How a 17-year-old started a poultry business in the slums of Dar es Salaam
Sirjeff Dennis was five when he witnessed a neighbour lose her seven-month-old son. Living in the slums of Tanzania’s capital city Dar es Salaam, the mother had spent much of her pregnancy hungry and her son was born underweight and too weak to survive his first year.
His death hit Dennis hard and created a deep passion for fighting hunger. At age 17 he started a poultry business, Jefren Agrifriend Solutions (JAS), to supply his community with affordable chicken meat and eggs. Four years later the company is producing 2,000 chickens a month and has caught the attention of the Anzisha Prize, Africa’s premier award for young entrepreneurs. Last year Dennis was named one of its 12 finalists.
But how did he get to where he is today?
Saving while others were spending
After completing high school, Dennis joined Tanzania’s compulsory national service for three months of training. “We were given around $20 per month and other people would buy clothes, food and other stuff. But I was saving the money,” he explained.
At the end of his service, he returned with $60 and bought 50 broiler chickens, which he kept in a coop he built in his yard. He had already learnt how to raise them from previously working for a local poultry farm.
Dennis had also done well in school, and managed to get a loan to study science and petroleum chemistry at the University of Dar es Salaam. The Tanzanian government was investing in developing specialised technicians after gas reserves were discovered in the country, and the loan was meant to cover the cost of studying, as well as food and basic living expenses.
But Dennis had other plans. “I was eating bread with water through breakfast, lunch and supper just to save my money so I could inject it into my company,” he recalls. “I was trying to use minimal amounts, maybe only $15 a month.”
He also reinvested profits back into the business, and it wasn’t long before he diversified his offering. He bought some layers for egg production and started selling chicken manure as fertiliser to local farmers. He later began farming vegetables, producing around 400kgs per week, and has recently branched out into maize and rice production.
And last year he managed to buy six acres of land which he plans to use to expand his poultry business.
Dennis sells his chicken broilers and eggs to informal traders who supply the community, and he estimates his produce is almost 50 percent cheaper than his competitors’.
One of the ways he has been able to do this is through reducing the price of chicken feed, which he says makes up around 90 percent of total production costs. He managed to get in contact with an agricultural laboratory in Kenya, which provided him with a formula for chicken feed that he could produce locally.
“It was almost half the price of buying feed from manufacturers. So I found my cost of production was very low and I could sell my products at lower prices and still make profit.”
His happiest moment came when he was approached by a husband and wife who said they used to go a year without eating chicken meat before Dennis started his business. Now they can have chicken meat much more frequently, says Dennis.
“To have people older than my parents thank me for this gave me inspiration to continue. It was my happiest moment.”
Be accountable to yourself
It has not all been smooth sailing. When Dennis was 18 he had to leave his chicken business in the hands of a young employee while he studied. The employee was provided with money to buy medication for 500 chicks, but instead spent it on himself and left the chickens unattended. By the time Dennis returned, all the chickens were dead.
“It was a very, very painful moment and I lost all the money that I had invested. I was left with just a small amount and I had to start all over again with 100 chickens.”
Dennis said he has now learnt how important it is to develop a team he can trust. “But, at the same time, you should make your team feel like your project is theirs too. I was actually not giving [my employees] a lot of money… When I employed the next team, I gave them a place to sleep in the house and was responsible for their meals. I also paid them a fair salary.”
One of the reasons he believes he’s been successful is because he has taken his future into his own hands.
“I own me, and so whatever happens I only have myself to blame. I don’t like complaining that the government is not doing enough or I came from a poor background and have to live a certain way. No, I own me. I am the person who is responsible to change everything for me. So I think it is all within my hands and I don’t depend on anyone else.”
He advised other young Africans to consider farming as a career, not just because it’s important for the continent’s food security and solving unemployment, but because it can also be a profitable business.
“I want to change the mindset that agriculture is only for those that do not have an education – because it is not. Agriculture is for anyone.”
5 minutes with... Janthana Kaenprakhamroy, CEO, Tapoly
Founder and CEO of award-winning insurtech firm Tapoly, Janthana Kaenprakhamroy heads up Europe’s first on-demand insurance platform for the gig economy, winning industry awards, innovating in the digital insurance space, and leading with inclusivity.
Here, Business Chief talks to Janthana about her leadership style and skills.
What do you do, in a nutshell?
I’m founder and CEO of Tapoly, a digital MGA providing a full stack of commercial lines insurance specifically for SMEs and freelancers, as well as a SaaS solution to connect insurers with their distribution partners. We build bespoke, end-to-end platforms encompassing the whole customer journey, but can also integrate our APIs within existing systems. We were proud to win Insurance Provider of the Year at the British Small Business Awards 2018 and receive silver in the Insurtech category at the Efma & Accenture Innovation in Insurance Awards 2019.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I try to be as inclusive a leader as possible. I’m committed to creating space for everyone to shine. Many of the roles at Tapoly are performed by women and I speak at industry events to encourage more people to get involved in insurance/insurtech. Similarly, I always try to maintain a growth mindset. I think it’s important to retain values to support learning and development, like reliability, working hard and punctuality.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
Build your network and seek advice. As a leader, you need smart people around you to help you grow your business. It’s not about personally being the best, but being able to find resources and get help where needed.
How do you see leadership changing in a COVID world?
I think the pandemic has proven the importance of inclusive leadership so that everyone feels supported and valued. It’s also shown the importance of being flexible as a leader. We’ve had to remain adaptable to continue delivering high levels of customer service. This flexibility has also been important when supporting employees as everyone has had individual pressures to deal with during this time. Leaders should continue to embed this flexibility within their organisations moving forward.
They say ‘from every crisis comes opportunity’, what opportunities do you see?
The past year has been challenging, but it has also proven the importance of digital transformation in insurance. When working from home was required, it was much harder for insurers to adjust who had not embedded technology within their operating processes because they did not have data stored in the cloud and it caused communication delays with concerned customers at a time when this communication should have been a priority, which ultimately impacts the level of customer satisfaction. This demonstrates the importance of what we are trying to achieve at Tapoly in driving digitalisation in insurance and making communication between insurers and distribution partners seamless.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
Start sooner, don’t be afraid to take (calculated) risks and make sure you raise enough money to get you through the initial seed stage.