One of the often-touted benefits of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is that it will expose businesses to a consumer population of 1.2 billion. However, the question that continues to linger on the minds of business analysts is whether small and medium-sized businesses on the continent have positioned themselves well enough to take advantage of it.
Angolan entrepreneur Mario Mendes believes he has the capacity to take advantage of the AfCFTA initiative. He is the founder of Frutos da Lagoa Limited, a large fish farm in Angola’s northwest.
At least 52 countries have signed the AfCFTA framework agreement while some 22 countries, including Angola, have ratified it. But Mendes believes that if Angolan businesses are to benefit more than any other country, the country needs to improve its business environment.
More about this
“The implementation of the AfCFTA must be coupled with drastic institutional changes to improve business conditions and local market competitiveness,” he told the UN. “However, I am hopeful the AfCFTA will drive the Angolan government to urgently implement much-needed market reforms.”
Mendes established Frutos da Lagoa Limited in 2019. The company manages a fish in Angola and has the capacity to produce 500 tonnes of catfish a year. According to him, his goal is to become a hub for the processing of all types of fish in Angola and beyond, depending on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) distribution capacity.
Mendes started his catfish business on a piece of land owned by his parents. He confesses to having no knowledge of fish farming but believed in his adventurous instinct to start an agribusiness. His prior career experience was in oil and gas.
So far, Mendes has invested $500,000 in his business and operates a business model that is quite not the usual in Africa and the world at large. He purposefully chose only women smallholder farmers for his business. According to him, the move is to solidify the company’s Gender equity value.
“In Angola, women have always played an active role in the agricultural sector. Men tend to look for jobs in urban areas. On the other hand, women are also adept traders selling their products in the informal markets,” he said. It was tough when he first started working with the women in the rural communities as many thought his price was too high and would not buy his fish. So he had to build trust. But at the end of the day, he learned some lessons. “First, earn people’s trust. We must be able to level with the people we are working with or trying to help. Learn from them. Only then should we try to implement our programs,” he said.
Mendes currently runs an outreach program that provides smallholder farmers with training, fingerlings and feeds to grow their own fish. Due to market price variations in the fish industry, Mendes ensures his company guarantees a buyback of grown fish according to an agreed quality standard. In addition, he has partnered with a financial institution to make loans available to small farmers.
Since he started fish farming in the Caxito area of Angola, Mendes said one of the things he has learned is “empathy as a skill.” He explained that before he started fish farming in rural Angola, he didn’t know about the difficulties people face in rural areas.
Just like other entrepreneurs, one of the challenges confronting him is the coronavirus pandemic. His challenge is keeping acceptable production while keeping his workers safe from the pandemic.
“As one of the few large-scale fish farms here, I worry about all aspects of my supply chain. In a market like ours, it is always a chicken or egg paradox. If there is no business, there are no suppliers; if there are no suppliers, it is hard to sustain a business,” he said.