How do a bunch of business people in suits connect with a group of smallholder farmers in rural communities? How do a group of young and energetic people relate with a group of older, more experienced investors from around the world? How do we make other people’s problems our problems? How do we understand and relate when we are sometimes very far removed from the immediacy of the realities faced by various people in different parts of the country/ world whom we are all trying to address? Applying empathy in business is the only way we have found to do all these. Empathy is therefore one of the most important business skills at AFEX Commodities Exchange Limited (AFEX) and the secret sauce in our open and accommodating culture.
It is easy to think about empathy as a negligible soft skill that is vital only in personal relationships, but in actual fact, it is a skill that can be learned and drawn upon when conducting business, and as we have found out time and time again it is a major determinant of how far any business can go in creating the right products and building relationships.
How Empathy in Business helped us create better products
The issues faced by smallholder farmers in Nigeria have been talked and theorized about for many years with several earlier attempts made to provide solutions. A bulk of these efforts, though laudable, failed or were stalled on the grounds of having an incomplete understanding of the problems or providing incompatible and unsustainable solutions.
At AFEX, we recognized these same problems and sought a deeper understanding of the causes of the problems as well as the pains and inconveniences they created before crafting solutions to address those pain points. It was this ability to put ourselves in the shoes of the smallholder farmers scattered across Nigeria’s fragmented agricultural landscape that gave us the business direction of providing solutions to the challenges faced by Nigerian smallholder farmers around aggregation, storage and financial inclusion.
As we have grown and expanded, we have continued to ask questions, and listen to the answers that we get back. We also regularly send our office staff out into the field to interact with the farmers who have joined our AFEX network, and also to get an understanding of the full range our business operations. This has kept us empathetic and in tune with the needs of the people whose good we are ultimately working for in developing products.
How Empathy in Business Helped us to Create and Sustain Relationships
Applying empathy in business may have helped us to conceptualize and craft the right solutions for Nigerian smallholder farmers, but even those great solutions would have been less effective without the ability to build and sustain solid relationships with those farmers as well as our other stakeholders and partners.
As our country manager, Ayodeji Balogun, once said, “As complex as it seems, all business processes – whether dealing with investors in Manhattan, New York or coffee farmers in Kibuye, Rwanda – still end up with people to people relationships and how they are built and sustained over time. Being able to relate with shareholders in the board room, bankers in the corporate world, and still being humble enough to understand the dynamics of business at the grass root is a key tool for agribusiness startups in Africa.”
Keeping with this belief, we have continued to cultivate and sustain relationships at every level. As an exchange, we are focused on ensuring understanding and building trust in our relationships. It is in this way that we have been able to reach and enhance the livelihoods of over 100, 000 farmers since our launch in 2014, and empathy will continue to be one of our greatest business skills as we aim to reach 1 million farmers within the next 4 – 5 years.
With empathy as a watchword, AFEX can also boast of a friendly and collaborative workplace that amplifies our efforts and helps us build innovative solutions. We are proud of our staff who continue to uphold this culture. They have shown their willingness to put themselves in the shoes of the poorest and the most under-served in our midst, and to walk with them into more positive realities.