Women in Agriculture: Women within the sector should support and promote one another - Shandini Naidoo, founder and director - Avoport

Shandini Naidoo is the founder and director of AVOPORT PTY LTD, a company that specialized in the export and trade of agricultural produce, founded in 2017. She also serves on the board of the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC) of South Africa. She has a Bachelor's degree in International Relations, an LLB degree in Law, and a Masters degree in International Economic Law. As part of this interview, she discusses her work with Avoport, women empowerment, and the government's role.

What led you to taking that first step and setting Avoport?

Avoport was founded after a conversation I had with one of my mentors during my legal internship. I was told a story about a man he met on a plane who traded oranges for a living. The conversation then turned to the South African Avocado industry. My advisor suggested I do some research on this industry. My research led me from one piece of information to another, and I slowly realized that practicing law wasn't for me. Somehow, fate led me back to my roots. I was going back to the farms. As I drove home, I considered how one would transport something like Avocados, which are highly perishable, from one point to another without them perishing. I soon passed by the airport and saw a plane flying overhead. That's how the name Avoport came about: Avocados + Airport = Avoport, it's an agricultural vendor operation portal. 

Can you tell us a bit about your company, AvoPort?

Avoport Pty Ltd is an international trade and development company that specializes in export management and trade of agricultural products. Avoport is a 100% Black and Woman-Owned company. We offer a range of services Export Management & Trading Services; Trade Research & Development Services; Agriculture Technology & Innovation Projects and, International Trade & Development Services.

Currently, we are launching two very exciting innovative projects within the agriculture sector, a rural research and development program and, a regional trading platform. For more information, on our projects please visit our website.

How do you go about marketing your business? What has been your most successful form of marketing?

When I started out, I used cold calling, whether it was by email or phone, but that isn't for everyone, and in business you are most likely to receive several no's before you get a yes.

With the business growing into other areas of trade advisory and export management, I found that using social media, such as Twitter and Linkedin, created great networking and business opportunities. 

Platforms like these have enabled entrepreneurs such as me to market ourselves and establish credibility. I would advise any entrepreneur starting out to first explore different marketing approaches that are "free".

Having an online presence, such as a well-designed and informative web page, is always a good idea. By providing them with information about your business and service offerings, you can give new customers a chance to get the information they need about you as a professional and your company as well. When building a brand, whether it is a company or a professional service, consumers always look for and appreciate quality. Before starting a business, it is imperative to know your target market, what demographic they belong to, and use technology and media best suited to that demographic in order to draw the right attention to your business. The key to turning your business idea into a successful enterprise is accurate and usable research in every aspect of your business.

What challenges have you encountered or are encountering as you build Avoport?

When I started my business, I realised there would be barriers to entry, as well as challenges and risks that come with starting a business. The big question was whether my business idea would lead to a viable and successful business? Entrepreneurship requires a certain degree of awareness and tenacity. My legal background gave me the foundation I needed to identify what the risks and challenges would be and allowed to a certain degree, the ability to plan to try to mitigate as many as possible. Funding was one of the biggest challenges I faced as an entrepreneur. Getting funding is never easy, especially at the start-up stage. I have learned that you have to believe, truly believe, in what you are offering; instead of pitching a business, tell a story. The more people know about the business and the person pitching the concept, the greater the opportunities to secure funding become.

A second major challenge was the Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in a lockdown. Not only did the impact and consequences negatively impact our business, but also those of our partners and clients. As a team, we had to re-evaluate how we conduct our business activities every day as well as plan and arrange for a post-covid world and ways to trade agricultural products.

Which female leaders, both historical and present day, do you look to in difficult times or when you’re seeking inspiration?

My inspiration and motivation come from a select group of truly inspiring and accomplished women, including Oprah, Sara Blakely, Angelina Jolie, and Sheryl Sandberg. 

Being an African woman and having studied and worked in trade policy, my mind immediately goes to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the newly appointed director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO). 

As the first female head of the WTO and the first African to lead the international body, Okonjo-Iweala made history. The incredibly accomplished Okonjo-Iweala has set the stage for women and young women in general to aspire to break down barriers and assume positions once occupied by men. As a leader, her accolades on the international stage, her professional achievements, and her dedication to making Africa a better and stronger continent inspire me. While young African women often look outside the continent for inspiration, we have remarkable leaders like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who are living proof that, women and African women in particular, deserve leadership positions and a seat at the decision-making table.

How do you feel the agri sector is doing in terms of gender equity and embracing the power of diversity? Are you seeing progress?

More could be done to open up the sector to women, especially for young women. Agriculture has historically been considered a man's world. Even in the 21st century, we continue to see a gender disparity in agriculture. The increased trade and the rise in investment in the sector have not accrued to all men and women equally. There are different dimensions of gender inequality in the sector, but pre-existing standards and ways of doing business are a major factor contributing to the inequality.

Do you think that something has happened and there’s a shift?

Yes, I have seen a shift. In the last few years, we have seen a change in the policies, policy instruments, and initiatives being launched and implemented nationally and on the continent to empower and uplift women. Governments and international organizations have taken steps towards gender equity, which have contributed to the progress and increase in gender equity in this sector. There is still a lot of work to be done, both in the public and private sectors. Women need to be better engaged in the sector in order to design and implement strategies and solutions that are tailored to their needs, to assist women along the agriculture value chain. More women becoming aware of the opportunities within the sector means more progress, development, and impact on female participation, gender impact, and inclusiveness within the sector. Slow progress is better than no progress, but more must be done. 

You are also Council Member at the National Agricultural Marketing Council. How did that come about and what exactly do you do at NAMC?

My mentor, Adv Tsheko Ratsheko, approached me in the fourth quarter of 2020 with an advertisement seeking nominations for the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC). I was initially skeptical about my nomination, since my age and the fact that more seasoned individuals would have applied made me doubt I would make the cut. Nevertheless, we submitted my nomination in October 2020. To my complete surprise, I was informed in May 2021 that I had been appointed as a member of the Council by the Honourable Minister Thoko Didiza.

Since the NAMC board was founded, I am the youngest person and woman to serve on the board. This is an incredible honor for me. I am deeply honored and humbled by the Minister's appointment. Currently, I am a member of the NAMC Board of Directors. Additionally to my Board duties, I am the Chairperson of the Crop Estimates Liaison Committee (CELC) and the Chairperson of the Supply and Demand Estimates Liaison Committee.

What steps can women take to be visible in the sector? What are some strategies that you think are useful in helping them take up space in the agri sector?

As a simple strategy, women within the sector should support and promote one another. Women directly empowering women is one of the fastest ways to create unity and comradery within the agricultural sector. Creating shared awareness and supporting women owned businesses and farms will help boost and uplift women in agriculture.

I encourage women to be brave and have courage. By putting themselves out there, women can reclaim their lives and livelihoods. As the saying goes “with great risk often comes great reward”. The way I entered the agricultural sector was unconventional at best - I interacted with individuals actively involved in the sector. 

We are the only generation to have such a wealth of information at our fingertips, so I encourage women in the sector to do research, reach out, and network like I did. Create a platform for yourself and your business by participating in webinars, offering commentary, using social media platforms and, forming partnerships. 

When you offer a quality service or product, the word will spread. The key to getting noticed by the right people was persevering despite my doubts and uncertainties. 

11. What do you see as some immediate solutions—either government policies or business decisions—that you think could be put in place to ensure women's advancement in the sector?

In order to ensure the advancement of women not only in the agriculture sector but across all sectors, critical steps must be taken by both the public and private sectors. There is a need to document, showcase, and support women along the agriculture value chain. We need to create more awareness about how women are actively participating in agricultural productivity. We need easier access to finance, inputs and tools, market access, business support, and skills development. The right to own land has also been a highly debated issue. In order to directly address the needs of women in the sector, it is necessary to constantly monitor and report on them. 

12. How can we encourage more women to pursue agripreneurship as a career?

The first step would be to make people aware of the opportunities in the sector. Women and youth do not know the extent of opportunities within the sector. 

How important is it for women to empower, support and lift each other up, and what does that mean to you?

It is extremely important. In fact, it is crucial to the upliftment of future generations. We need to instill the values of caring and supporting one another in every aspect of our lives. Women empowering women, is essential to the development and sustainability of our communities and countries.

 In my personal and professional life, I have been blessed to have strong women who have supported me. At the start of my career, I was fortunate enough to have several brilliant and powerful women attorneys leading me under their wings, developing and showcasing my skills. They shared their expertise and skillsets freely with me, which helped me grow and chart a successful career trajectory. My goal is to share my experience, knowledge, expertise, and support with anyone who seeks it. The mentors in my life did this for me, and I am committed to doing the same for others. By empowering and inspiring other women and young girls to go for gold and be brave.

From an early age, my mother and step-mother have both taught me the meaning of supporting each other and lifting each other up. My blended family is built on a foundation of care and support based on the bond and friendship my mother and step-mother share.  

This is an overwhelming time and it’s easy to feel a little bit despondent.  How do you take care of yourself and stay positive and energized during times like these?

I have a strict morning routine. Getting up early in the morning gives me a chance to gather my thoughts and prepare myself for the day. I try not to check emails or my phone before 8am. As a means of stress relief, I schedule time to go to the gym. My belief is that a healthy mind, body, and soul are essential for a successful day.

Apart from reading trade policy before bed, I also read books. You will always find me with a book in hand. Losing myself in a good book is one of my greatest pleasures and sources of peace. Reading gives me clarity and perspective, a deeper understanding of leadership, entrepreneurship, thought leadership, and trailblazing, qualities I want to embody. 

What is your highest, most aspirational vision for Avoport? What does it look like?

My vision for Avoport has always been grand. I set out with the goal of becoming a dominant player in the industry and the company. We hope to make a greater impact on the sector through the various projects and services we offer. We envision creating a gateway into Africa's agriculture value chain. We aim to become the most Afro-Agri-centric company in the world by fostering innovation, collaboration, integration, and development to boost efficiency, transparency, development, and growth for all stakeholders in the agricultural supply chain.

Get in touch with Shandini via Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin and company website