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As a young mother, Mary Shikukutu was keen to feed her children organic, traditional foods. Most of the time, she had to travel to her rural home from Windhoek to source some of the foods, such as mahangu (pearl millet). But the payoff, she says, was always worth it because, every time she took her children to a check-up clinic, the feedback was always great.

The challenges she faced when sourcing organic food for her children sparked in her a passion to bring a beloved staple food back to most Namibian homes. About 15 years ago, Mary opened a mahangu flour (pearl millet) milling plant in the capital city.

Striking while the iron is hot

“I saw a gap in the market because people’s needs were not being met. I decided to take advantage and plug this gap,” says Mary.

Millet is a staple in many African diets, driven by its nutritional value, climate resilience, and versatility in various culinary applications. There are different types of millet, and the most common in Namibia is pearl millet.

Plant that keeps giving

The mahangu plant is versatile in that it is used as food for humans and fodder for animals. It is processed into flour, porridge, and a daily-consumed fermented acidic drink referred to locally as oshikundu. It is also popular as a baby food. More than 60 percent of the Namibian population consumes mahangu flour and other mahangu products.

Determined to revive this staple, Mary started a milling business in 2008. Her company, NT Okawa, which is situated at Bokamoso Centre, quickly became the second-largest player in the Namibia market (particularly in Windhoek) after Namib Mills.

Like many entrepreneurs in the millet industry, Mary’s journey was not without challenges. Sourcing produce proved difficult, given that most farmers only grow enough for their own consumption. To overcome this and keep her mill running, she has had to move far and wide to ensure that her brand is never lacking in retail stores. The farmers are based in the Oshikoto, Ohangwena, and Zambezi regions.

Entrepreneurs in the millet industry also have to contend with limited access to modern agricultural practices, and unpredictable weather conditions, which hinder consistent and efficient millet production. Additionally, the lack of sufficient financial support and market access poses obstacles for entrepreneurs looking to scale their ventures.

Facing challenges head-on

Throughout her remarkable journey, Mary has faced gender barriers and biases.  As a female entrepreneur in a male dominated industry, Mary has had to work tirelessly to prove her capabilities and break through these obstacles.

“I have met many people who appreciate my work and the positive impact I am making on the community. Despite running a business in a male-dominated industry, the excitement of what is to come and what I can achieve keeps me motivated,” she says.

Her challenges notwithstanding, Mary reflects on the success of her business. one of her biggest achievements has been a short course she undertook at Cape Peninsula University and Technology.

“My greatest achievement is undertaking a course in indigenous product research and development. Thanks to the training, I managed to add value and shelf life to one of our products,” she says.

For the longest time, her biggest supply of millet was from India, which is the largest producer of pearl millet. But the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, and the attendant travel restrictions and border closures, presented one of the most significant challenges she has encountered to date.

Daring and resourceful

To ensure a constant supply of grain, Mary started growing her own crop in 2012 on a 20-hectare farm in her home village in the Oshana region. She later expanded the farm by 15 hectares.

“This ensured that my mill always had enough grain to process and guaranteed a steady supply of our products in the market,” she says.

There is a growing recognition of millet’s economic and nutritional importance, leading to increased efforts to address the impediments faced by farmers and entrepreneurs.

The government of Namibia has laid down stringent measures for the growing and marketing of pearl millet. No processed grains are permitted for import, and all milling is done locally. Genetically modified grains are prohibited, and milling is regulated by the Namibia Agronomic Board, which is also responsible for quality standards.

Mary’s passion and dedication to supplying quality and affordable products have paid off big time.

Light at the end of the tunnel

And her dream of ensuring mahangu remains an easily accessible and affordable food option in many more homes is on course. Mary now has a grand plan to build a multi-functional processing factory with a modern milling plant and a traditional drink pilot plant.

She also plans on building warehousing facilities to allow her to buy raw materials in bulk. This is in line with her objective of growing her market penetration by ensuring her products are available at large-scale retail outlets such as Shoprite, Metro, and Agra.

BPI’s support propels Mary’s business forward

To make her vision of building a factory a reality, Mary approached Business Partners International Namibia (BPI Namibia), which is committed to supporting entrepreneurial growth by providing access to finance, mentorship, and technical assistance.

“I had the opportunity to learn and interact with the BPI team at an entrepreneur’s forum organised at an incubation centre in Windhoek. BPI was making a presentation, and afterwards, I connected with them, and our relationship has been good ever since,” she says.

Recognising her potential, BPI provided tailored financing to realise Mary’s dream. With BPI’s expert guidance, she not only secured an Industrial plot for her future expansion but invested in state of the art Hammer Mills, currently enhancing her production capabilities in her business.

A mixed bag of goodies

Through their mentorship and technical support offerings, BPI ensures that their clients have access to expert consultants to help them navigate many of the challenges they may face in their business journey and close the skills gap that may exist within their business.

BPI provides private debt and equity financing to small and medium-sized business owners in East and Southern Africa. The company understands that each business is unique, which is one of the attributes that sets it apart from conventional banks. BPI distinguishes itself by understanding the uniqueness of each business and customising financial solutions to suit each business.

Seizing the opportunity

As highlighted in a forecast report prepared by the Namibian Agronomic Board on pearl millet production covering the 2021–2022 harvest season, showed a decline in tonnage harvested and acreage under millet production.

The preliminary report estimated millet production for the 2021 harvesting season at 81,400 tons, which was about 10 percent lower than the previous season’s harvest of 90,800 tons.

The report further showed that only four percent of the harvest would be taken up for commercial purposes, with 96 percent being used for subsistence purposes.

This data points to a sustained opportunity for entrepreneurs to commercially grow and sell pearl millet products. Such projections mean Mary’s business will not only continue growing but will also be profitable for a long time.

Through the financing, training, and collaboration provided by BPI Namibia, Mary is not only able to realise her dream but also create employment opportunities from farms to factories. This, in turn, contributes to the economic growth of Namibia and enhances household incomes for many families across the country. She is also supporting local farmers by purchasing grain from farmers with surplus millet. Mary also helps by making pearl millet readily available at an affordable rate in Namibia.

Nurturing Generations

Interestingly, one of the children who inspired Mary to start her milling company has come of age. To ensure longevity to her business, Mary has, for the last three years, been grooming her daughter, Mickey Puye-Ipawa Shikukutu, to take over NT Okawa, instilling in her the same values of hard work and dedication. This succession plan will ensure the continuity of her legacy and preservation of mahangu as a culinary and cultural cornerstone in Namibia.

About the Author: BPI Admin