Retailing into the farming industry is more than just meeting the items on a shopping list. Beyond all other industries, agriculture accounts for almost a quarter (23%) of formal employment in Zimbabwe and is one of the most important sectors in the country, not only because it feeds her people but because it contributes to around 18% of the gross domestic product in the country and employees 80% of the population.
Farm and City is a house hold name in Zimbabwe, operating from 38 stores and headquartered in Harare and with a history of operation stretching back to 1908, the company has built its reputation via feeding the growth of the agricultural sector for as long as anyone alive can remember. Known as the one stop store for farmers and those working in the industry, this wholesale outlet sells everything from implements to seed, chemicals, fertilisers, tools and even veterinary products, animal feeds, protective clothing, fencing and building. Farmers, like everyone else go shopping with a list of things they need and this company has grown via knowing what will be on that list and making sure they have it.
Recently appointed managing director Chris Arima said during a recent interview, that there is an urgent need to instil professional attitudes throughout the sector and to educate farmers to be entrepreneurs and strategic thinkers, “Farming is a business and should be approached as such. In business, unlike a hobby, you need to know what you need and more importantly know how to make it work for your business not only to sustain but to grow.”
WHAT MAKES FARM AND CITY SPECIAL
Accountability and awareness is what makes Farm and City special. One of the greatest challenges that farmers face is finding the best ways to maximise the yields from the seed they are using. Not all seed is sewn or sold equally and while other retailers such as hardware stores, food outlets and general retailers may sell seed, they have no way of controlling or monitoring the standard of their products. Farmers on the other hand have come to rely on Farm and City as the quality of their seed speaks for itself. This is due, firstly, to their vigorous education of farmers to help them understand the importance of accounting for where the seed is going to be grown, what kind of soil is available, what climate conditions will affect the growth and what diseases are endemic locally. Secondly, Farm and City take a one-stop shop approach for their customers, dealing with people all along the value chain from the seed suppliers and fertilisers to the crop-chemical manufacturers and the end user.
This in turn allows them to create a philosophy of understanding through the industry that it isn’t about finding the right seed for the farmer but rather about educating the farmer in how to make the best out of the seed they have. The realisation that farming is not as straightforward as simply planting and harvesting is the first step to being better at it and this is one of the factors that Farm and City have applied to their outlets.
“It isn’t just enough to sell the seed or the equipment,” says Amira, “You have to make sure that the customer knows not only what they want but what they need to get the best crops.”
And to do this you need well trained staff behind the till and in the aisles.
STAFFING AND EDUCATION
The Zimbabwean business landscape has undergone several changes over the last three decades, with businesses being expected to do more with less. The agricultural sector has not been immune to this and on the same note has the added problem of a shortage of experience and skill.
To counteract this state of the industry, Farm and City ensure that their staff are not only trained in the use of their equipment and products, but are also well versed in the rigours and requirements of the agricultural sector, which is often more scientific and timely than any other industry and certainly more costly when skills are not correctly applied.
A staff policy including on-going development, training and education has cemented the company’s position as an important part in every farming business not only as a source for products but more importantly, as a source for advice and know-how, something altogether more valuable.
“However you look at it, we are in retail,” he says, “Not only of products like equipment and seeds, but of understand and experience.”
WORKING WITH THE BEST
To be the best you have to work with the best and this is why Farm and City are very careful with who they put their trust and time into. They work with the innovative businesses who have been responsible for hybridising maize seed commercially and creating the most effective methodology and machinery to farm with and the most influential methods. A role that Farm and City has embarked on is to be an interface with the farmers allowing partnerships between the stakeholders, public and private.
There is a lot that needs to be accomplished. Seed companies do a great job of seed testing and quality control and bring technical advice to the ‘last mile’ of the supply chain, but there is more that could be done. With this in mind Farm and City’s co-operative ethic is impartial and has offered space to Agritex extension services and Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union in their stores to provide advice to the end users without pushing any particular product or brand.
Amira explains that the important thing is to increase the amount of training and advice available to farmers in upcountry areas, “Ours is a strictly B2B model. Farmers are business owners and entrepreneurs, not simply consumers, and specialists too because farming is a scientific process. As long as our customers do well, this is what counts!”
He goes on to explain that a more effective strategy would be to put all the effort into a smaller space, using the best seed, fertiliser, weed and pest control to realise its full potential. This may fly in the face of conventional thinking but it does make for sound business.
In a nutshell, farmers need to be take measures to worker smarter and not just harder and increase their hectarage over time, as much as their resources permit. The focus from the country’s agricultural authorities on mechanisation and irrigation actually will support this strategy in terms of both working smart and trying to alleviate climatic challenges.
These same ideas can apply to the farming of cattle and other livestock as there is an equal need to upgrade the skills of the cattle farmers and make them more productive, but to do that they need access to advice, support and appropriate veterinary products, feeds and supplements.
It is understood that on the veterinary side, people are more open to information and the vets are doing a good job in forming relationships with the farmers and getting the information to them but there is still a need to focus on husbandry and pasturage and planning ahead.
Farming in regular, reliable weather patterns is easier and this was once the case in Zimbabwe but now the weather patterns are becoming erratic at best, the healthy farming of crops and livestock is becoming an ever-increasing challenge.
In line with the scientific approach Farm & City is advocating for its customers, the company is moving to become a knowledge-based operation. Farm and City brought in an Indian specialist company, ITree Dynamics, to implement new business intelligence platforms that will equip them for the future.
Knowledge is power and the idea is to capture transaction data and determine the buying patterns of the customers to be in a better position to aptly meet those items on those shopping lists.
The investment will be good for Farm and City’s stock control and capital management too, as it will enable inventory levels to be cut and a more flexible approach to ordering and fulfilment. It is an essential preparation phase for another strategy too; a move towards online trading.
Ultimately, Farm and City see themselves as more than just a shop; they are a resource to their customers as crucial and irreplaceable as their land, their tools and their seeds.