How $500 started a million dollar company
Courtesy AGRA NEW HARVEST
In 2012 with less than US$500 Atuhura Darlson and Okello Tonny started Equator Seed Limited, a seed company producing and selling improved seed to farmers in northern Uganda.
Four years on and the gamble has paid off, seed sales have exceeded US$1 million and over 250,000 farmers are growing seed produced by Equator Seeds.
“We were driven by our passion to give farmers quality seed and provide the best service in the sector,” co-founder and Director Tonny Okello said.
“Many of the farmers in post-conflict agro-ecological zone Uganda were receiving very bad seed, as suppliers were focused on making money first and providing a quality product last, so farmers end up planting seed that wouldn’t germinate or would yield very little,” Okello said.
In 2013, Equator seeds received a US$145,000 grant from AGRA to produce maize, rice, sorghum, bean, sesame and ground nut seed for sale to farmers in the region. The grant also funded awareness activities, like demonstration plots, field days and radio programs.
“Equator Seed Company was our first grantee in Northern Uganda,” says Dr. George Bigirwa, Regional Head for East and Southern Africa at AGRA.
“We worked with them to introduce to farmers new crop varieties including maize hybrids that had been developed by Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization and would help farmers increase their yield, food security and incomes,” Dr. Bigirwa said.
With access to finance one of the biggest challenges the business faced, Okello said the grant from AGRA started the engine that drove the business.
“Banks were coming up with different rates and repayment packages, that were not in line with the agricultural season or possible for an agribusiness to make.
“The grant from AGRA was the biggest financing we ever got, and it helped us to scale our production and develop our distribution networks,” Okello said.
In their first year, Equator Seeds produced 70MT of seed, by the following year production had increased to 600MT and last year they produced over 10,000MT.
Not all of this growth was due to AGRA’s support, the original AGRA project had a seed production target of 825MT, but grant gave the founders the capital they needed to put in place the infrastructure to allow the business to grow and also win confidence from other organizations and financial institutions.
For example, in 2012, the company had 30 farmers growing seed, by 2014, this number had increased to 3000.
Equator Seeds also grew their distribution networks, from a base of zero, they now have over 130 agro-dealers stocking their products, with seed also being distributed through Government programs. The company has also opened new frontiers in South Sudan and last year sold 587MT of seed in the country.
“In the long-run it has helped us build a sustainable business that doesn’t need to depend on grants for further grow,” Okello added.