Young Mauritian entrepreneur engaged in Hydroponics and online marketing

It is 2 p.m in Mauritius and we are heading to Rose-Hill (a town situated in the centre of the island) to meet an entrepreneur engaged in agriculture. Reaching our destination, there is a banner in front of the gate which grabs our attention: “ Online Shopping – vegetables, fruits, Flowers”. Here resides Mehdi Rahimbaccus, a young Mauritian entrepreneur of 37 years old.

The idea of becoming an entrepreneur

After completing his BSc in Agricultural Management from the University of Mauritius in 2000, Mehdi decided to study further and went abroad for a Masters Degree. Two years later (2002), he was already a holder of a Double Diploma – International MBA and 3eme cycle en Management Internationale from the University of Northampton (UK) and Ecole Superieure Commerce et Management (Piotier, France) respectively. When he came back to Mauritius, getting a job in the agricultural sector was a challenge. It was then that Mehdi thought of going into entrepreneurship and do something he had particularly been interested about: Hydroponics. Following this curiosity, he did some research on the subject on the internet to gather information. Hydroponics is one in which crops are grown in a medium other than soil (e.g coco peat) under a protected culture like a greenhouse. To know more, he probed deeper and went to visit a greenhouse in Albion (a region in the North-West of Mauritius). A locally mounted greenhouse costs Rs 1200/m2 (Rs 1 = 0.036 USD) compared to the imported one that costs Rs1600/m2.  With the technical support of the Agricultural Research and Extension Unit (AREU), Mehdi had all the information he needed on hydroponics. All he needed was land and finance. With the help of his parents, he has been able to get a loan of Rs 1.2 million from the bank by putting a piece of land under guarantee and paying a monthly instalment of Rs 15,000. Together with a friend, Mehdi succeeded in constructing two locally mounted greenhouses of 1000 m2 at Triolet (a village in the north of the country) and they formed a company called “Les Serres du Nord”. 

Mehdi Rahimbaccus’s office 
Problems faced
The advantage of growing under hydroponics compared to the “traditional way” is that less space is taken by the plant (as the plant grows vertically and may reach a length of 20 m in the case of tomato) and the yield is higher (100kg/plant/cycle for tomato). Also, while growing crops under hydroponics, no pesticide is used, which reduce the cost of production and a product of higher quality is obtained. “Starting the business has not been that easy”, says Mehdi. Despite the fact that he had studied agriculture and had gathered information on the subject, it was not enough. He needed practice to have the required skills of a hydroponic grower and it took him 5 years to understand the business.
In 2007, Mehdi became an established hydroponics grower and he was cultivating mainly crops like tomato, cucumber and sweet pepper. He was selling them to local markets, supermarkets and there were other customers who came to buy directly at his place. The ICT Tools that he was using daily was his mobile phone and laptop. The mobile phone enabled him to stay in touch with suppliers and customers for orders and deliveries through calls and SMS, while he was managing his accounts and doing other record keeping on his laptop using Microsoft Office. Mehdi also made use of the internet regularly to be updated on hydroponics and other agriculture and entrepreneurship related issues.
The main problem that he was facing was: marketing of his products. Price fluctuation was a challenge and it was difficult to get “permanent” clients. The price of tomato for example may vary from Rs 40/kg to Rs 200/kg, depending on the season and also the management of the greenhouse. In Mauritius, usually there is the problem of all planters growing the same crop at the same time, and when there is a surplus, the price decreases drastically. Therefore, there were times when he was hardly making a profit from the business. Because the cost of production for hydroponics is high, he needed to find a solution for this. 

Sweet Pepper production under hydroponics in Mauritius
Decision to use ICT to market his products

During that year, there was a scheme by the Ministry of Agriculture called the Agricultural Technology Diffusion Scheme (ATDS). The objective of the ATDS was to facilitate access of farmers in the non-sugar sector to new technologies. After doing some research, Mehdi came across e-commerce and wanted to create a website, on which he could sell his products online. He wrote a project file and submitted it to the Ministry of Agriculture under the ATDS. After studying the project, it was approved by the ATDS Committee, and Mehdi benefited Rs 120,000 for the setup of a website. With the technical support of AREU and that of COMPnet Ltd, the website named was created. In the local language, “tante bazar” is a traditional bag that Mauritians use when they go to the market.

What does offer?
The aim of is to go towards the customers, and make the experience of purchasing of agricultural products as simple as possible. It offers quality products and home delivery of the products purchased. There is a variety of products which is available, comprising of fruits, vegetables, flowers and spices. Moreover, other information on nutrition & health, recipes and gardening are also provided.
Like any other online store, the customer needs to select the product he/she wishes to buy and the quantity before confirming the order and checking out. When an order is received, Mehdi gets a notification and the product is delivered as soon as possible by himself in the van that he owns. 

Layout of the website
Difficulties faced by the entrepreneur
  •         Visibility of the website
When the website was launched, the main challenge was to make it visible to the population. Through mass media (TV, radio, newspapers and banners) and advertisement on social networks (Facebook), the news was spread all over the country that it was now possible to buy vegetables, flowers, fruits and spices online. Before Mehdi, no one in agriculture was doing online marketing of their products and the Mauritian perception was that this initiative will not work. It took some time, but gradually Mehdi was getting at least 25 orders/day.
  •          Cost of communication
Creating the website had an initial cost Rs 120,000, but its maintenance cost is also high. To date, the cost of communication has reached Rs 300,000. 

How has the use been beneficial?
  •          Stronger relationship with customers and facilitating marketing for other farmers

As a farmer, Mehdi does not produce all the commodities that are available on the website. What he does is that he remains in contact with other farmers, and when he gets an order, he buys it with them and sells it to his customer. By doing this, he is also helping other farmers in marketing their products. For example, Mehdi grows only hydroponics products like tomato and sweet pepper. If he gets an order for carrot, he will contact a farmer who is producing it and he will sell it for him. Today, Mehdi is in contact with more than 50 hydroponic growers and traditional growers as well in Mauritius. Furthermore, in order to run this business, not only the website is important, but also his mobile phone is an indispensable tool for networking with all the stakeholders involved.
  •          Increased his production and revenue
Today, Mehdi is selling a total of 400kg of products/day and according to him; he is getting over 1000 orders/month and his revenue has increased by at least 30% after the implementation of his website. Among his customers are the well-known Hypermarket “Shoprite Hyper” and distributor & retailer “SKC Surat”.
  •          Indirect benefits
With the setting up of, Mehdi has become well-known all over the island. The image that he gives is that of a successful entrepreneur and he is regularly invited to forums related to entrepreneurship to share his experience with youth and he is also involved in helping new entrepreneurs in setting up their business. After this initiative, he has been appointed as board member of the Food and Agriculture Research Council (FARC) of Mauritius, which is a parastatal body involved in research, development and dissemination of information to the agricultural community. As board member, he is involved in project committees involving hydroponics and he plays a key role in lobbying.

Further improvements
  •          Upgrading of the website and more delivery places
Despite having several advantages, needs to have some improvements. Since its creation, the modules and services have not changed and it is still in a “Beta” version. Further upgrading is required so that it becomes more user-friendly. Another problem with the service is that deliveries are done only in 4 places in Mauritius (Central part), which are very restricted because someone living in the North or South of the country for example will not buy the products, when he/she can get it in a supermarket in the region.
  •          More promotion and further investment
It has been 3 years since the establishment of the website and a lot has evolved in the ICT sector. In order to have more customers and further increase his revenue, Mehdi could have made further use of social media and other web2.0 tools. One example is that instead of paying for advertisement of his website on Facebook, he could have created a page and updated it regularly for the marketing of his products. With more sales, his revenue could increase further and he would be able to employ more people and expand his business.

Today, Mauritius is facing the problem of food security (with only 30% of local food production, 4% contribution of agriculture in the country’s GDP and an annual import bill exceeding 25 billion Rupees) and the Government has been encouraging youth to go in entrepreneurship via different schemes. The story of Mehdi Rahimbaccus is an example of a youth who, despite several difficulties never gave up, took risks and grabbed every opportunity that he got. With the innovative idea of a youth, the support of the Government, proper ICT framework and access to the right information at the right time, it is possible to have a successful career in agriculture and contribute to the economy!

About Nawsheen Hosenally

Nawsheen Hosenally, a national of the Republic of Mauritius, has over 6 years of experience in the agricultural sector, specifically focusing on the engagement of youth in agriculture through the use of ICTs. Currently, Nawsheen is the co-Founder of Agribusiness TV, a web TV that features success stories of young agricultural entrepreneurs in Africa. Nawsheen holds a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Extension from the University of Mauritius, and a Master’s degree in Management and Information Systems from the University of Manchester.

5 comments on “Young Mauritian entrepreneur engaged in Hydroponics and online marketing

  1. Hi

    Great article. I read it from the beginning to the end !
    One of the best blogs so far I’ve read in Mauritius.
    I’m an IT consultant but I have a deep passion for agriculture, and
    hydrophonics seems interesting. Combined with aquaculture, this can also
    be interesting.
    Can AREU provide me with some help in this area ?

    1. I believe that Albion Fisheries Research Center can provide you with information on the fish you want to culture in hydroponics + aquaculture: AQUAPONIC 😉

  2. Hi , great article.I am also interested in gardening ,I have a small plot in the backyard of about 30 sq meters in P Louis and I want to start a vegetable garden mostly for domestic use .Where can I get help and councelling thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *