Bio Nile Uganda: Natural, Organic, UTZ, Fairtrade and Environmentally-Friendly Agricultural Products

Chariton Namuwoza gives an overview of Bio Nile (U) Ltd, a leading Ugandan-based agribusiness, marketing and direct selling company, which was incorporated in 2014 to facilitate global trade for all-natural, organic, UTZ, Fairtrade and other environmentally-friendly agricultural products sourced from within or outside Uganda.

Interview with Chariton Namuwoza, CEO of Bio Nile (U) Ltd

Chariton Namuwoza, CEO of Bio Nile (U) Ltd

What is a major challenge to boosting your activities and the company?

This company started in 2014. At that time, I had spent over ten years in global marketing trying to link Ugandan exporters to international markets in Asia, Europe and America, etc. I saw that there was a clear opportunity for me to do business with this background in export marketing. I coined the name of the company from two words: “bio” which is a German word that means organic, and “Nile” from our Nile River with the thinking that I would do business across the world. I was presented with a very big opportunity from Japan where I got a buyer who was interested in organic coffee. I quickly put resources together to find farmers and get them certified to try to grab that market opportunity. Around 2015, the Japanese flew in and I took them to visit the farmers and they were very excited. At the closing meeting, they gave me the good news that they would be able to do business with me. I went ahead and put together all the additional documents that would be needed for certification. We were then certified organic to the Japanese Agricultural Standards which is a very high international organic standard. There are many requirements but we were able to pull it off. We signed the contract to deliver the first container of coffee. Unfortunately, in the process of transporting the coffee to Mombasa Port in Kenya where it would be taken to Japan, somewhere around Nakuru, the container was stolen by the driver. I worked with my Kenyan business partner to inform the police and the Security Agency. The whole country was on alert. It was even on the national TV news and in the newspapers that there was a container from Uganda that had been stolen in Kenya. Just about a month later, the thieves were caught and they were presented before the courts, and the container was returned to us. However, in the organic system, if the coffee is out of our hands, it loses traceability. So, as an experienced organic operator and professional, we had to bring the container back to Uganda and sell the coffee locally. We were able to buy another container to export, but it was not easy. We only made a bit of profit. Initially, the banks did not want to lend us money because we were a startup company and the buyer could not advance us money, so we had to work with a local businessman to lend us that money. That was the first big challenge that we faced as a company. The Japanese are very particular and they were worried that we were playing games. They reached out to their embassies in Kenya and Uganda. The ambassador contacted me and we met several times. They eventually understood that this was not our fault as they had originally thought. But we had to rethink our business model. Putting together a container of organic Arabica beans is very expensive, about 70,000 USD. We did not have that money and we were lucky to get interest from those businessmen. Going forward, we realized that that was not the best way of doing business because of the huge risk involved where even big multinational companies could lose their containers on the way to Mombasa. That is how we came up with the commission-based business. We connect the exporter or the farmer cooperative or the operator to the market, then we facilitate the whole process, and we earn a commission when they sell. Since then, the farmer cooperative that we started with has continued to export coffee to Japan to the same buyer and each time they ship, we earn a commission. That has helped us to remain buoyant.

We have also introduced another service in addition to creating that market linkage which is supporting farmer cooperatives to establish certifiable quality management systems against which they could be certified for different international standards such as EU/NOP, JAS, Fair Trade, UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, etc. In that way, we were able to work with many export companies. In the last three years, we have done very well through this consultancy arrangement. In business, you have to keep thinking and coming up with innovations of how you can do better and grow. Just before the announcement was made by the government that we would be locked down because of COVID, we had built an online marketing platform where we would be able to sell different products from different farmer associations, cooperatives, and exporting companies. It was very timely. We had earlier established a showroom where potential clients and the local market could come and see some of the organic products that we had. Because of COVID and the lockdown, we were not allowed to receive walk in clients anymore. So, the online platform was very helpful to get those products to our clients. The biggest challenge for us today is how to scale up our online marketing activities to reach the local, regional, and international consumers. We were still in the process of setting up the online payment system to take care of the international consumers because at the moment, we are using mobile money payments, mostly MTN and Airtel, but we need to put in place a payment system that caters to the other consumers.

The other challenge is that for most of the farmers, during the lockdown, some of the companies that had supported their certifications had issues with the market so they could not continue to support their certifications. We need to find some funding to mobilize farmers and take them through the process of certification so that we can have a ready to sell product. This means a certification mark where it is branded or labeled according to the organic requirements. This label is on every product that we sell. We focus on organic and all-natural products. We have a section of consumers that does not mind a certified product as long as it is natural. We want to look into the future. We are going to have more consumers and clients demanding evidence of that product being organic. It is a process. Working backwards, it takes a lot of resources to train farmers and bring them up to speed to where they have to comply with specific standards and requirements and they must be audited by independent, internationally or locally accredited groups depending on the market you are targeting.

Are the farmers financing this certification, or are you?

It is a partnership. The initial step towards certification requires investment. You can recover the money on that investment as that product is sold. For instance, you have consumers that are interested in a particular product which is grown organically but not certified, you need to work backwards and make sure that you put in place systems that guarantee the certification. One way is to have an exporter that can do that, which is the normal way of doing things. Also, you have exporters who are focused on a particular international market for one or two products, but we keep getting enquiries about more products. You have to work backwards and make sure that that is included in the quality management system. That is where the gap usually lies.

What are your competitive advantages? Why should a farmer choose you as their intermediary and why should local, regional, or international clients work with you?

We want to be the number one online platform that links producers of safe, organic, environmentally friendly, all-natural products to consumers that are interested in those products. We want to be the linkage, the conduit, that connection between producers and consumers.

First and foremost, we need to appreciate that the world is gravitating towards healthy products, that the world appreciates natural products, and that the world is increasingly becoming concerned with issues of traceability, environmental management, climate change, social concerns relating to production and workers’ rights, and more. With over a decade of experience in global marketing linking Uganda’s exporters to global markets, I came face to face with consumers and buyers and importers that appreciate organic products. At heart, I am very passionate about eating right, consuming the right products with the guarantee that they have been handled in a manner that complies with international organic standards. Our platform focuses entirely on the organic and natural value chain. We differentiate ourselves from the rest of the agribusiness sector by focusing specifically on what we consider safe for consumption, natural, and very much in line with environmental management requirements and the sustainability aspect. If we consume products today, what will happen to our health tomorrow? The organic products system has been constructed to ensure that the products are safe and that consumers can enjoy the nutritional benefits and not be affected negatively by consuming these products. There is not a single platform that I have seen that specifically focuses on this. We are pioneers in this. We want to make sure that we bring together the consumers that are particular on organic products and the farmers and exporters who deal specifically in organic products.

How can someone based in the US or Europe trust your platform? What guarantee do they have?

This is where we actually try to draw a line between products that are grown naturally or organic and those that have actually been certified. That is what separates us from the rest of the farmers and agribusinesses that deal with all sorts of products. We are talking about a market that is regulated and has requirements for certification. You must demonstrate through a quality management system and traceability that your product meets those organic requirements. Amazon and all the other online platforms obviously are big, but we will soon get to that level where every consumer wants to identify with us. We have the systems, we are certified for example through JAS and others, we handle organic products, we have robust quality management systems that guarantee the organic integrity, we source strictly from certified companies or farmers or associations and that way we are able to guarantee the right organic quality to the market. We also work with internationally accredited certification bodies, such as CERES which is a German-based internationally recognized certification body. We deliberately prepare our farmers and suppliers in terms of having the right systems that can guarantee that organic integrity. We are experienced experts in terms of establishing those quality management systems and we look at what the market needs. You have consumers that want organic plus fair trade, those that want organic plus UTZ in the case of coffee and cocoa, those that want strictly organic, and those that do not mind as long as it is natural. Through certification, we are able to demonstrate the evidence that a product meets a particular standard.

Who are your clients? Do you sell to end-user customers, shops, larger importers?

The first goal is to reach the consumers directly so they can shop online and we deliver the product. In the interim, we are working with supermarkets, for instance, a French supermarket chain in Uganda, as well as many of the local supermarket chains. Most of these require evidence of organic certification. On Facebook, WhatsApp, and LinkedIn, we also try to get the word out that our products are organic. We are using many different channels to get the word out and target everyone. We are marketeers, salespeople. We want to make sure that the product flows from the farm to the market through those different channels. Ultimately, we want to build a retail platform that enables the consumer to buy directly from us and pay directly.

Project yourself to the medium term, three years’ time. What do you need to achieve your goals?

We want to be the number one online platform that links producers of safe, organic, environmentally friendly, all-natural products to consumers that are interested in those products. We want to be the linkage, the conduit, that connection between producers and consumers. We want to be as popular as Amazon and Jumia in Uganda.


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