Buya Bamba – Not Small Potatoes

Buya Bamba exists for one reason: to connect Zambia’s potato farmers with the people and businesses who need their crops.

Buya Bamba is a company that links farmers to the market. Run by two partners, Anthony Barker and Juri van Zyl, the firm was established in the late nineties to connect Zambian potato farmers with the restaurants and retail outlets that could use their produce. Today it has been going for just over 24 years, providing products for both the formal and informal agricultural sectors, including different seed varieties, packing and handling facilities, and logistics and distribution services.

“We help farmers with logistics, packing, cleaning, and preparing for the market,” says Managing Director, Anthony Barker. “Our unique selling point is providing farmers with access to the market. We let every single consumer, including takeaways, restaurants, corporate restaurants, supermarkets and the end-user access potatoes from the smaller farmers.”

Buya Bamba works closely with farmers to make sure they have the right equipment and that they are getting their product to the end-user. The company has made itself a valuable ally to the farming community – an ally needed in a volatile economy.

“Our biggest challenges are access to finance, access to investment, long-term sustainability and currency volatility,” Barker says. “We are looking for access to finance so that we can offer developments to the industry that it needs, such as a cold storage chain.”

Supporting Farmers

Of course, to provide those farmers with the support and access to the market they need, it is important that Buya Bamba knows its farmers well, and Barker values the relationships the company has built with its suppliers.

“A lot of our farmers have been farming in Zambia for a long time. They understand that investing in Zambia is a challenge in a long-term industry,” he says. “It’s very volatile and reactive to situations. We all understand that in this business sector you can spend a lot of time waiting for the elastic band to catch up with you.”

While he is realistic about the challenges facing the sector, Barker is also hopeful.

“I believe that there’s going to be more stability in times to come, and I think the future looks bright for Zambia at this point,” Barker tells us. “We’ve invested in that future as a company.”

The key, Barker argues, is to show the farmer what is in it for them.

“As in anything, you’ve got to find a return,” he explains. “If you are not doing a good enough job marketing and distributing the crop for the farmer, they don’t have an incentive to work with you. My job responsibility at the end of the day is to ensure there is a supply chain that gets farmers a return and that the percentages and return on their investment are worthwhile.”

Buya Bamba knows that there are many factors beyond its, or its farmers’ control, but it will help those farmers weather the most difficult circumstances.

“We can’t control the mitigating factors that affect economies of scale, but we’ve shown growth every year and we’re making sure the farmer is getting a reasonable return,” says Barker. “The way we have done that is to make sure we are getting the right quality of crops. We’re working with the right companies and have access to the right information to make sure there’s a sustainable chain of supply.”

Buya Bamba is able to give growers great opportunities. The company has found a market where it can show people what return it thinks farmers can get and has delivered that return reliably over the years. This is essential, as Buya Bamba knows its farmers rely on that return.

“If you need to live day by day and you don’t have a large customer base, you need to sell enough to get food on the table, and then you need those customers to come tomorrow and buy another,” Barker points out. “Our model makes sure that those customers can come tomorrow and buy more, that farmers can rely on that, and we believe we provide this for our consumer base. So, from our point of view, we have taken the industry into a stable place in Africa. We’ve made a real difference.”

Buya Bamba has opened up the market and made it accessible for all farmers while ensuring their product is readily available to consumers. The company has kept its supply in line with demand and population growth while keeping the confidence of producers.

“We have a market, we’re growing the market, and we are a long-term, sustainable option,” says Barker. “We have the right plants, the right harvest, the right cold storage. We make sure we have stored products for the offseason. We have got a market for the whole industry.”

A Chip Off the Old Block

While Buya Bamba has made a name for itself ensuring a sustainable supply of potatoes on which its farmers receive a good return until now it has neglected the value-added side of the business. However, recently, this has all changed with the construction of a US$ 7 million chip factory in Zambia.

Establishing funding for the facility has been a challenge, due to a common reluctance to invest in Zambia, but Buya Bamba’s persistence is paying off.

“Unfortunately, in Zambia, we’ve struggled due to the reluctance to put money into Zambia,” Barker acknowledges. “Nevertheless, we have got partners involved in the French fry factory at a cost of 7 million USD, but the reason we built it is we have a readily available supply of raw materials to keep the factory sustainable, rather than transporting them to Europe or further afield. The products, and the business, stays in Zambia.”

As well as adding value for the company, Barker also hopes the new facility will bring down imports.

“We have the raw material to make the factory sustainable. For fast-food chains, chips are often imported into Zambia from South Africa or Belgium. We’re a landlocked country and there are issues around congestion,” Barker explains. “Chicken and chip franchises are doing well here. There is a huge demand for fast food; we’re finding, due to migration and population growth, people are picking up fast food when they cannot get home on time to make a meal. Frozen chips are net-imported into Zambia, but we can support those businesses. Fast food is going to be quite a big move in Africa going forward.”

Potatoes are not the only valuable resource that Zambia has going for it, however.

“The people in Zambia are amazing,” Barker insists. “They’re really a very hard-working culture, and I’m very proud to work with them. I am Zambian myself and I am very proud to work with the Zambian people. We are providing options for people to buy and sell potatoes, providing for all walks of life. I love Zambia and will continue to invest here- this is my home.”

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