Elizabeth Swai: Mother Hen to Many

Elizabeth Swai is an innovator. It might sound strange to say that about someone running a poultry company. After all, how complicated can chickens be? But it’s not the product that’s interesting, it’s the business model and the significant impact it creates in the community that is so unique and built on the underlying mission of pushing rural communities to realise their worth.

“Our approach is inclusive. The franchise model we’ve developed offers access to finance and technical expertise that enables underprivileged women to generate income through poultry farming and offers jobs to unemployed youth. All farmers who trade poultry can raise their living standards and greatly contribute to alleviating the food global crisis, improving nutrition, creating employment, and enhancing education, resulting in more stable households and of course, financial freedom.”

Elizabeth grew up in Igulusi village in Mbeya region in Tanzania. The last born in a family of four, for reasons she is not entirely sure of she was left with her grandmother from the age of two months while her brothers and sisters remained with her mother. “I didn’t experience any parental love. I only came to know my father when I was 14. The first time I saw him, I felt lost and rejected. I worked hard to prove to my mother that I was worth her love. But to this day, I still feel I never won her over, but it’s something I’ve accepted and I’ve moved on with my life. My work and community engagement makes my heart shine and offers me the chance to experience unconditional love again.”

On a more positive note, Elizabeth’s early childhood forced her to be a self-starter. She managed to attain basic secondary education by getting part of her fees paid by the government and raising the rest from the income she earned by selling produce she grew on her own. She opened her first bank account at 14 years with earnings she made as househelp and in her early 20s was able to take a hotel and tourism management course thanks to a friend. Elizabeth married, but it was not a happy coupling and she was forced to fight for custody of her only child when she asked for a divorce. The proceedings took four long years and she walked away with only her daughter but no property or assets.

She joined the United Nations High Commission (UNHCR) in 1989 as a secretary and studied through distance learning to achieve certification. She later moved to the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) and spent a total of 15 years working in the international community where she consulted with academic institutions and research organisations, had the opportunity to visit colleges and farms in many countries, and won several accolades including the 1995 Felix Houphouet-Boigny Peace Prize. It was during this time that she developed the idea for her poultry business.

“I learnt a lot from my work and the study tours and knew the direction I wanted to go. I had been raising chicks at home and selling the eggs on the side of my job. I enrolled in the Open University for a diploma in poultry health and management in Tanzania and then entered several business plan competitions. When I won one, I knew I had a feasible idea and decided to leave the UN to start my own company,” she explains.

Faced with limited financial support, Elizabeth self-funded the purchase of 250 chickens from her early retirement package and registered AKM Glitters Company. Initially specialized in poultry breeding, debeaking, and hatching of day-old chicks, today the business has expanded to include veterinary extension services, such as the provision of feed, importation of chicken vaccines and medicines, veterinary care, fumigation, vaccination and hatchery. Her business model makes a conscious effort to include individuals who would normally find themselves excluded from the formal market so she partners with 30,000 small scale farmers – organized in about 500 groups – and 480 franchises in more than 25 regions of Tanzania.

Elizabeth explains how AKM Glitters works: “We raise awareness about our franchise opportunities and search for women who are willing to invest US$1000 through an arrangement with AKIBA Bank that we have established. This amount is usually a security for the groups and franchise owners to access working capital. Then AKM Glitters trains them on business development and credit facility management before they receive the first supplies of our products (feeds, chicks, medicines, and vaccines), which is given on credit plus the capex to construct the mother unit (brooding house). The loans are short-term with an overdraft facility. Together with AKIBA, we appraise the requests, and AKM commits to pay the bank through buy-back schemes negotiated with our franchises.” 

It’s an approach that has clearly paid off as AKM Glitters is on track to contract with more than half a million households in four years, remarkably pledging to buy-back all the chickens to sell on to supermarkets and restaurants. The company is currently developing a nutrition and health program so that they can also sell to hospitals, schools, and industry. And although today Elizabeth is the proud owner of a thriving business, it hasn’t always been easy.

“When things got really tough, I sold my house and other possessions like my car and ten acres of land just to keep the business afloat. Eventually, through small family loans, support from SACCOs (savings and credit cooperative organizations), microfinance lenders, and the AKIBA Bank, I worked my way to profitability.” 

A major turning point for the business came in 2017 when Elizabeth was able to access a multi-million-dollar project in partnership with World Poultry Foundation. This enabled her to hire more staff – including five highly qualified directors – and significantly expand her team of technical experts, outreach officers, farm supervisors and assistants, and hatchery attendants, among others. These 73 new staff members were almost all young unemployed graduates from different universities and colleges. 

 

In addition to this impressive workload, Elizabeth is the founder of the Africa Agribusiness Academy in Tanzania where she uses the expertise of scientists, researchers, and other experts in the poultry industry to enhance the training she provides. The 48-year-old works closely with the government, particularly the Ministry of Agriculture, as part of her overarching goal to redress gaps in the market, alleviate poverty, and bring about change. She collaborates with local municipalities in training their extension workers in poultry farming so they, in turn, can provide support to the farmer groups she has established. Many of these groups have grown as a result of this collaboration and can now take their own produce to market without her aid. Elizabeth is also the head of the African Women in Agribusiness chapter in Tanzania, a Graça Machel Trust initiative, and continues to find ways of developing her business, helping others and bringing about positive change. For example, some of AKM Glitters’ profits are being used to help develop rural areas giving children access to clean water, classrooms, toilets, and basic facilities.

“I am involved with all of these organizations in order to represent other women. Defragmentation is poisonous. Women need to partner with other women, networks, associations, and men and their gigantic enterprises with the muscle to be able to achieve their ambitions.”

And how does she do it all? 

“I see the women report back good things: that their children go to school and have better nutrition. We can see the changes in their confidence and health of their families,” she notes happily. “I’m proud of all the individuals I’ve been able to hire and of establishing a pool of so many extension officers, veterinary doctors and women mobilizers who help me achieve my goals. As someone who was once poor, I believe in inspiring others to reject poverty and ignorance and positively embrace challenges towards financial freedom and a better livelihood. Making a sustainable difference in the lives of others is my passion and a huge part of my life. This is what keeps me going.”

PERSEVERE

Never ever take no
for an answer.

2

INVEST IN HELP

Work with professionals;
invest in the right kind
of staff who are professional and ethical. 

3

THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX

Expand your networks to include academic institutions, research organizations, and bodies outside of traditional business to increase the potential for collaboration and cross-learning.

4

ETHICS

Maintain a clean house.
Have all the necessary legal and strategic documents in
place and comply with
the laws of the land.

Elizabeth Swai’story first appeared in Women Creating Wealth, A Collection of Stories of Women Entrepreneurs from across Africa. You order or download a copy here