. Give us a brief overview of your background.
I was born and raised in Accra, Ghana. Ever since I can remember, I was obsessed with things that flew and with taking things apart to see how they worked.
I emigrated to the US after my family won the diversity visa lottery. I spent my middle and high school years in Baltimore, where my parents worked multiple jobs to offer my brother and me the best shot at the ‘American dream’.
I studied aerospace engineering at MIT and interned at two NASA space centres thinking that would be my future. Through two trips back to Ghana during university, I got to see rural poverty up close for the first time. These experiences gave me a complete change of heart, igniting a journey from aerospace engineering to agriculture. I packed my bags and moved back to Ghana in 2013 to start building what would become MoringaConnect.
2. How did you come up with the idea for MoringaConnect?
While working with rural farmers in Ghana during the MIT D-Lab class trip, my co-founder, Emily Cunningham, and I learnt about the moringa tree. NGOs had told farmers to plant moringa for nutritional benefits: gram for gram, the leaves of the tree contain more vitamin A than carrots, more protein than yoghurt and more calcium than milk. The seeds of the tree contain a deeply moisturising oil for hair and skincare that outperforms argan, coconut and shea oils. However, without a market, farmers grew trees only at the household scale, receiving little to no economic benefit from it.
Since becoming operational in 2014, we have built a network of 5,000 farming families cultivating two million moringa trees. We provide direct farmer training. We cold-press the moringa seeds into seed oil and process the moringa leaves into leaf powder. We use our oil and powder ingredients to manufacture health products – tea, supplement powder and energy bars – in Ghana and we work with women- and Black-owned manufacturers in the US to create our finished line of hair, face and body beauty products.
Through our True Moringa brand, we create health and beauty products powered by nutrient-rich moringa. We’re on a mission to make wellness accessible by bringing underutilised superfood ingredients to underserved people on the continent and beyond.
3. Where do you sell your products? How competitive is the industry?
The natural beauty and wellness space is quite competitive and crowded. Our social impact and vertically integrated supply chain have helped us to differentiate from others.
In the US, we sell our branded products online and our biggest physical retailer is Whole Foods. In Ghana, we also sell online and our biggest physical retailer is Melcom. Since the onset of Covid-19, we have focused on e-commerce channels and have seen good growth there. We also provide bulk moringa oil and moringa powder to global B2B partners.
MoringaConnect products on display at a retail store.
4. Tell us a bit more about sourcing moringa and dealing with smallholder farmers.
We start at the farm, providing the tools and training farmers need to grow moringa. Our outgrower farmers are registered and organised into a cohort through a village savings and loan association group that meets regularly with a True Moringa field officer.
Through these groups, farmers receive training on financial literacy and best practices for cultivating moringa. Field officers map each farm using GIS technology and a custom-built traceability app. Officers visit farms monthly to provide support to farmers throughout the growing and harvest cycle. We provide a guaranteed market for all of the moringa that farmers produce, helping them to earn between four and 10 times what they might earn growing subsistence crops alone.
Working with smallholder farmers has been challenging on every level: from building community trust and maintaining a consistent line of communication, to the logistical hurdles of reaching rural areas due to poor infrastructure. It has also been incredibly rewarding to see the benefits the income from moringa can bring to individual farmers and the effect it has on the community as a whole. Farmers report spending their increased income on healthcare and higher education for their children as well as investments in small businesses in their communities.
5. What mistakes have you made along the way?
There is a perception among small natural beauty brands that the key to success is getting into as many physical retailers as possible. However, getting on the shelf is just the first step and supporting sales takes time and resources. In our early days, we made the mistake of chasing retail opportunities and, in hindsight, we should have put more emphasis on building direct-to-consumer online sales.
What has worked is storytelling and involving our customers and audience in our story; being vulnerable about what we’re going through as a business in hard times and celebrating good news and exciting milestones through email, social media and in-person events (in pre-Covid times).
6. Describe the toughest situation you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
Like most businesses in Africa, we’ve seen it all: applications being ‘lost’ for 12 months because we wouldn’t give in to corruption; persistent and unpredictable electric power outages that increase your costs; and significant depreciation of the local currency.
I think our toughest challenge came in 2019 in the form of farm and factory fires just four months apart. I thank God no one was hurt but the fire burnt 15,000 trees and led to $1 million in lost revenue, burnt assets and inventory. We spent much of 2019 restructuring and in a strange way, these back-to-back challenges made our team more resilient to deal with everything 2020 has thrown our way with the global pandemic and economic downturn.
In response to 2019 and 2020 challenges, we doubled down on our True Moringa website and brand, created new products, unlocked new revenue channels in the USA, created an online revenue channel in Ghana (Thrive Together), reduced our team, streamlined costs, and repurposed assets. The sacrifices and strategic shifts are helping us grow at over 140% year-on-year in 2020.
7. If you had to start this business again, what would you do differently?
This question is hypothetical for most entrepreneurs, but in light of the fires we had in 2019, we have the opportunity to answer it practically. Here are the things we are doing differently that have unlocked triple-digit revenue growth in 2020, despite the Covid-19 pandemic:
- Personal: Invest in your wellness rather than sacrifice it for the start-up. You can’t build a healthy company if you are not healthy. Set boundaries for work and make the things that care for your mind, body, soul, and loved ones non-negotiable.
- People: Build a rock star team. The lone do-it-all founder media narrative is a lie. I would be nowhere without my co-founder Emily Cunningham and the team we’ve built. We are investing even more time into finding value-aligned and mission-focused people to build the next chapter of True Moringa.
- Customers: Learn as much as you can about your customers so that what you make truly solves a problem. Marketing shouldn’t be about purely sending information to them.
- Product: It’s been said, sell painkillers, not vitamins. Focus on creating products your customers can’t live without – ones that solve real pain points – and cut everything else.
- Performance indicators: It’s been game-changing to institute (a) quarterly goals, (b) a weekly scorecard and (c) weekly review meetings to talk through specific and measurable targets. Clear targets, a defined owner for each goal and tracking performance has accelerated our learning, saved us money, improved the business economics and is helping us to understand why we hit or miss targets week to week.
- Procedures: You are often building a business so fast that you document nothing. We’ve learnt the hard way that it’s always worth taking the time to document standard operating procedures and use it as a live document. It makes everything easier – onboarding a new hire or troubleshooting where a process didn’t lead to the right outcome – and it provides accountability.
- Profit: The late Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen explains that investors and entrepreneurs should learn to be patient for growth but impatient for profits. In 2020, our mantra has become ‘profitability at every stage’; we are hyper-focused on improving gross profitability and aggressively working towards net profitability. Unfortunately, the prevailing thought is scale/growth which sets up so many for failure, especially when building on the continent without a war chest of cash.
8. Identify an untapped business opportunity in Africa.
- Agriculture: We are net-importers as a country and across much of the continent. For any country, download your country’s food import list and map what grows well in your country but is an underdeveloped value chain. Invest time and energy researching why imports happen. Then build, measure and learn how to capitalise on the import-substitution opportunity.
- Packaging: Paper, plastic and glass packaging for food and beauty products. There’s a growing sector of made-in-Africa manufacturers but we all import packaging and will gladly switch to a quality consistent local player even if they are not the cheapest.