Bihaicha is not afraid of hard work.
During the day, the mid-thirties co-owns a dairy farm in the Comoros, at night she throws herself into the spice trade. With two employees she founded the Natura farm in the highlands of La Grande Comore, the main island of the Comoros archipelago.
Ever since she was a little girl, she wanted to own a farm. This dream has pushed her to pursue her passion despite the many obstacles involved in starting a business.
The layers of the country
It takes good tires and an intrepid spirit to enter the dairy farm. The farm is situated on a rocky plot typical of Comoros’ volcanic landscape, an hour outside of Moroni, the capital. The road leading to the farm has been cleared but is betrayed by the rough terrain of black boulders.
The farm consists of three simple buildings, all of which hold the promise of a successful dairy farm. First, the processing unit that will soon turn milk into silky yoghurt or fatty butter. The other two contain their most valuable asset: cattle.
The farm currently has 6 cows, 2 calves and a bull. It produces small batches of milk that are sold to local customers. Since launching their project in 2019, the three young business partners have had a series of struggles to navigate. Between COVID-19, cattle diseases, delayed milk production and the loss of a bull, they persevered.
“Even though it’s hard, I love what I do, so I don’t see why I should change anything,” says Bihaicha. “I know if I gave up now, I would always go back to that dream.”
New entrepreneurs are known to face some difficult years at the beginning of their business. If sometimes even the country itself turns against them, where can they find support during those challenging early years?
A Lending Hand
This is a question that the Executive Director of the Mutuelle d’épargne et de crédit ya Komor – Moroni (MECK – Moroni), Laila Said Hassane, has pondered. She runs a microfinance institution in Comoros that promotes sustainable and accessible financial services, especially for women and young people.
“In recent years we have been frustrated by the lack of visible impact of the microfinance that MECK provided,” says Said Hassane. “We decided to set up a special support program for young entrepreneurs.” The program focused specifically on growing agricultural processing companies such as Natura Farm.
This is how Bihaicha and her staff benefited from this program. With degrees in crop technology, livestock and management, they are a multidisciplinary trio and have a solid business plan.
They received 120,000 euros in loans to start their business, of which they used 10,000 euros to buy the land where the farm is located. €80,000 was used to import cattle from mainland Africa, buy equipment and fund the construction of the farm’s main buildings.
The Enhanced Integrated Framework offered MECK-Moroni a security of €30,000 to bear the risk of the investment. This type of blended funding is a catalyst for aspiring business owners like Bihaicha. Blended finance is a way of using public funds to increase private investment in sustainable development.
Landowners will commission the construction of buildings and transport cattle across borders. All of this is necessary to get the business off the ground, but it requires capital. The trio would not have been able to build their business on their own given the liquidity required.
MECK-Moroni also uses an Islamic financial model, which means that loan repayments only begin after the company has started production.
This has proved essential at a time like the pandemic when they were unable to import cows from Kenya due to closed borders. Instead, the young entrepreneurs focused on constructing the various buildings their business needed, such as a pen for the cows or a room to house the processing equipment.
air to success
Access to finance is the most frequently cited obstacle entrepreneurs face. Access to seed funding, or funding to scale a business, is critical to fueling the growth of a small business.
The knowledge that they have solid financing behind them allows young entrepreneurs to cope with the small setbacks that are unavoidable when starting a business and gives them the freedom they need to persevere.
For microfinance institutions like MECK-Moroni, blended finance allows them to not bear the investment risk alone and gives them the opportunity to invest in ambitious entrepreneurs.
Bihaicha is not afraid of hard work. This support has fueled her dream of living off a farm. She has all sorts of plans. She has started installing beehives on her land and planting attractive flowers to lure delicious honey from the bees.
“The plan is to start converting milk into dairy products in the next five years,” says Bihaicha. “We have this idea of mobilizing the neighboring milk producers into a cooperative so that they can sell us their milk and we convert it.”
Harnessing the local market is exactly the idea Said Hassane had in mind when developing this program: “There is a greater demand for local products such as milk than the supply allows, which has negative implications for food security and entrepreneurship.”
New businesses need credit on the best terms, they need to be backed by encouraging financial institutions that have economic, but also social and developmental considerations in mind.
“Here at MECK-Moroni, development motivates us,” says Said Hassane, “we want to support local people”
It’s just the kind of help hardworking young people need to pursue their dreams, wean themselves off foreign imports and celebrate the trading potential of land that, with a little help, can make milk and honey flow…