8 June 2016 /
Widely known in Rwanda as “Madame Poulet du Singapur” (Chicken Madam from Singapore), we recently met with Shumei Lam to talk about how a determined Millennial with no farming experience was able to set up a poultry farming social enterprise based in Bugesera, Rwanda.
Ms Lam first visited Rwanda while on a business trip with her father in 2011. She was surprised to learn that poultry was the most expensive meat on the market, selling at over 3000 Rwandan Francs (RWF) or £2.70 per kilogramme. The average net hourly wage in Rwanda is approximately RWF 450, making chicken a real luxury at this price.
The following year, Ms Lam returned to Rwanda to set up Poultry East Africa Ltd (PEAL). As its Managing Director, her primary goal is to improve food nutrition in Rwanda and the neighbouring countries by providing affordable and accessible meat proteins to its growing population while making a positive social impact. Through PEAL’s operations, she has created an integrated network of local farmers and employs local Rwandans, equipping them with the skills and best practices from industry leaders in Netherlands, South Africa and Singapore.
You can watch Ms Lam’s story to learn more about PEAL. Meanwhile here is what she had to say about her influences and why Millennials feel empowered to make a positive impact.
Was there a particular moment which motivated you to set up PEAL?
To be honest, I think it started as a joke between my father and his African Business Development Director in 2011. Those two had such a great rapport and were always discussing new venture opportunities. Dad knew he could never force or influence me to do anything I didn’t want to, so he just kept copying me into random business banter emails hoping that something would interest me. This particular one was about the opportunity to supply quality feed to support the growth of the livestock industry in Rwanda. It was also just after my first visit there and I had been bitten by the “Africa bug”, so I was trying to find a way to go back to do something.
Dad wanted it to be a social project from the beginning. He understood the challenges associated with Rwanda being a landlocked country and the numerous logistics issues, which trickled down to the food supply chain. The lack of quality chicken feed meant that it was not feasible for small scale producers to farm chickens economically and therefore chicken meat was the most expensive meat in the market. We then identified an opportunity to supply affordable and accessible meat proteins to a growing population.
How influential was your father’s business on your own enterprise? Did he impart any words of wisdom that really helped?
Dad is a big picture guy, so he gave me plenty of advice. One of his key philosophies in running a successful business is “understanding the ‘pains’ of your customers”. When you can speak in their language and hit the core of their business struggles, then you’ve got a sure sale. In this context, in my first attempt at sales, I went door-to-door visiting hotels, restaurants and supermarkets, and pitched to them about the importance of having a consistent supply of quality chicken, which I knew was the crux of their issues in hospitality and retail.
Is it important for you to give something back to the Rwandan community as part of your business?
My father had done business in most parts of the world, but he felt most compelled to send me to Rwanda, probably because it was the safest, cleanest and least corrupt country out of all the frontier markets he was used to doing business in. The Rwandans have been through so much strife and struggle and yet have managed to emerge.
At Sandaire we are witnessing growing interest from Millennials in sustainable and impact investing. What do you think is the main driver?
In very traditional Asian family business cultures, those who are deemed least competent are normally relegated to run the family office or dabble in philanthropy. In mature Western multi-generational businesses, you often find non-family professionals running the operations. Or in both cases, perhaps the patriarch simply doesn’t want to relinquish power and allow the next generation to take over. These drivers can leave Millennials in family businesses without a formal role but then again, with the option to do so many other things! I believe ours is a better informed generation with social media and overall ethical awareness and therefore we feel a greater sense of empowerment for change!
What’s next for you and PEAL? Would you consider expanding to any further commodities in the future?
PEAL has been in full operation for a year and a half now. We plan to double our capacity by the end of 2016, and by the end of 2017, venture up and down the value chain.
Food security continues to be the priority area for the Rwandan government, and alongside this, we are presented by a wealth of investment opportunities in the primary, secondary and even tertiary sectors.
As the country is limited by landmass and ownership fragmentation, the country still has to import the majority of its livestock crops like maize and soya. This puts commercial farmers like PEAL in a vulnerable position. Therefore, our next logical step would be to become more self-reliant by growing our own feed crops. This will help to alleviate seasonal pricing volatility, and also help to reduce the overall cost of feed for small-scale farmers we support.
Besides PEAL, I may have been convinced to set up a small East African impact fund, targeting small and medium-sized enterprises in their growth stages, to harness my experience and network in the region, and also provide other like minded investors access to the market.
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