As a child born into poverty under Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Pamela Anyoti Peronaci remembers her mother waking up very early to go to the gardens and in the afternoons foraging for leaves that would be the basis of their evening meal. Difficult as it was, Pamela’s childhood struggle was the motivation for the launch of a social enterprise, a successful agri-business that offers over 10,000 families in rural Uganda the means to earn decent livelihoods.
“Survival for us was on a daily basis. Every day you are scratching for something to live on. You don’t know where your next meal will come from. A full life is a life of hope; it means that you have a future. That is what Sunshine Agro is providing. Hope.”
With nature on their side, Pamela’s family was able to get by with what the land provided and her parents pulled together enough funds to send the children to school. Pamela excelled and went on to study political science and international law at Makerere University and later an MSc in Agricultural Economics from the University of London Imperial College. She met and married an Italian diplomat and began a life criss-crossing the globe that took her far from her childhood struggles. But no matter where she went – Tokyo, Rome, Paris or Brussels – she never forgot her rural Ugandan roots.
Pamela’s first efforts to help the less privileged back home began in 1994 while in Japan when she launched an NGO to support her former primary school in Lalle Village – Soroti District. Through her efforts, enrollment grew from 182 to 1200 students, but still, with more than 70% of the rural population depending on farming and living on less than US$2 a day, she felt she could do more.
“That experience and my work at the UN Food & Agricultural Organization were critical building blocks for my vision of moving farmers from subsistence and dependency to ‘farming as a business’. I needed to create a complete production value chain so they could have sustainable incomes. As an agricultural economist, I embarked on developing my business skills and I teamed up with an investor and business mentor, Avigdor Hachamoff, who had 40 years’ experience in the agri-biz sector and together we established Sunshine Agro Products Ltd,” she explains.
That was 2007. Starting with 15 widowed farmers, Sunshine’s goal was to create sustainable farming in rural Uganda by giving farmers farm inputs, seeds, training in good agricultural practices and then buying back their crops for guaranteed resale in international markets. In the decade since, they have signed contracts with 10,000 farmers and have expanded from chilli production to 31 types of healthy herbal teas and cocoa. Probably the biggest achievement for Sunshine has been the creation of its own brand.
“In order to get better prices for our farmers, and respond to the consumer demand for healthy organic, natural and ethical products, we created Asante Mama signature brand to market herbal tea, spices and cocoa products ‘from farm to table’ directly. Asante Mama means ‘thank you mother’ in Swahili. We chose this name because farmers were always telling me ‘thank you mama’, but also because we are all thankful to the land that gives us these wonderful crops.”Asante Mama recently received organic, non-GMO and global GAP certification and is working to obtain fair trade and kosher designation. Amazon approached Pamela after the 2016 Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California, inviting her to list Asante Mama herbal teas, cocoa and spices on its platform. But trust us, this 47-year-old mother of three has earned her stripes. Sunshine was recognized by EVOX TV in the US as a ‘Life Changing’ brand, won the best price for ‘Artigiano in Fiera Award’ in Italy’s biggest artisanal fair in 2015 in Milan, and is probably the only brand of its ethical standards selling at Shoprite supermarket in Uganda.
Getting financing was and remains a “Herculean task”, outweighed only by the difficulty of training farmers who had never heard the word “quality” to produce chilis and herbal teas that were ready for mass international consumption.
“I once mentioned to the farmers that to produce the best crop they had to take care of post-harvest management to avoid microbiological contamination because the clients buying their goods were packaging them for supermarkets. Then a farmer asked me, `What is a supermarket?’ I was at a loss, but that’s when I really understood it was going to be a long walk,” Pamela recalls with a wry smile.
And long walk it has been, but one worth every step in the 10-year journey.
“I work with the poorest of the poor – people at the bottom of the pyramid, people who are stuck into subsistence and out of the market, so for me, the most important testimony has been that the farmers with whom I work and are now able to send their children to school. One man even said to me, ‘My life is better because my wife loves me more now that I bring money home.’ I decided that I would do my best to contribute something to that community even though the change I can contribute is still very small.”
But honestly, the only thing small about Pamela’s contribution is the way she talks about it.
- Get a mentor
- Brand your Image … this is not necessarily a logo on the side of your truck, its more of a personality – ‘who I am, and how I act’. It has to do with the business culture – how we treat farmers, the way we treat the land, the way we care for the lifestyles of our consumers, the way we treat people who do business with us.
- Always look for ways to innovate and use all available technology
- Focus on the road ahead – no matter how difficult things get. For instance, we have set out a goal to have ‘Asante Mama as a house brand’ – in every household in the world!
- Communicate your values at all times – to anyone who cares to listen.