First Gambian online food store – Farm Fresh

october issue

IT developer, teacher, entrepreneur and also man of many talents, Mr. Modou Njie, the CEO of Farm Fresh company shares with us his story of establishing the first online food store in The Gambia. He talks about the beginnings, development, struggles and also aspirations for the future. His main weapon is hard work and innovative mind, being capable of always being different, fresh. It is a story which can inspire many young entrepreneurs, who are just starting their path in the business world.

Jane Gomez: It’s always a pleasure to interview my fellow Gambians, to talk about their businesses how to promote them and all. This is a venture to promote their businesses as well as impact other entrepreneurs out there to start up their businesses or business owners to continue on with their businesses. It’s a pleasure that my Gambia and a new magazine is here today to interview a prominent Gambian as well as a business owner. We are really excited to be here today. So, why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about yourself.

Mr. Njie: Thank you very much for inviting me, it’s indeed a pleasure to be selected, to take a part in your maiden edition of My Gambia magazine. I am Modou NSZ Njie, I am owner and founder of Farm Fresh. Farm Fresh is the Gambia’s online food store and delivery company which was registered in 2013 but became fully operational in 2014. We partner with farmers to find access to market and sell their fresh produce online; vegetables, fruits, organic products, many made-in-the-Gambia products. And we found out that they need to have a platform where they can sell their products and not to be taken advantage of by middlemen. They don’t have storage facilities, so whenever they harvest, they need to quickly sell or get rid of their products, otherwise they get wasted. So, without this platform, they would be taken advantage of by middlemen who would offer them any price and tell them, well take it or leave it, if you did not sell it to us, your product will get wasted and you will lose everything. So, we thought this was a social need, that we should come in, of course is business, as well as to help them. It’s a win-win kind of partnership. We also figured out, that there is a need for working class and very busy Gambians, who really don’t want or have the time to be going around shopping, to have this platform and then have these items delivered to them. Just to say, I have my background in ICT of over 23 years, I also run other companies; N-Web Plus, Money Firm. I have served in different institutions; Guarantee Trust Bank (GT Bank) – head of technology, Reliance – head of technology, United Nations Development Program. I studied in the US, the UK and in India and also in the Gambia before I travelled. I started with GTTI, Gambia Technical Training Institute, where I was initially a student, did all my diplomas up to advance, then became a lecturer and then work with Continent Bank as IT Manager. Back then, I was the youngest IT Manager, I think I was 22, then travelled to the US and came back. It’s a long story, but in summary, that is who I am.  I also have a passion for agriculture, passion for technology and passion for entrepreneurship and social work. I see myself as a social entrepreneur now.

Jane Gomez: Where did you get your entrepreneur spirit? Were your parents entrepreneurs as well?

Mr. Njie: Very good, excellent question. Interestingly, my parents were not entrepreneurs, my parents were educationist. My late father was a teacher initially, and then a headmaster. He also became the first Gambian principle of Gambia College, which is called the Brikama College or Yundum College as they used to call it. My mom, she is also a retired headmistress with over 35 years of teaching experience in the Gambia, heading different schools. Naturally, I also became a lecturer at GTTI when I completed my computer science courses. So, the entrepreneur spirit I don’t know where it came from, but I always had that spirit in me. Probably it came from my namesake. I am named after late M. S. Njie, that was my father’s brother. He had that entrepreneur spirit. He was into business even though he was a certified accountant and worked with the Public Service Commission and different commissions, but he was also very much into business. So probably, as they say in our local tradition, if you are named after someone, you might take some traits from that person. So, probably I got it from him, but then I have always had the spirit to do something on my own. Even though I have worked with different companies for almost 20 years, I always had part time job going on. My IT Company has been running for 17 years on part time basis. I started out, actually in the 1990s really. Repairing computers when I left GTTI, I was going to people’s homes to fix computers and stuff like that, doing web design for free, for fun and later charging a small fee. So, it’s always been within me.

Jane Gomez: At what age did you think of starting your own business?

Mr. Njie:  My IT Company is much older, its 17 years old, that’s N-Web Plus. So, with N-Web I always had that dream to have my own company and have my own employees and we would be working on tech, developing solutions. I have this innovative spirit, coming up with innovative solutions to address problems, societal problems. But with Farm Fresh, it was in 2013 that I got that inspiration to really try and be a pioneer, to be a pace setter or to be a trend setter and to take that risk. A lot of people want to get into business, but they are not ready to take that risk, because there is a risk element, a risk factor. But I was like, what do I have to lose? I have the knowledge, I have the skills, I can build platforms and it would not cost me anything. I am going to build it myself so I don’t even need financial capital, I just need my brain power. So, it was in 2013 that I got inspired and I started developing the platform on my own and here we are today.

Jane Gomez: Considering the fierce competition in today’s business world, how would you highlight your company’s competitive advantage? What makes it stand out?

Mr. Njie: Excellent question again, you are quite right, there is a lot of competition going on in different sectors, even in our area in IT, in e-commerce. Despite the fact that we became the first online food store, online or let’s say e-commerce Company, specialising in food delivery in the Gambia in 2013, we of course noticed that there were other people that were coming up with similar solutions. But I have always believed that what makes you stand out is your innovative spirit. That is to say, don’t be afraid of competition, actually competition makes you become better at what you are doing because they will keep you at your toes; you are always trying to be one step ahead and that is the spirit that we, Farmfreshers have. We are always trying to be one step ahead. Whenever we see that someone has copied what we are doing, we try to do something completely different. So, people are always trying to play catch up with us and we try to be the pace setters in technology. As we can see, our platform is fully automated; when you place your orders, instantly you receive an SMS alert on your phone, you also receive an email alert showing everything that you order and online payment is available. We have a chatbot and we are working on a Whatsapp API to build a Whatsapp chatbot and also so many other things coming up.

Don’t be afraid of competition, actually competition makes you become better at what you are doing because they will keep you at your toes; you are always trying to be one step ahead and that is the spirit that we, Farmfreshers have.

Jane Gomez: How do you generate new ideas concerning doing this business? You mentioned something like when people are trying copy your business, you play a smart one on them. So how do you generate those new ideas?

Mr. Njie: That is really tough to explain, for me it’s more like, its tangible, it’s not something I can really describe. It’s a passion. When you have a passion for something, nothing stops you. Sometimes I wake up at 2 a.m. in the morning, I have an idea, at 3 a.m. I am on my computer; I am working on it. So, if you are passionate about what you are doing regardless of whatever it is, if it’s tech, if it is agriculture, if it is carpentry, whatever it is, you will go to any length to be the best you can be. So, for me that is what happens to me, I just get the inspiration and it’s not very easy for me to be satisfied, even with my own work. I always think there is a room for improvement even though I am like Wow I have done a great job, it looks nice and other people are complementing my work, I am always looking for faults. To even fault my own work and to get constructive criticisms and to improve and to try – that is how Farm Fresh has been evolving. Right now, this day and age, you cannot reinvent the wheel. Everything that you have thought of, someone has already thought of it. You want to do something, just Google it first, it’s already there. Just think of anything literally. So, what makes you stand out is how you transform that idea into something else, into something different.

Jane Gomez: Since your business journey started, what have been some of your biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

Mr. Njie: One of the biggest challenges, just like in any other business, was access to the finances, lack of financial input. As I already stated, the biggest cost was the start-up capital, but I was able to overcome that because I am a developer, I develop websites, I develop solutions, and so I didn’t have to pay a company a huge amount of money to develop the solutions for me. So, that cost was taken off, but still you have other operational costs, you have to pay for your internet, you have to pay for the staff, their salaries; you have the electricity, the phone bills. There are also other costs; office rent and all that, so that was tough. So, what we did was, I just decided to start small instead of going with the big bang, going to the bank to look for a loan. I said, no, I want to work from home, little by little I am going to get there. And that is how we did it, never went for a loan or anything like that until in 2015, when we got our first grant, when I went to Nigeria. I was among the first Tony Alumilo entrepreneurs from the Gambia. One thousand entrepreneurs from Africa, five from Gambia, I was among those five. We went to Nigeria, we did our training on entrepreneurship and they gave us a grant of $5,000. So that was the first time, we receive any kind of financial support and immediately, we plough into the business, into our marketing campaign and it paid dividends. So, this how we did it, but we have never gone for loans or anything like that and I would advise entrepreneurs to avoid loans as much as possible, unless they can really justify it and can be repaid within a short period of time.

Jane Gomez: What has been your greatest business achievement since you started this business, Farm Fresh; since you started the journey?

Mr. Njie:  Wow, that is not an easy question, because we really achieved a lot. We’ve won International Awards as you can see, we’ve been to South Africa, we won the People’s Choice Award, that means we had the most votes in terms of popularity online. People voted online and we were the most popular company in Africa, Future Agric-challenge in South Africa 2017. But for me, the biggest accomplishment has been the fact that we were able to tap into the Gambian diaspora market, to convince Gambians abroad to shop online for their families in the Gambia without them knowing too much about us and then with them taking a big risk. Because its online, you don’t know whether it’s true or not and today 90% or 95% of all our revenue or orders are coming from Gambians abroad who are shopping online for their families and we deliver the products to their families. And I would say, we’ve made thousands and thousands of dollars worth of revenue through this partnership with the Gambians in the diaspora. We’ve also allowed them to remit money, I would say in kind, instead of the cash. They have always had a challenge of sending money to their families and then money would not be put to good use. Before the end of the month, they would receive so many stories, that the rice is finished, other food is finished. But by shopping through our platform, they have been able to safely feed their families without any issues, because we deliver the products, we don’t give them the cash. So for me, this is one of the biggest achievements. Also, the fact that we have been able to transform the lives of some of the farmers, for me that is the second most important achievement or maybe the most important achievement. Transforming the lives of the farmers, the gardeners that we have been working with, who were not having steady income, but now they are on a weekly basis, they are having steady income, they are able to pay the school fees for their children, pay for their medical bills… For me, this one of the greatest achievements. Even though modest, but we are really proud of it.

Right now, this day and age, you cannot reinvent the wheel. So, what makes you stand out is how you transform that idea into something else, into something different.

Jane Gomez: What do you think of the work environment? Is there room for improvement, to make it better?

Mr. Njie: There is a lot of room for improvement. As you can see, this is our first physical store. We have always been operating online and when we started in 2013/2014, it was always online, strictly online. We did not have physical items. People ordered and then we rushed to the supplier, for ordered things, then we rushed here, make the delivery and then went back home in our little corner. But we have evolved. We also saw that a lot of Gambians might be sceptical, but with this physical store, they can come and see the products that we are claiming we have online. Then they can say, wow its true, the one I ordered online, it looks really nice. It is actually true, you go to their store, is there, you know it’s real. This is Africa you know, seeing is believing, we believe in seeing, feeling and touching. So, there is still a lot of room for improvement, we are looking ahead; we are on track to expand our branch network. Hopefully, within the next few months, we will have two more branches, two locations in the Gambia. We also have acquired a cold room which will be commissioned soon. So, what that means is, we can buy in bulk more from farmers and then store it in the cold room. We won’t have to be going back and forth. And we can increase the shell life of some of these fresh products which are very fragile. Currently we have that challenge, if we get a product today, we have to deliver it today or tomorrow, otherwise it gets wasted. So, we have a cold room coming up, we have a delivery truck, a nine tons delivery truck. I have to mention, that we would not able to make achievements without the support of the NEMA project. I want to give them the full credit for giving us that marching grant. It was a joint partnership, but 60% was grant free – not free money, but it was a grant. We also contributed 10 % and this grant allowed us to get the cold room, allowed us to buy cold truck, allowed us to get a delivery motorbike. This is over almost D 1.4 million. It has really transformed our business, but we are not stopping. We are really looking ahead; we are looking at more locations, more partners, and improving on our product service delivery and our packaging. We are far from being satisfied; we think there is still a lot more to do. We hope to have a proper supermarket one day, where we would sell only fresh products and I mean in a big way not this store, I mean a bigger space, more spacious. We have plans to partner up with supermarkets; I can’t tell everything about our plans, but what I want to say is that we are from satisfied. We believe there is still a whole lot more to do. And we are looking at expanding beyond the shores of the Gambia.

Jane Gomez: What is toughest decision you have ever made in this business?

Mr. Njie: Setting up Farm Fresh was a tough decision because there were a lot of unknowns. No one has ever done this before and it was risky. It could even fail and to me, that was one of the toughest decisions. But to be honest, I had a very good job, my last employment was with GT Bank – head of the technology, as a head of the IT department. I had a good salary and a lot of benefits and a lot of perks, that come along with this. Very comfortable. You don’t have to worry; at the end of the month your salary is in your account. So really, to forgo all that and then just start from scratch, and start struggling with your vehicle in the hot sun, without AC, that was the toughest decision. But with no regrets really, no regrets absolutely.

Jane Gomez: What is your number one priority right now in Farm Fresh as a business?

Mr. Njie: Number one priority is to consolidate on our gains and also to expand our customer base and also to look into the export market. We have a lot of demands from Gambians abroad who want us to export our products to Europe, to America, but we don’t have an export license. So, we are working very hard to find ways and means of acquiring an export license so that we can start exporting large quantities of fresh products and also, even dried produced, processed items to all over the world. This is one of our priorities and also getting cold room up and running as soon as possible.

Jane Gomez: What are the principles you follow to build a successful customer base relationship?

Mr. Njie: One of the main principles that we follow is that we have to be good listeners to the customers. When it comes to making enquiries, you have to listen, even though it might sound stupid to you in your head or it would sound wrong, we have to always be patient with our customers. And we have to be courteous, because customers can be very aggressive, they can even be rude, but at the end of the day, you don’t know the amount of revenue that they can bring on board. So, we have to be very patient with them and be very honest with them, very straight forward and also to response in time to the queries that they make. These are some of the most important aspects of it. Transparency is very, very important for our international customers.

Jane Gomez: What is the biggest lesson you have learned so far about being a business man over the years?

Mr. Njie: One of the biggest lessons that I have learned is that it really takes time to make things to happen and you really, really have to be patient and you really have to put in the efforts. You might see some successful millionaires and billionaires and you are like, oh yes, I am going to be like that. But trust me, you have to put in a lot of work and efforts. They put in a lot of efforts, some of them might look really young, but you have to really sweat it out. Sometimes I don’t go to bed till 3 a.m., sometimes I wake up at 3 a.m., I am working. So, you would really, really have to work really hard and try to be as honest as possible with your customers, your suppliers, with whomever you are dealing with. And to be on top of your game and try to be different as much as possible.

Jane Gomez: How long do you stick to one idea? When you come up with one idea, how long do you stick with it before you move to another idea?

Mr. Njie: I am always thinking of new ways of doing things and you don’t even need to abandon what you are doing. You can find ways of doing what you are doing differently, doing it in a different way. I am going to give you a practical example. Just last week, we did our first Facebook live, we never thought of it before. I thought of it like: wow, why don’t we do a Facebook live, start interacting with our customers showing our products. We don’t need to go to a physical, traditional TV. So, my brain just said, why not just go live and start showing our products, start taking questions and even orders from customers. And guess what, we did it last week and after one hour of the live show, people started coming to the shop saying: I was following a Facebook live and I saw that you have okra or I saw that you have this and that. Some people are really very busy; they don’t have time to go to the website, they might be on the website but they might not find the product; several reasons. But if you do a live show, showing them in what you have in the shop at the moment, the price, where you are; trust me, more than likely the customers will come. So, this is a practical example of how things come up. We always try to be different. We have this idea of payment through mobile money. People could pay through their mobile wallet, whether it is GT Bank, Eco Bank, Africell Afrimony, Qcell Qmoney. We are looking at other ways, innovative ways of making things simpler and easier for the customers.

Jane Gomez: What impact do you think your business is having on the people around you?

Mr. Njie: The impact, I can say, is already being felt. I am satisfied with the fact that I have been able to create employment for youths in a modest way. We are a team of six now, so every month I have to prepare salaries for six members of staff and so doing, it means they are able to feed their families. We are fighting poverty through this, even though it is a small number. But we hope to grow and add more employees that can then take care of their families. And the nice thing about it is that I am the only one who is not a youth; going by the definition of youth, since I am above 35. But all the 5 employees are youths, so I am also helping in the promotion of youth employment and youth empowerment. So, for me, this is one of the greatest impacts that we have had. Also, in the community, I don’t want to brag but, is all out there what we have done so far. We work with farmers. We created the first farmers market about a year ago, near Brusubi’s turn table, where we brought together farmers from all over the country in partnership with NEMA and Concern Universal, for them to have that platform which is entirely free. People just emerged and then they started purchasing all kinds of products; vegetables, fruits, even poultry products, rabbits, rams. I mean, it was really interesting and we didn’t charge any fee. To me, that is also another form of impact that we created for the farmers and they really benefited from it. We didn’t charge any fee, they went home with all the money they made. Now it is just because of the corona, why we stopped, but hopefully, after the corona, it’s going to be a weekly event and we are going to have it in different locations.

Jane Gomez: How has your business helped you understand who you are?

Mr. Njie: Also, a very good question. It has really helped me to understand who I am, because it has allowed me to open up and to interact with people. I have been able to learn a lot from people, I have been able to see how to manage my temperament. How to manage my anger in many ways, how to deal with people, how to talk to them. I knew how to talk to them even before, of course; I have been a manager. But still, it has really, really helped me, in a very positive way, to improve on my weaknesses and my weak points.

Jane Gomez: Who is your greatest support system when you are facing some kind of setbacks?

Mr. Njie: That would, naturally, be my wife. She is like my best friend and the biggest supporter. She is also a member of Farm Fresh, she is one of our employees, and she is the head of operations. So, she is my best support system. You know, either behind or beside a successful man, there is a woman, or vice versa (laugh). So, for me, that holds true in my case. She has been very, very supportive. I really have to give her credit for that.

Jane Gomez: What do you do on a daily basis to grow as an entrepreneur?

Mr. Njie: On a daily basis, I am very much active on the social media. I have subscribed to the important articles in tech, in entrepreneurship, so I get alerts in terms of the latest trends and latest technology, in agriculture. Because of corona, things are different. But I used to travel a lot around the world, around Africa, attend a lot of trade fairs, conferences, symposiums and even pitching contents. But definitely, I do follow a lot of trends in my area of work to keep myself up to date all the time.

Jane Gomez: If you are to do this business all over again, what would you do differently?

Mr. Njie: I don’t think I would do anything differently. Probably the only thing I would add to that is, I would have taken more time in terms of planning. Because sometimes you might be really excited to do something, but you really need to plan out the strategy first. Sometimes you are ahead of yourself, because of the passion. As an entrepreneurs, we are always asked to come up with a business plan and I support the idea 100%, because it really helps you a lot in terms of planning out your strategy, your goals and also in the terms of continuity; if you are no longer here, who is going to carry on with the business. If it is not written, it’s going to be very difficult. So, I would say, I would have written down my business plan prior to even launching it. If I would to do it again, that would be the case. Apart from that, I wouldn’t have done anything differently.

Jane Gomez: If you are to name one entrepreneur, who has inspired you in doing business, who would you say is your inspiration as an entrepreneur?

Mr. Njie: I would use the example of Jack Ma, the owner of Ali Baba. Because the way he started, he is a typical or conventional entrepreneur. He really, really worked his way through the ladder, he never had the luxury of getting a proper education like becoming a degree holder. He’s been rejected many times. He applied to Harvard and been rejected, he applied to many other companies. But despite so many rejections, he never gave up and he became successful at an advance age also. He didn’t become successful as the typical Bill Gate, as a teenager millionaire kind of thing. He gave that example, that it is never too late to become successful. Some people, once they crossed a certain age, they are like no, it’s not possible. I am too old for this; I am too old for that. For me, like I said, I am above 35 or above 40; I am probably close to 50 (laugh), but I am still very active in many activities; in terms of tech, in terms of coding and I am not retiring and I am not saying I am going to leave this to the young ones. I am always trying to keep myself up to date and not to see age as a hindrance and to actually see my experience as an added advantage in the field of tech, which is dominated by, of course, the young people. What is also very important thing that I learned from him is, you have to employ the best people, people who probably know the stuff better than you. If you are a programmer or a software developer, hire somebody, who is even more intelligent than you, is better than you. I think, Bill Gate shares the same concept. If you hire people, who are smarter than you, then you would be more successful. But if you want to claim to be the smartest all the time, then that wouldn’t work. Let me just point out the fact that entrepreneurship is not for everyone. I am going to make that very clear, despite all the calls and appeals and promotions for people to get into entrepreneurship, one hundred percent; all the citizens, all youths cannot become. We cannot force people to become entrepreneurs. You need to have that natural passion, to become an entrepreneur. But apart from that, really, the sky is the limit.

Jane Gomez: What are the three mobile apps that make you work effectively?

Mr. Njie: Definitely, I will say Google, if you can call it an app, I can regard it as an app or a platform, because that is where most of our research is done. Then of course Excel. Even though some people have other applications, but I find Excel to be very, very powerful in terms of financials and accounting. And WordPress for web developers, I find it very user friendly. I think those are the main apps.

Jane Gomez: Where do you see your business in the next 5 to 10 years?

Mr. Njie: In the next 5 to 10 years, Insha’Allah, with the blessings of our creator, I am alive and healthy. I really see Farm Fresh in multiple countries beyond Gambia. I don’t know how many, but in multiple countries and well established like the Amazon or the eBay of maybe West Africa or beyond West Africa. That is my dream within the next 5 to 10 years.

Jane Gomez: What is your message to the young entrepreneurs out there or business owners, who are working hard to maintain their business? What message do you have for them?

Mr. Njie: We are doing this interview during the period of the coronavirus pandemic, which has affected almost all businesses. They should never give up and try to be as innovative as possible and to make use of technology. Because this day and age, you cannot run a proper business without using technology. You need to have a website, no matter how simple it is. These people need to have an online presence, you need to have a Facebook page, you need to have a twitter page or Instagram or LinkedIn. So, I would say, all these entrepreneurs that really want to make head way, they need to get on social media. It’s a must. You can succeed in a limited way without social media, but with social media, your chances are unlimited. They need to get online, whatever kind of business they are doing and they need to persevere and never give up and like I said, they need to try to be creative with what they are doing, because of the competition. Try to do things differently, more effectively, efficiently.

Jane Gomez: Thank you very much Mr. Njie, it was a pleasure interviewing you today and as you heard from him, there is a store in Bakau, where you can buy fresh products and also you can contact them, visit their website and order foods or whatever products you want for your families. So come and visit, support and make sure Gambian businesses grow, because one of our intentions is to promote Gambian businesses, As entrepreneurs, there is no limit to what you can do. Thank you very much and it was a great pleasure being here.

Mr. Njie: Thank you as well, it’s been a pleasure and I wish MyGambia all the best of success.

By Jane Gomez

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