SARO Agro Industrial is a forward-thinking Zambian agricultural company, committed to building for the future. EBA spoke to founder Ashok Oza about overcoming adversity and continuing to invest in the country’s small-scale farmers
Now one of the foremost suppliers of farming machinery to the small-scale, emerging and commercial farming sectors, with an estimated turnover of ZK 20 million, the SARO Group was founded in the mid-1980s by brothers Ashok and Sharat Oza, who are still at the helm as managing director and director, respectively.
With a background in economics, Ashok Oza understands the necessity of investing in research, development and better infrastructure to respond to the industry’s changing needs.
Putting people at the centre
Although The World Bank recently set aside US$255 million to invest in Zambia’s agricultural sector, Mr Oza isn’t one to get bogged down in large-scale financing. “It’s too macro for me!” he laughs. “It’s got to open up farm blocks, provide roads and electricity, irrigation dams. If you take all that into account, it may not feel like much money.”
Mr Oza prefers to be involved on a much more personal scale. “Charity begins at home,” he says, referring to his commitment to keeping on as many employees as possible during a downturn in the agricultural industry. “Farms employ a lot of people. SARO employs up to 300 people. Our major concern is to look after the welfare of these people and maintain their jobs given the downturn that we’ve experienced over the last two years. That in itself has proved an enormous challenge.”
Weathering the storm
Zambia has faced a number of challenges to its agricultural sector in the last two years, including an oversupply of maize (its largest crop) last summer that couldn’t be exported due to government restrictions and a recent drought that threatened to cut maize output by 50%. Mr Oza is passionately in support of giving farmers of all sizes the ability to export their products.
“I think the government wanted to ensure food security within Zambia, but we have an opportunity for farmers to benefit from an export market that they weren’t able to access. Now there’s a surplus of maize and the prices in the country are extremely low. Farmers haven’t earned as much money, and are now being challenged to replant for the coming season.”
But the greatest impact, he says, will be felt by those with fewer financial resources. “For the larger, commercial farmers, they still have a market available for the product. The commercial farmers are in a better position than the small-scale farmers.”
Despite feeling a “definite” impact from all this adversity, SARO Agro Industrial isn’t giving up on its ambitious plans for growth. As Mr Oza says, it’s “still battling through”.
Empowering small-scale farmers
Possibly the most important part of SARO’s ideology is giving small-scale and emerging farmers the tools, quite literally, to compete on the same level as their commercial counterparts, particularly with opportunities sitting right alongside them.
Geographically, Zambia shares a border with Democratic Republic of Congo, who are experiencing a food deficit and need to import maize. SARO believes if the restrictions on exporting the grain are lifted, smaller farmers should have as much access to that market as their larger competitors: “Zambia has to be able to produce competitively. And that is going to be achieved by upgrading the ability of emerging and small-scale farmers to the level of the major growers of maize. Because if we’re not competitive, DRC can import from South Africa or elsewhere,” argues Mr Oza.
Technology is key
“We constantly try to upgrade the small-scale and emerging farming sector and instill technological knowledge amongst them,” says Mr Oza. “Commercial farmers know what is available. It’s the small scale and emerging farmers who need the information. We do that by going out into the field as much as we can, carrying out as many demos as we can, imparting knowledge amongst the people and improving their productivity.”
And it’s not just empty promises, either. In 2015, SARO embarked on a popular financing programme to provide small-scale farmers with mechanised farming equipment on credit in a bid to boost their performance and help them move into the emerging sector.
Looking to the future
To be such an enduring leader in the farming machinery field, you need an optimistic outlook. SARO believes in the potential of Zambia’s agricultural sector on all levels. “It’s going in the right direction,” says Mr Oza. “Government has also promised that maize marketing will be an open market situation. They will not try to control it or stop it.”
Perhaps, with the financial support of a company like SARO Agro Industrial and the advocacy of industry leaders like Mr Oza, the backbone of the Zambian economy can continue to grow and expand its horizons.