She's Unlocking the Potential of Botswana's Land
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Amanda Aminah Masire knows economic success starts with food.
By Nick Dall
Mookodi Modimoosi Seisa had long dreamed of expanding into irrigated horticulture on his 40-acre farm near Shoshong, Botswana. His dreams rapidly became reality when, in 2018, he engaged the services of Amanda Aminah Masire’s firm, Greenhouse Technologies. Masire helped him write the business plan that secured a 200,000 pula ($18,000) government grant, and she supplied the equipment and know-how to make it happen. Barely a year later, Seisa has sold crops of spinach, rapeseed, tomatoes, beetroot and green pepper to local supermarkets. Were it not for unforeseen water shortages that decimated his cabbage crop, he would have broken even already.
“I would recommend Amanda to anyone at any time,” says Seisa. “She knows her stuff.”
Masire, 41, founded her company in 2011 after scrutinizing that year’s budget speech. It was obvious, she remembers, that agriculture was where the money was: “There were so many incentives that no one was taking advantage of.” Instead of going into farming herself — she and Botswana’s baking sun have never really jelled — she set about plugging the gap between farmers and government with a company that provided everything from consultancy to cucumber seed. Between 2013 and 2018, Greenhouse Technologies’ “horticulture in a box” solution helped 430 Botswanans to become farmers. In the process, she’s reduced the country’s reliance on imported fruits and vegetables to the tune of 2,100 acres of productive land.
“Greenhouse technology is the Rolls-Royce of horticulture,” Masire explains, but Botswana is still driving Toyotas.
Masire has both agriculture (her mom’s a chicken farmer) and entrepreneurship (her grandparents were businesspeople) in her blood. At teacher-training college, she recalls stockpiling one of the two pints of long-life milk she was given every day. Before long she was bartering with the boys — three cigarettes equaled one pint — to increase her stash. Selling the milk provided a steady stream of pocket money, even if her roommate did complain about living in a warehouse.
Later, she augmented her teacher’s salary by setting up a meter-phone business (cellphones serving as public phones) on the side. And then she took advantage of a government finance model to buy her own purpose-built preschool within a block of flats. When she sold it four years later, she doubled her money — “not because I am a super-smart businesswoman,” but because property is always a solid investment.
Masire’s family and friends thought she was mad to sell, but she was having none of it. “People don’t like change,” she says. “But I do. Monotony is not good for the mind.” Besides, she had a new business plan up her sleeve: Greenhouse Technologies. Acknowledging that she knew little about vegetable farming, Masire’s first move was to hire a horticulturist and an irrigation specialist. She could afford to pay the university graduates only a basic salary, but she urged them to “make their money by going the extra mile.”
They did just that. By helping aspiring farmers with cropping plans, soil tests and calculating borehole yields, she was able to unlock millions of pula in grant money that had been going unclaimed, while also greatly contributing to the prosperity and self-sufficiency of Botswana and its people.
A few happy customers later and she’d caught the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture, which she is now partnering with on a training farm on the company premises on the outskirts of Gaborone, Botswana’s capital city. The farm is already fully functional (the crops provide a nifty additional revenue stream), and builders are putting the finishing touches on the classrooms. Masire and her team are set to run the first of many government-sponsored, five-day introductory horticulture courses as soon as next month.
It comes amid a nationwide push for food independence. Other initiatives in the land-rich but water-poor nation include the rollout of gray-water treatment plants and a clampdown on importing crops that Botswana is able to produce. The proportion of Botswana’s food produced locally jumped from 20 percent in 2013-14 to 60 percent in 2017–18, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
But there’s still a long way to go. Galeitsewe Ramokapane, the ministry’s director of crop production, told a horticultural meeting recently, “We cannot produce enough because we have alternatives, as we are depending on our brothers and sisters in South Africa.” (In an interview, Ramokapane wouldn’t single out Greenhouse Technologies, only saying several firms have been working on this.)
By Masire’s own admission, her quest to educate Botswanans about modern farming practices has not been easy. “As my [company] name suggests, I started out wanting to sell greenhouses,” she explains, but eight years down the line her biggest sellers remain drip irrigation and shade cloth. “Greenhouse technology is the Rolls-Royce of horticulture,” she explains, but Botswana is still driving Toyotas. Not that she’s going to let their choice of ride get her down. “I started with the end in mind.”
Masire owes her success to wrapping up a sizable chunk of the horticulture value chain. The winning business and planting plans crafted by her team of experts should cost far more than they do, she says. But Greenhouse Technologies’ profit lies in “actually doing the job.” Clients are not obliged to purchase their seed, fertilizers, pesticides and equipment from her, but they always do. It may be possible to get gum tree poles cheaper from another supplier, but no one else in Botswana can come close to offering horticulture in a box.
Masire is determined to stay several steps ahead of the competition. In less than two frantic minutes, she outlines plans to incorporate beekeeping, integrated livestock farming, the internet of things, fish farming, steel-bending and pollination by drone into her business offerings. And she plans to expand the model to other African countries. “I may be at the front of the race,” she says, “but I am still running like I am in last place.”
Except this metaphor makes it sound like the recent Islam convert is in it for personal glory. “I am all about turning unemployment into self-employment,” she says. “I won’t stop until Botswana is exporting vegetables.”
If she ever stops, that is.
- Nick Dall, OZY AuthorContact Nick Dall