In the Enviu Insights series, we interview Arpana Philip, a venture builder in Enviu East Africa, to share her learnings building our award-winning venture, SokoFresh.
Two years ago, Arpana Philip, Enviu East Africa’s venture builder, was sitting at one of our partner sites in Kenya, worriedly staring at two tonnes of freshly-harvested mangoes. A buyer just rejected the entire batch of mangoes. She was perplexed. SokoFresh, an Enviu venture that Arpana and her colleagues have built, had promised a few mango farmers to find a profitable market or buyer for their mangoes, sans a broker or unstable rates. After all, reducing post-harvest loss and creating an equitable food system in East Africa is the fundamental proposition of SokoFresh. Considering this, she was anxious. “You see, that was our first ‘mango’ trial for market linkage solution under SokoFresh,” Arpana recalls.
It forced her to look for new markets. And it worked. “We sold all mangoes quickly, and onboarded new clients as well,” she says.
“In my experience, in entrepreneurship and venture building, there are opportunities even in failures. It appears at the right time and seems to have come out of nowhere. I call it, ‘the magic of venture building.’”
When she joined Enviu in October 2019, Arpana had a different idea about entrepreneurship. “I had never witnessed a venture’s entire journey before. I did not have a comprehensive awareness of fundraising or project management. I did not know enough about lean methodology, which is the DNA of Enviu ventures,” reflects Arpana.
Today, she leads Enviu’s venture-building work in the food system. When she first joined, her first venture was supporting the growth of Taimba, connecting farmer produce to mama mbogas (female retailers who sell fresh fruits and vegetables) directly. She later led the building of the market linkage solution for SokoFresh.
Two factors, she says, contributed to her learnings thus far: Boots on the ground, and hypothesize, iterate and fail or pivot quickly.
‘Get out of the building with your business assumptions’
With innovation and tech at the core, Arpana and her team designed a digital platform for SokoFresh that equips smallholder farmers to sell their produce directly to wholesale buyers, view the prices, and track their transactions. This ensures they do not have to rely on brokers, and enables them to negotiate better prices.
However, the actual work (read challenge) had just begun for the team. The initial structure of the digital platform necessitated the farmers to use the platform. She went to mango and avocado farms, assuming that at least 80% of farmers use smartphones. However, it turned out that only 1% of farmers surveyed had a smartphone, she says. Validating that core assumption of the business model took only five minutes; but it helped the company pivot its business model. This is the dynamic nature of venture building!
“Some experiments can be as quick as five minutes. Getting out in the field validates such assumptions, especially when designing a tech product for farmers, who have relied on traditional transaction methods, and use smartphones only for social interaction. When the client interacts with the product, we can identify the gaps, redesign it, and make it a sustainable solution,” she shares.
Engaging in the initial interviews, issue analysis, and building the ecosystems and solutions is a vital lesson that Arpana religiously follows.
For Taimba, she spent a day with mama mbogas to understand how many clients they cater to, when they start their day, and when they eat. Even during the COVID-19 lockdown, Arpana continued to interact with the farmers while taking all necessary precautions.
“For me, understanding the customer profile is critical to designing products they desire. And having boots on the ground is the Enviu way of building ventures from the ground up. It helps understand the various processes at farms, the fears and risks for farmers, the working capital to complete the transaction, and the logistics, including the crates to transport the produce,” she adds.
Arpana’s continuous trips to the farms and speaking to farmers helped her continuously experiment and design a product that enables farmers to increase their income and prevent post-harvest food loss. “It took us a year to realize that combining two products — cold storage facility and online market linkage platform — is a powerful value proposition to farmers,” she says.
Hypothesize but fail fast, iterate quickly and pivot
Arpana hypothesized a ‘hands-off’ approach to validate the concept of running operations remotely: “What if we can have people on the ground to do all the work themselves, while we supported them with guidance on the phone?,” Arpana says.
The team piloted this approach in the early days of piloting SokoFesh, at a site 100-200 kilometers from the city. The team stayed back in the office, while they instructed a trusted community leader to deliver mangoes of the right quality.
“He managed it well. It was a profitable two-day exercise. However, the hands-off approach worked only for sourcing mangoes for the local retail market. We learnt that certain parts of the business model could be operated in a very lean way,” she says.
She reckons that a hands-off approach for other parts of the business would be unsustainable in the short term. It warrants handholding as the industry, farmers, and buyers were not ready for a digital platform. It required a staged approach.
The team applied a key principle of lean learning: fail fast and pivot to another approach. After two short pilots, they pivoted to an approach that was more customer-centric, that is, face-to-face interactions, which got good traction. The team ramped up the operations.
“With lean methodology, venture builders like me can build strong ventures quickly and cost-effectively,” assures Arpana.
If you see an opportunity to collaborate with us on our FoodFlow program, you can connect with Arpana at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Enviu Insights is a series where our venture builders and program managers share their venture-building experiences, learnings, and how they validated their business ideas using Enviu methodologies.