Meet Lovell Bai Bangura, Founder of a Social Enterprise Advancing the Value Chain Fairness and Resilience
Lovell Bai Bangura leads The Farm Investment Limited Sierra Leone, a social enterprise with its own factory that produces peanut-based products with peanuts sourced from local farmers. Founded in 2017, the startup now works with around 200 smallholder farmers, has a consumer base that spans 20 communities and is now exploring further expansion online and internationally through a digital app. The WFF Africa had a chance to hear from him about his projects and ambitions.
Thank you for joining the WFF Africa today, Lovell. I see you brought some of your products made from peanuts. Can you introduce what you do?
I’m the founder of an agri-startup called Farm Investment. We are adding value to peanuts so that we can have a variety of peanut products. You know that Africa spends a huge portion of its budgets on importing what we eat. We also have a growing population - it is said that the number of people will double by the year 2050. Over 65% of population is under the age of 35, which means we need more tools and work.
Currently we work with 200 female smallholder farmers by providing peanut seeds and technical training. We stake them the initial amount to grow and store for the next planting season and take 2% interest from them. The excess harvest is for them to sell in the market. We buy that excess from them at the best price and then add value at a factory level. It means that even when we are creating peanut cooking pastes, about 30% of our profits goes back to the farmers.
So you do both value addition at the factory level and give production support to the farms. What was your initial motivation for getting into the agricultural sector?
Well, Sierra Leone was faced with twin economic shocks: one was the exit of mega mineral companies that were providing jobs that sustained our economy and the other was the Ebola outbreak. These twin shocks affected us woefully at the time, and I sat down and said, look, there could be a way out if we focus on agriculture, if we focus on economic diversification through agriculture. Mineral commodities can inflate and deflate in the global economy, and a lot of jobs will be lost again.
So for me, I thought the only way out for us was agriculture. We would even need to export agricultural produces. Whenever we import anything from foreign economies, we are losing on exchange; we are also exporting jobs to other economies. With all of these indicators, I thought that agriculture was the only way for us to create jobs for ourselves. And everybody needs to consume agriculture three times a day. Have you taken your breakfast?
So we can feed ourselves, we can solve the issue of malnutrition, if we can produce, definitely, we have a market in that. That’s when I ventured into the sector.
It is even more important today with the issue of the war in Ukraine. So countries are now thinking, “How can we depend on our food systems?” and then, “What can other countries offer us?”
Exactly. Food prices are soaring all around the world, as well as fuel and agricultural inputs. Your business must have been experiencing the effects.
Yes, the fuel price has gone up from SLL 8,000 to SLL 22,000, and with this increase, every other commodity is affected. For us, because we do deliver our products to retails, we need to explain the price adjustment. We also have to take raw materials from farms and process them at the factory where you need fuel, so it has affected us at a larger scale.
It is a real issue, and if you are starting and managing a business you must have such skills. Thinking also about the initial access to finance, which is one of the biggest challenges for youth, how did you learn how to navigate that?
Before starting this, I had another startup on business coaching, incubating young entrepreneurs, and for my studies, I did a Bachelor’s in Business Administration and Management. There I was able to master marketing and business plans. I was using those skills to get myself consultancy projects. For example, I was writing business plans for people. So when I had an idea in the final year of university, when I saw a call for applications for funding for young entrepreneurs, I already had the skills to write about what I wanted to do. That’s how I got myself sponsored by GIZ, which is part of the World Bank’s agri-innovators project. Currently, I am a beneficiary of the Food and Agricultural Organization’s Green Job Project, which helped to start using haze as organic manure.
So you got yourself ready by learning and also in practice while you studied. Going back again to your current startup, tell us about your work with female smallholders.
Female smallholders are considered to be the poorest in sub-Saharan African countries, living on less than one dollar every day. That’s why we empower them.
And our focus on women comes in even in the office. The manager is female, the finance head is female, the marketer is female, and all the other producers and manufacturers are female because they are hard workers.
I think we need to give more chance to women, because we’ve been in a situation where women have been left behind far too long. It’s time for us to bring them up the ladder, give them fair opportunities for them to try as well. It turns out that they are good at management, they are very good at delivering projects, they are so committed. Where I come from, women are mostly disadvantaged. We need to empower them, give them the chance and increase their income levels. That is part of the change that we all want to see.
Please also tell us about the Smart Farm App that you are developing. How does it help small-scale farmers in your country?
Yes, we already have it but are further developing it. It connects farmers and buyers as well, so we want scale it to involve other farmers, not just our own farmers, and other buyers too. In terms of our technology, the main objective is to facilitate more fair trade. Currently we have middlemen who buy from farmers and then sell them at three or four times the initial price of the produce. Our digital platform means that the person with the better price will be the person to buy. What we want to do is to make agricultural products more competitive in the market by listing farmers online.
Moreover, the app can also be a useful tool for financial service providers, as it has profiles of farmers and farms after we did soil tests and other measurements, as well as information on produce in the past year, so it can serve as a guarantee for the farmers to access finance. We empower them to move from substance farming to more commercial farming. With data, they can be more trusted and they can be included in the formal sector through the digital application.
We also want to go international. We are sitting at the start of a major trajectory. We now have the continental free trade agreement. So, I also see that local agricultural products can be sold out of Sierra Leone. Agricultural produce is available in any given part of Africa, but moving it from one place to another is the problem. The realization that this particular food is available at this particular end of Africa has been the missing link.
We will be eager to see your products coming to our country in the near future. Do you have anything that you would like to convey to the world?
Again, according to the United Nations, Africa’s population will double by 2050, by the time I will be in full leadership. I want to ensure that I will be able to solve the issue of food insecurity, so that when I become a full leader, I will not be thinking about hunger anymore but will be thinking about how to send a man up to the moon!
The issue of food insecurity is something we should take very seriously. We need more investment in agriculture to ensure more tools and access to finance for young people. And by finance I don’t mean the regular type of finance from commercial banks, charging huge interest rates with a short payback period. Agriculture needs time. So we need a type of development from international and national financial institutions across Africa that gives financial support to young people at low interest rates with payback periods of six months or one year. We don’t need free money. We want the type of finance that works for agriculture.
*This article is part of the WFF African Agrifood Changemakers web story series. The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the WFF.