From a day at the races in Limerick to a $200m beef business in Zambia

 

WILD GEESE/Francis Grogan/CEO Zambeet:“KUDU,” SIGHS Francis Grogan, scanning the trampled patch of farmland where wheat should be growing. “Wildlife are a big headache here,” he says, kneeling down and running his fingers over the crops crushed by the African cousin of our own red deer.

“Down on another farm of ours, we have elephants breaking the electric fence. It’s on an old elephant trail, so of course they don’t know, but they broke half a kilometre recently. Then the buffaloes came in, about 50, so we had to call the wildlife service because it’s illegal to shoot them.”

To the average Irish farmer, it might sound like an unusual complaint, but then Grogan (48) doesn’t run your average Irish farm. His $200 million a year company Zambeef owns 50,000 hectares of land across Zambia, slaughtering 60,000 cattle and 3.5 million chickens a year, making it one of Africa’s largest agri-food businesses.

Eggs, milk, pork and bread are all processed at one of the company’s factories and shipped to butchers around the country, of which Zambeef runs more than 90.

It all started at the St Stephen’s Day races in Limerick in 1990, over a couple of pints and the paper.

The son of a management accountant with CIÉ in Limerick, Grogan grew to love farming after summers spent on an uncle’s farm in the west of the country, “milking cows and driving tractors”.

After school, he studied agricultural science at UCD and, in 1989, he started work with United Meat Packers in Ballyhaunis on the operations side.

However an advertisement for a job in Zambia caught his eye in the paper that day at the races.

“There was a small ad in the Irish Independent that read, ‘meat factory manager required’ in Zambia. I thought, ‘who puts an ad into the paper on Christmas Eve?’ So I had a few pints and, later on, fired off the CV. Three months later they interviewed me and before I knew it I was off to Africa. I was young and single, 27 years of age. I thought, why not?”

At the time, the business consisted of just two small butcher shops and an abattoir in the capital Lusaka.

After two months, the man who recruited Grogan left Zambia, leaving the business to his son Carl Irwin, a chartered accountant, and Grogan. They paid $300,000 for it.

“We started from very humble beginnings. Carl did the administration, I ran the butchery and did operations, buying all the cattle. We used to deliver beef in our Land-Rovers. We’d drop the butchers off, then send them back to get the meat.

“We bumbled along like that for three or four years. Then, in 1995, we got into Shoprite.”

A South African chain of supermarkets, Shoprite had bought seven government stores in Zambia and was looking to expand beyond its own borders after the end of sanctions against the country.

Zambeef cut a deal whereby it would operate the butcher shops in the supermarkets, supplying all the meat and employing the staff.

“That was a huge boost. It gave us massive countrywide exposure.”

Shoprite now has 19 stores in Zambia and Zambeef runs and operates all of them, selling everything from chicken and eggs to beef and fish.

In 1996, Grogan and Irwin had to turn to investors to buy their first farm for $2.4 million. It was an inspired move, as Zambeef could now grow the crops required to feed their own livestock. In 1999, they set up a dairy.

Ninety-five per cent of the meat is sold in Zambia, he says, much of it through Shoprite’s stores.

About 50 per cent of the meat is destined to what he classifies as “C” category consumers, that is people looking for cheaper cuts.

In the slaughter-house, 129 cattle have just been killed. The lungs, kidneys and other parts usually discarded in Ireland are being packed into bags.

“We get paid $3 a kilo for offal. In Ireland, we’d have to pay someone to take it off us.”

However, the country’s expanding middle class is continuing to make up a significant part of the business.

“Incomes are growing. Expectations are rising. People want world-class products. Things have improved from 15 years ago, people expect more.”

There are still headaches though. Zambia is heavily dependent on the copper industry, making it vulnerable to any fluctuation in demand and supply.

“When the copper price is down, the kwacha weakens. Everything we sell is kwacha-based, from machinery to spares, so when it depreciates, it makes things harder.

“But if we were in Ireland, there would be 50-100 guys doing the same thing, working on small margins and needing massive turnover to make any money.

“Here, the sun shines all day and there is plenty of water for irrigation, which means we can double drop. Once the wheat is harvested, we’ll plant maize and sorghum. We have a lot more water than Brazil, there is plenty of rainfall and there is solid support from the government.

“We came up from very humble beginnings and they are very proud of us. I didn’t have to emigrate but I’m glad I did.”