UGANDA’S LEADING HOSPITALITY, RANCHING & RETAIL OPERATOR

Sokoni Africa Ltd runs a vertically integrated ranching, meat packing and retail business in the middle of Kampala that stands out for its focus on excellence and sustainability. The Africa Inc. team took a trip to Kampala to listen to Leah Wanjiku, General Manager, Seven Hills Ranch and Yannick Duyck, Marketing Manager at the Quality Hill Mall about their company’s present and future plans.

The Majestic entrance to Sokoni Africa Ltd An expansive, vertically integrated ranching, meat packaging and retail business

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill christened Uganda as the ‘Pearl of Africa’ in his 1908 book, “My African Journey” after his trip to the country in 1907, speaking in glowing terms about the country that remains one of the best endowed with nature in Africa and one of the world’s most biodiverse nations. Endowed with fertile soils, abundant rainfall and tropical weather almost all year round, the agriculture sector in Uganda offers huge potential to drive the economy forward.

Connected to agriculture are the vast opportunities that are rising across the country, including tourism, hospitality and retail sector that have seen recent growth, as new entrants take a keen look at Uganda as the next frontier for these business sectors. One company that has taken advantage of this scenario is Sokoni Africa Ltd, a Kampala based enterprise that has ventured into the ranching, meat packaging hospitality and retail sectors, creating a vertically integrated business across the value chain.

Sokoni Africa Ltd owns and runs the Quality Hill Mall, a boutique mall at Ggaba road in Kampala and Seven Hills Ranch, which is nestled in the hills of Kasanda in Mubende, Central Uganda.

In late July the Africa Inc. team took a trip into the lively city patched on several hills and sought to hear and see the Sokoni Africa Ltd story from their citadel at the enchanting and enthralling Quality Hill Mall, located next to the American Embassy, Kampala. We were privileged to meet Leah Wanjiku, General Manager, Seven Hills Ranch and Yannick Duyck, Marketing Manager at the Quality Hill Mall.

Ranch in breathtaking scenery

A heard in one of the several Kraals located at the Ranch

The one and a half hour journey from Kampala to the ranch took us through scenic topography that must have enchanted the former British Prime Minister – and which continues to dazzle both explorers, tourists and nature lovers to Uganda, with luxuriant and diverse tropical vegetation along the way. Our morning drive ushers us into the extensive ranch.

The ranch, located in Kasanda district near Mubende, Central Uganda focuses mainly on livestock farming, organic horticulture and apiary with plans to venture into organic coffee and free-range poultry rearing. The entire ranch sits on seven hills of fertile soils and lush vegetation well maintained by organic farming practices.

As we enter the farm, Leah points to some section down in a valley where we can see some vegetables growing and across a dam, a forest of tall trees that she indicates is the apiary – just a sneak preview of what awaits us. Ahead to the left we drive up a gentle slope into the headquarters of the ranch set atop one of the hills, where we find the team eagerly waiting to receive us.

Leah introduces the group – Lory, a Kenya-born South African national who has been brought in to offer his expertise in extensive ranching, Moses Mwangi, the Farm Manager, Felix Nyangkori, the resident vet and a number of farm employees. After the initializations we drive further ahead and halt at the main farmhouse consisting of a four-bedroom house with an annexed guest wing and staff quarters. “The ranch has a series of staff quarters all round linked to the several kraals that dot the land. As we will later move around you will see the dams, feedlots, paddocks and other developments that we have done on the journey to get the facility to a reputable modern ranch,” Leah opens up as she beckons her team to get ready for the couple of interviews we are to carry out.

Once we prop ourselves next to a set of feedlots, one with the mother-herd, we set off our interlocution with Moses. He states their goal from the onset. “Our objective is to provide quality meats that have clear traceability to the consumers. We want to give safe food with a known origin.”

The built-up area of the ranch consists of 5 kraals, each with staff quarters including basic amenities like latrines, washing bays and some having feed stores. The ranch which has a well-maintained road network across the entire farm has many other developments to buttress the extensive ranching investment. These include paddocks across the farm for grazing management, strategically placed water tanks numbering 9 and 11 valley dams. To augment the natural flora and fauna a deliberate effort has been made to plant 14 acres of pine trees and a 3-acre plantation of eucalyptus trees. All these coupled with the undulating topography gives the viewer a very spectacular and picturesque outlook of the rich land. 

“Our ranch is quite expansive at 7 square miles and we aren’t using all of it for animal production; a huge chunk approximately 3 square miles in not used for any animal related activities. We have managed to create a sustainable relationship with the surrounding communities. We give them land to farm – by doing so they get produce for their upkeep whereas they clear the land where we can plant grass for the cattle and other animals,” Moses.  explains on the sustainable relationship they have with communities surrounding the ranch.

According to Moses., the demand for Seven Hills Ranch meat is high because the consumer has become aware of their practices that deliver quality natural products. With the expansive land, competent people in meat production and animal husbandry, there are solid plans to increase the number of paddocks to bring a substantive portion of the land into productivity to meet consumer expectations. The program will see its completion by 2021, anticipates the trained agronomist with an air of futuristic optimism. “We plan to buy selected stock from proximal farmers and fatten them with our ration. Land is not limiting here, and the climate is favorable, tropical African climate. So, we can raise animals in their natural environment other than intensive feeding with natural grass. Our feed formula ensures that within 3-4 months the animal has gained weight by 100 kg.”

When asked to give an overview of the ranching and the meat industry in Uganda, Moses reported that there is a very huge potential in Uganda for animal production because of the climate. For those starting up, there is need to empower them through training on good farming practices and startup capital. The markets could be more accessible, particularly in the cities, he advices. Small farmers should look at farming groups/cooperatives to pool resources, train and penetrate markets.

Another cog in the Seven Hills Ranch wheel and agenda of providing organically and safely grown products is Felix, who looks at the health of the animals so that the ranch can deliver standard animals for slaughter, production and consumption. “My role basically entails what animal I get into the farm and what animal I get out the farm. I select the best animals and ensure they are given the best care in the way of vaccinations against diseases and other practices in animal production such that by the time they get to the feedlots they are all healthy,” he informs our team. Animals from outside have to pass the set requirements and a criterion exists that selects them. He looks at their physical and health conditions. They should not have any deformity or history of disease.

On the other hand, Lory has been roped in to empower the team by building their capacity in extensive ranching as an expert straddling several markets and with immense experience in the sector of beef farming. “To finish your cattle, you got to have them in the feedlots, and this is where I am helping Seven Hills. We are also getting ourselves involved in breeding because the market we intend to target is the upper echelons, meaning our breeding and genetic quality has to be geared to meet the market requirements,” he explains his role while giving a snippet of the direction the establishment is headed. “Uganda is an incredibly fertile country. If you can manage your grasses properly, the grass is going to look after your cattle and your cattle will look after your pocket. Unless you have your grass right, your basic ingredient, you are going to struggle. You get your grass management right, your feeding right, your breeding; really it is a combination of all these things.”

Lory agrees with James in terms of the potential in Uganda’s animal sector. “There is an awful lot to do here but the beauty is that you have a blank canvas to start painting on. With the natural advantages in Uganda, fertility and climate, things will improve very quickly. Uganda is very similar to countries like Colombia, Brazil and generally South America. So, there is no reason apart from the skill set, why it can’t be done in Uganda,” he quips optimistically believing that in 2-3 years, Seven Hills will be leading in supplying the niche market in Uganda through great breeds and technology. “We will definitely have sufficient animals to supply; it will be an issue of market demand pushing us,” the lively expat declares.

Lory lists lack of the requisite skill set as one of the challenges beleaguering the takeoff and growth of beef farming in Uganda. He bemoans that there is a lot of teaching people on what to do purely because they haven’t had the exposure on the basic factors influencing beef production like grass, water, hay; before getting into the more technical feedlot handling and other feed ingredients issues.

In his closing remarks he advises that anyone who wants to get into the same business should keep their eyes and ears open and that they should welcome suggestions. “No one knows it all and no farmer can farm as an island in isolation; they must work with other farmers. We need an open mind that does not confine to traditional ways and ideas.”

Organic farming practices and traceability

According to Leah, the General Manager, the venture was backed by a dream to bear a trend of healthy eating and soil enhancement, biological diversity and spreading integrated farming systems that prohibit synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones. The objective is the organic way of serving the ever-growing community of ‘gastronomists’ and organic food enthusiasts with adequate produce.

“I have been in business for quite some while. Earlier on I started from the travel industry from which I graduated to the business world in training and consulting for different firms,” she begins in earnest. “Seven Hills Ranch was incorporated in 2013. We have 1000 hectares of land and decided to start keeping the animals to have control of the value chain right from the farm. We specialize in cattle keeping, lamb and goat. It was very critical by the market that our value chain began from the farm due to problems we foresaw way back. The biggest challenge was on procuring raw materials; traceability of the carcass origin was absent. And so, the best way to commence the business was to have our own farm and control that function of supply and value chain. Later own, we decided to go a step further and have a production plant – state-of-the-art – where we do different cuts for our varied clientele. Our strategy is to farm, produce and distribute,” Leah expounds further.

Leah stresses the emerging demands from consumers, especially the market demand to know where the raw materials are coming from, mainly the big restaurants and hotels. Therefore, Seven Hills Ranch decided to give their customers a peace of mind by letting them know and assured that whatever products they get come from a legitimate farm with solid traceability, which begins right from breeding, birthing, rearing, feeding, slaughtering, production and distribution – good quality products with a trusted origin. By 2018, the ranch had more than 1,000 heads of cattle of the Boran family, Boran Fresian and Boran-Ankole crossbreeds, steadily rising to more than 1,400 heads in January 2019, 80% being of the Boran breed. The animals are grazed from birth till 12 months then zero-grazed for four months whilst being fed on natural feeds and toxin and antibiotic-free ration rich in mineral salts. The exceptional practice yields beef that is tender and great-tasting from the animals slaughtered when full size at about 400kg. Other animals grown on the ranch include Boer-goats and sheep numbering approximately 400 and 50 respectively.

“Our current customers are the big hotels – Sheraton, Serena, etc. They have supported us immensely. We have other restaurants that we work together with and the catering companies serving camps in the rural areas. The general public is also our market, where we partner with selected distributors who sell to the end consumer after we supply them,” says Leah adding that they have plans to go a step further and explore the export market. As she puts it, there is a need for Uganda as a country to venture into such markets to boost foreign exchange for the country. To align themselves and ease their entry to markets beyond the Ugandan frontiers, the company has started the journey of acquiring relevant certifications and are at advanced stages of ISO certification process by the end of 2019.

Exquisite mall in the City

Back to the city, we venture into the Quality Hill Mall, we sample the  unique offering  and memorable consumer experience provided by the varied offering in the middle of the bustling city of Kampala. The city has seen the emergence of a number of malls, as consumers seek new experiences and the convenience brought by malls – and a merging mall culture that the company is riding on.

Yannick, the Marketing Manager of the Mall informs us that he handles the relationship between their customers and products under all aspects in the Quality Hill Mall stable, adding that he focuses on the main trends emerging in the market to meet customer expectations.

The boutique mall is made up of leading attractions including Le Chateau restaurant, Le Patisserie, Le Gourmet Delicatessen, Le Petit Village hotel and the M-Maison.

Le Chateau, the restaurant, is an exquisite eatery that oozes style and class, an ambience that exudes both Western and African tastes and style in décor and furnishings. It’s a high-end joint. “The restaurant caters for middle-class to high-class families both Ugandans and foreigners and has particularly catered to the needs of the American Embassy next door,” Yannick confirms our speculations, indicating that they as well tap on businesspeople coming in for short trips or expats coming in for holidays.

The latest kid under the Quality Hill Mall roof is Le Gourmet, a high-class supermarket featuring local products as well as imported goods with a focus on providing variety to the eclectic expat clientele. Evidently as you walk into and around Le Gourmet, you clearly notice that it exceeds anything offered by conventional natural food stores; from the wide variety of organic fruits and vegetables, freshly prepared unprocessed juice, a wide selection of cheese and cold cuts, a coffee section that boasts the highest quality of coffee blends and a host of selected superior quality groceries – one is spoiled for choice with premium brands that you can trust. It also has the organic section that consists of a flavored coffee bar, juicing bar and the Le Gourmet café; the prime butchery that parades prime beef and pork; a florist section and sit-in restaurant. A first of this kind in Uganda.

If you’re at the Mall and want some good coffee, then the Le Patisserie is your go-to corner. Yannick modestly tells us that it’s a small pastry shop where people can come for breakfast and any coffee needs. Even with his down to earth musing you can’t avoid noticing and smelling the evident sophistication in the ‘simple’ pastry shop.

M-Maison showcases high-class furniture and interior décor in a mix of different influences, Asian, Nordic and Africa clearly indicating and denoting the signature clientele that patronize it and the entire Quality Hill Mall establishment.

You cannot finish talking about the Quality Boutique Mall’s multiple offerings without a mention of what most have referred to as an oasis in the center of Kampala, the Le Petit Village, a thatch-roofed hotel with rustic elegance that permeates everything in a perfect place to relax and understand luxury. According to one such satisfied customer, it is a very relaxing boutique hotel with very peaceful gardens, a great choice of very good food at the restaurants and bakery with wonderful staff; very friendly and helpful. 

Le Petit Village – most have referred to as an oasis in the center of Kampala

“The objective of the boutique mall was to provide a whole consumer shopping experience; after you eat or have coffee you can shop around from our other offerings for a memorable experience,” Yannick shares the vision. He indicates that hospitality and customer service industry is ever changing; it’s a fast-paced industry. Trends come out of nowhere, be it Western or local influences. “We strive to keep on top of these trends and make sure that we accommodate every other person in the country. The current trends have gravitated towards sustainable living, shifting towards healthier lifestyles and these are things we have had to take into consideration. With our latest addition, Le Gourmet, we have a variety of products geared towards these trends; we actually added a juicing bar where people can come in and take care of their bodies”.

Lacking local skill sets

Irrespective of the aggressive nature of the market with competition creeping in, among other factors, Yannick believes, with their vision they are squarely equipped to ride the tide, while nonetheless bemoaning the lack of skilled work force. “The main challenges we have in Uganda is the workforce; to find the right people – skilled labor – for our kind of operations is rare. We spend a lot of time and money to train and get the people to get up to where we need them to be – the high-class standards. Some come in with perfect experience, but we pride ourselves as offering a high-class consumer experience, so we have to converge them to our practices and ideals,” he reiterates.

“Integrity of different employees is another headache. When you put someone into a position of power and responsibility, we find that sometimes that could be abused. Uganda is still a developing country and mistakes are inevitable along the way; corruption is a big factor when it comes to putting regulations in place by the government. Nonetheless these are issues we take head on and do the best we can,” Yannick delves further while reinforcing that their main focus will be sustainable living and healthier eating in the short-term and mid-term. They also want to be active in CSR with all the stake holders including the surrounding communities and anybody who have a direct stake in their business.

Competitive environment challenges

In a country where local demand for beef is still unsatisfied, ranching subsystems have opportunities for growth and Seven Hills is taking its rightfully place in that space. Amidst this opportunity Leah laments about the uneven competitive ground from informal operators. “The biggest challenge we face is competition from household basket companies. We have people doing what we are doing either in their homes or small outlets wherever they are located. They infringe on our market by penetrating our niche without investing in systems and structures that such a segment demand. It’s not a level playing ground; quite unfavorable. Their quality cannot be guaranteed; this is the biggest threat,” she decries.

However, she’s quick to thank the government and regulatory bodies who have strongly come out to support mainstream organizations like themselves and also curtail some of the players in the background who are not very easy to find. “UNBS has worked closely with us to ensure that we get all the support we need to further our business by getting requisite certifications to trade locally, regionally and internationally. There is a lot of positivity along that,” she offers.

The other challenge facing the rancher, and as equally alluded by Yannick earlier, is deficiency of the right skills set to run the operation. “I would like to urge the government to have more institutions that can have the young people in the country get proper training. We have a lot of unskilled labor that cannot be easily tapped into some special areas of the sector. We don’t need to import skilled labor,” Leah invites.

Nonetheless, to get skilled workforce they want, the company does a headhunt in certain positions because it’s difficult to just put vacancies out there. The establishment also uses HR consultancy firms to get the right people. After getting the skilled team, it doesn’t end there, as a company they have their own values that keep them together. They offer more company training to be able to see the fruits they desire, using experts either internally or outsourced across all business functions. According to Leah, their next focus is to get value for money by having a dedicated and elaborate staff retention plan.

A sustainable future, with expansion plans

Beyond the animal rearing, production and distribution, the Seven Hills Ranch produces natural and organic fruits, vegetables and herbs to reinforce its organic farming systems credentials. All the products are hand-picked from seeds to maturity with restrained use of any synthetic materials and chemicals. Some of these produce that is sold off from Le Gourmet and enjoyed in the other eateries are broccoli, eggplants, chilies, red cabbage, red corn, jalapeno, zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce and Irish potatoes that stretch on 5 acres or so at the ranch. There is some 10 acres under bananas too. Seven Hills has cleared and tilled more than 50 acres of land for planting Robusta coffee and plans are in the pipeline to introduce Arabica coffee blends and as per tradition, they will be mostly natural and free from synthetic materials.

“We have worked very closely with our neighboring communities. Our farm being expansive, we need clearing for farming which is quite lengthy and tedious. On this front we engage the local farmers by giving them a couple of acres for free. They till the land, put on their crops which could be maize or legumes (beans) which add value to the soil. In the proceeding season we plant grass in these areas that we use to feed the animals. Upon harvesting the farmers keep the proceeds and only give back to us a sack of maize per acre farmed, and not money. Through this initiative, we have forged a win-win situation where they can take care of their families and improve their livelihoods while we get cleared areas to plant grass to feed the animals,” Leah elaborates.

“Our priority now is to have our own abattoir in the farm. At the moment we bring the animals to a national abattoir where they are slaughtered, and the carcasses ferried to our production facility. Having our own abattoir in the firm will ensure we have and control the entire value chain – raising, slaughter, production and distribution. Only production will happen off the farm in the city. Uganda is an emerging market and there are very many things that are lucrative, farming being one of them. Seven Hills Ranch is looking forward to becoming a leader in meat processing and distribution. We are looking further into exports and help contribute to the country’s objective of exporting more,” Leah concludes, as she looks into the future

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