Lawyer turned agripreneur shares her amazing journey

“I hope the integrity of my story and journey be a light house for future agripreneurs especially for young girls and women who hope to take on the task of making Africa a breadbasket continent.”

This was said by a lawyer turned agriprenuer, Shandini Naidoo, while sharing her amazing journey with Mzansi Agriculture Talk. Shandini, started her career as an aspiring lawyer, having completed her undergraduate and post-graduate degrees at Wits University.

Q: I notice that you were/are a lawyer. Can you please take us through your journey to becoming an agripreneur and how you developed the interest?

A: Yes, that is correct. I was born and raised on a farm on the outskirts of the South of Johannesburg. Being raised a farm-girl, with a deep love for the outdoors and animals, you could say farming and agriculture has been a part of my life from the very beginning.

I started my career as an aspiring lawyer, having completed my undergraduate and post-graduate degrees at Wits University. Thereafter, I landed a legal internship at a reputable South African law firm. During my legal career, I worked mostly in the mining and commercial law sectors, which led me back to agriculture. From my experience at the law firm; I was exposed to the rehabilitation of mines, where agriculture projects were on the agenda. It was then that my interest sparked and I took a deeper dive into the opportunities that the sector had to offer.

In 2016, after a discussion with one of my mentors about the ins-and outs of the international trade and the opportunities aboard to export South African agricultural produce, the idea came about to look into the export of Avocados. Intrigued by the exponential growth of the avocado exports industry at the time, I started to research the basics about how the agriculture export trade worked.

This is around the same time I decided to found my company Avoport Pty Ltd – an Agricultural Vendor Operation Portal. Driving home from work one afternoon, I was struggling with the idea as how to export Avocados (a highly perishable product) before it perished. As I drove by the airport, a plane flew over-head and that’s when the idea struck me, avocados will be easily and effectively transported via air, hence the name Avoport (Avocado’s plus Airport).

Through my research, I found that there are major gaps within the agricultural supply chain from farm to consumer in South Africa and across the SADC region. These gaps and errors led me down a path to discover how these could be overcome. Over a two-year period, I dedicated my time to finding out as much as I could about the export industry, how agricultural produce is traded and shipped, where the different agricultural produce is sourced from, the quality and grading of the agriculture produce and where the opportunities and challenges laid within the sector. From a legal background, we know it’s best to cover every angle and that’s exactly what I did when conducting my investigation/research to my road map into the industry as well as how Avoport could make a positive impact on the agriculture sector.

I searched for platforms that would provide a one-stop shop for farmers to have access not only to the greater marketplace but to inputs, equipment, skills development and the like. Within South Africa, I found no such platform. I looked to other countries who may have something or the sort, I found my inspiration from the platforms that exist in India, Malaysia, China and Australia. Each of these countries found that an inclusive and comprehensive platform dedicated to the trade of agricultural produce were a boon for their agriculture sectors.

From this investigative work, I sought out the simpler way of sourcing, trading and shipping agricultural produce.

While wanting to boost South African trade of agricultural produce, I saw that the SACU and the SADC provided a greater opportunity to boost regional trade as well as intra-africa trade. I then set out to innovate and design E-SADCAM an Electronic Southern African Development Community Agricultural Marketplace.

One of our more recent projects that was developed in 2020, to be launched in 2021, is the Insights into Africa Agriculture (IN2AA). IN2AA is a Rural Research and Development for-profit program. This project is dedicated solely to the micro to medium farmers in South Africa. IN2AA is a program specifically designed for the Southern African agriculture sector to provide collaborative research that enhances farming productivity and profitability which supports the continued growth and innovation of Southern Africa’s agriculture value chain.

Q: Are you still practising as a lawyer and if yes, how do you juggle both?

A: No, I am no longer a practising lawyer.  I will always be grateful for the foundation my legal career provided me. Once you are a lawyer it’s difficult to drop the legal mindset, that is why when I decided to move away from law and focus on building Avoport, I knew I wanted to combine my passion for business, law and agriculture.

Q: Regarding your company Avoport – An International Trade and Development firm specializing in the export management and trade of agricultural produce, may you break it down to us in detail, what exactly is it that you do on a daily basis?

A: Avoport is an international trade and development firm. We are facilitators of an effective export supply chain integration between South Africa and the rest of the world. We specialize in the export and trade of agricultural produce. Aside from conducting regular export trading activities, our business is to create, develop and implement various innovative and effective projects across the continent to enable all vendors within the agriculture value chain to trade with ease.

We believe through greater innovation, integration, collaboration, and consolidation of the supply chain process we can achieve:
– A streamlined export operation and inventory system to increase revenue 
– Reduce export costs, inefficiencies and waste
– Greater transparency for all role players in the supply chain 
– Thereby boost trade growth and exports.

At Avoport we offer a range of services related to export and international trade:
– Export Management & Trading
– Our export management department plans, organizes, coordinates and controls export efforts or activities to achieve desired export objectives smoothly and with continuance as well as provide support services for firms engaged in exporting for our clientele.
– Trade Research & Development
– Our trade and development department focus on assisting export businesses to identify new opportunities in markets around the world, or at home, and then determine whether those opportunities are worth pursuing.
– Agriculture Technology & Innovation Projects
– The team at Avoport are dedicated to bringing technology into the sector to help improve productivity and management of farmers through designing, developing and implementing agri-tech and innovative projects to improve efficiency and profitability of small to medium farmers. 
– International Trade Advisory Services
– As I mentioned before, I chose to incorporate the legal component into Avoport by offering trade advisory services which encompasses legal advice on the legal requirements with regard to international trade, policies and regulations changes and updates, especially with the launch of AFCTA we believe there will be a good number of changes to trade policies and regulations to assist in the implementation of AFCTA across Africa.

Q: Do you farm the produce that you export and trade with or do you source from farmers? And what type of produce do you export?

A: At the moment we do not farm our own produce, that is something we are definitely looking into in the future. We mainly source the required produce from various producers and farms across the country and region. We cater for all agricultural produce and bi-products.  This is all dependent on the requests and requirements of the clients we have as well as the trade leads we secure.

Q: In your honest opinion and maybe supported by statistics, what percentage of Agricultural export is from black farmers in the space that you operate within? 

A: The main exporters are large farming groups, this is indicative of the investment that is required to meet the demands and standards of the export markets. The cost of compliance is high and is at the cost of the exporters. From my research and exposure to the sector over the past couple of years the percentage of Black Farmers who are capable of exporting are low. This is due to a number of contributing factors.  The factors contributing to the challenges faced by small-medium farmers which exclude them from the export markets are poor quality and production of products that do not meet the export requirements, non-compliance with sanitary and phytosanitary standards, lack necessary infrastructure and irrigation equipment, transport, packing and storage facilities.

Q: Should the figures be low in this regard, what do you think should be done to improve it? Should it be approached from a policy point of view or is it something that should be left in the hands of good Samaritans?

A: Both private and public sectors need to join forces to provide the necessary infrastructure and support required by emerging exporters within the South African agriculture sector. Before the lockdown and the restrictions imposed on trade, the rate of exporters has not grown. However, it has created the opportunity of time for those considering to start exporting to consider looking regionally for markets and opportunities for collaboration and trade efforts. The environment for small-medium black farmers to export remains unfavourable. This is due to the lack of access to inputs, finance, efficient water systems and infrastructure, access to information and research, advisory services, reliable and affordable logistics services, storage facilities and access to markets. In order for growth potential small and medium farmers wishing to access wider export markets on more favourable conditions require complementary public-private investment into infrastructure and technical capacity.

Q: Again, regarding the export space that you operate within, do we have quite a reasonable number of back participants in the export and trade space? And how would you advise someone who is interest in operating in such a space? Are there any licenses/documents to acquire first before starting out? 

A: My advice for anyone entering any sector is to do your due diligence. Most people fail or give up by not truly doing the background research and attempt to enter their respective industries with a trial and error approach. This does not work out in the long term. Without a clear understanding of the foundations of what they are trying to do or achieve through their business is bound to encounter challenges that they may not be capable of out manoeuvring or overcoming.

At an early stage I attended Export Management training through the DTI, this is resource that is free to all registered participants and I would advise anyone seeking to get into the export industry to attend these courses. These workshops are a great starting point for anybody who wishes to export, they also provide a spring board into various trade shows and offer trade leads for various products.

Yes, in order to be an eligible to export you will need to acquire specific licenses and authorisations, these can be acquired from ITAC and SARS. There is a list of requirements that need to be met in order for a company to have the requisite export licenses and authorizations.

Q: What are your thoughts on section 25 of the constitution, especially where agricultural land is concerned? How would you advise the government to approach it?

A: Land reform is definitely necessary in South Africa, to address the injustices of our country’s past. However, I do not think that Section 25 of the Constitution is the object hindering land reform in South Africa. Having completed my Masters in International Economic Law and this topic being one of the main concepts during my studies, the proposal of expropriation without compensation will do more harm than good, both nationally and internationally to South Africa’s socio-economic standing and international reputation as an investor friendly state.

The unsatisfactory performance of land reform since the inception of our democratic government has far less to do with the Constitution, and more to do with the inefficiencies of implementation of policies, insufficient capacity and the failure of the government departments to effectively roll out the existing policies.

From an agricultural perspective, the poor performance of land reform is attributed to the use of existing discredited models, the lack of skills, equipment and support to recipients of land reform, the inadequate participation of various stakeholders in the process of land reform in the decision making or policy and model creation, the lack of investment and finance, poor settlement support among other things has resulted in the failure of the implementation of land reform.

My suggestion would be an adjusted or reconfigured approach, with clear and inclusive models that address the issues previously highlighted. The right balance must be sought, in order to right the wrongs of the past, as well as preserve South Africa’s image as being an investor friendly state.

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