Tomato growing hobby rises to a multimillion empire

A tomato growing hobby has metamorphosed into a multimillion export venture employing thousands of Kenyans while introducing innovative business models that have redefined Kenyan export market.

Ariff Shamji , the owner of AAA Growers Ltd, decided to return to Kenya upon graduating with a degree in Business Management from the United States. Having grown tomatoes and working in the family business, he saw a low hanging fruit and decided to scale the business.

In 2000 AAA growers was founded with its main focus being the production of vegetables. It currently has operations in four different farm sites with five packing houses, and exports a large variety of high quality fresh and convenience vegetables to multiple retailers in Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa. One distinct competitive advantage appears to be in the mass-marketing of niche products.

Once infrastructure, logistics and production were in place, he decided to cultivate his own relationships with foreign markets instead of collaborating with existing export companies in Kenya. “We went to the UK to understand the market and retailer dynamics for ourselves, and start building relationships,” he explains. “That was fifty percent. The other fifty percent was to convince people to do business with us.”

In doing so, he learned that implementing sustainable practices would be a critical factor in the company’s ongoing success. To meet the standards of overseas markets, he needed to ensure healthy crops and reduce the level of residue on the produce. Now AAA applies an integrated pest-management approach, engages in intense crop rotation and diversification, composts biodegradable waste to use as fertiliser for a new planting cycle, and makes optimum use of water by means of a drip-irrigation system.

Sustainability extends to social concerns too. “We had a lot of people not coming to work because they were sick,” Shamji explains. “We realised it stemmed from the poor quality of drinking water, and since we had to install a water purification plant for our facilities anyway, we extended it to the community. Now people fall sick less often and attendance has improved, which is good for them and good for us.”

As the business has expanded, the company has been able to provide employment for over 2 500 local people, of whom 70 percent are women. Further growth, believes Shamji, will depend on diversification. For the last two years AAA has been growing roses on its most-recently-purchased farm, and in 2012 the company began exporting them to Europe and the Middle East. “Our core business remains vegetable production, but we’re now considering herbs and longer-term production of avocadoes and pomegranates too,” Shamji says. “That could take us to new countries such as Russia.”

With a blend of quality products, constant innovation, and sound business acumen, there’s little doubt that this proudly-Kenyan entrepreneur will continue to maximise new opportunities.