A-maize-ing! How one urban farmer sowed the seeds of success and won over his target market

FLOURISHING: Maize farmer David Mwanaka

FLOURISHING: Maize farmer David Mwanaka

Despite being told that he was crazy and a dreamer, nothing was going to stop north Londoner David Mwanaka from pursuing his dream of starting a business.

Back in 1996 he came up with the seemingly improbable idea of starting a fresh food produce business on the outskirts of London growing white maize, a crop similar to sweetcorn, that is usually only found in southern Africa and parts of Asia.

After coming to the UK in the early 90s as a refugee from his native Zimbabwe, the former journalist missed eating the white maize that he had grown up with.

It had never been produced anywhere in Europe because it usually only grows in a hot climate.

“It was my favourite food growing up in Zimbabwe but nobody grew it in England when I arrived here” he says. “I tried to find it in shops that sold African and Caribbean food but nobody stocked it. I was often told that the climate in the UK wasn’t right for growing it because white maize usually only grows in a hot climate.”

Mwanaka’s dreams of starting his own business were met with derision and doubt

So Mwanaka thought he would grow it himself and maybe create a business out of it to escape a succession of day jobs, including he recalls “a spell as a parking attendant which I hated.”

He persuaded the landlord of his flat in Tottenham, north London, to use a small plot of the back garden to grow maize. Five years and many long nights later, he finally grew a successful crop.
Following that success he eventually convinced his wife Brenda that it was a project worth turning into a business.

In 2002, he set about trying to find farmland to grow maize
However his dreams of turning it into a business were met with derision and doubt.

Not having the necessary investment he needed to launch the business was just one of his problems.

One agricultural expert who Mwanaka contacted for help and advice promptly told the budding farmer he was wasting his time before slamming the phone down.

“That really was a turning point in my life. I thought that either I’m not going to grow it because it is not possible or I’m going to prove him wrong” he says.

Then there were other concerns that every start up business has to contend with.
Mwanaka had originally wanted to grow white maize just for himself and friends and family.

But now he was thinking of turning it into a business, who was his target market?
How would he find out where they were?
And how would persuade potential consumers to buy his white maize products over those provided by bigger and more established competitors in the fresh foods business?

From what looked like daunting odds, Mwanaka has created a successful business that employs seven people.

Today Mwanaka Fresh Farm Foods supplies maize products to major supermarket chains such as Sainsbury’s, Harrods and Selfridges.

And despite facing competition from much bigger farms and fresh produce businesses with years of experience, the company makes deliveries to shops and restaurants all over the country.

So, how did he overcome a challenge so common to many start –ups: finding a target market where none seemed to exist and connecting with them?

The three key steps that the Enfield-based entrepreneur took were:

1. Identifying the people most likely to buy white maize
2. Speaking to that target market to better identify what they were most likely to buy
3. Crafting a marketing message aimed at appealing to the target market

1.Create interest in your products among the customers you hope to reach by defining your target market

It’s a common for first-time entrepreneurs, when asked who they hope will buy their products, to reply “everyone.”

But this “spray and pray” approach to marketing (Link: why a spray and pray approach to marketing doesn’t work) in a bid to be all things to all people more often than not achieves below standard results.

There is a reluctance to think in terms of target a specific sector of the market because of the belief that it means fewer customers and smaller profit margins.

However, Mandy Porta who runs a successful Los Angeles based website design company wrote recently in inc.com: “Targeting a specific market does not mean that you have to exclude people that do not fit your criteria from buying from you. Rather, target marketing allows you to focus your marketing dollars and brand message on a specific market that is more likely to buy from you than other markets. This is a much more affordable, efficient, and effective way to reach potential clients and generate business.”

Defining your target market helps you better connect with people more likely to buy from you

In other words, when you define a target market you make a much better connection to people who are receptive to what you are selling.

It is a lesson that Mwanaka, faced with the challenging prospect of trying to sell a product that many people in the UK had never heard of, took on board.

“In my first year, I produced a successful crop but couldn’t sell much of it because very few people in the UK knew anything about maize” he says. “But then, after talking to friends, I realized that there were a lot of people who were like me, people from southern African countries such as South Africa, Namibia and Botswana who were living and working in the UK and missed eating maize as much as I did. From the conversations I had, I found out they had all faced the same problems as I had in not being to find it after arriving in the UK. I decided that this was the group I was going to target and it was much easier to go forward confidently after this.”

2.Stay ahead of the competition (and the doubters) by talking to your target market

Mwanaka strongly felt he had a viable business idea.

But there were still the doubters, friends who worried that just because there were people who might buy white maize, it didn’t mean they would.

Many business books and websites give some very valuable tips and insights about how to conduct market research which include creating and sending out surveys, reading trade and interest journals, and looking at where potential customers congregate online – social media sites, forums – and offline through networking or local events.

But in order to find out if there really was a demand for white maize, Mwanaka decided he was going to do something a little simpler: he asked people.

And he believes, the effort has paid off.

“I spent a lot of time talking to other people from southern African countries and people who had travelled to this region who enjoyed maize but were not able to buy it in this country” he says. “The same frustrations came up time and time again. I could have done research on the number of people from the southern Africa region who lived in the UK but these conversations were invaluable and it was from these that I knew the market was under served.”

Mwanaka also found out from conversations with large food retailers that new opportunities were opening up.

DREAM TEAM: David Mwanaka with his wife Brenda who works with him on the north London farm

DREAM TEAM: David Mwanaka with his wife Brenda who works with him on the north London farm

They were increasingly buying more products from small food businesses in the belief that entrepreneurs bring innovation and freshness to their shelves.

In an age when so much information is available online, Mwanaka’s methods might seem a little old school.

However, direct feedback from potential customers (Maybe a link here on this subject) is hard to beat.

It’s a great way to see the world through the eyes of your prospective clients or customers.
You can do a ton of research but nothing is more valuable than hearing directly from the type of people who are most likely to buy your product.

For example, are they asking for more options for the new audio device you have just developed?
Perhaps the bags you have made would work better with different colours.
One thing Mwanaka found out is that the learning process of a business owner never ends.
However it does run a little smoother if you spend more time listening than talking.

3. Make an emotional connection with buyers through your unique selling proposition

One issue that can cause first time entrepreneurs to be fearful about their business venture is the strength of the competition.

Among the questions that you’ll regularly see asked in online business forums are how can you make the competition irrelevant? How do you keep the attention of potential customers when they are bombarded by so much information and advertisements?

For Mwanaka, the answer came in paying attention to the things that members of his target market were telling him (Link: anything on paying attention/listening to the target market) and then using that to differentiate himself from the bigger players in the food produce market.

His marketing materials focused on the fact that white maize kernels, which can be used for a variety of dishes such as soup, corn fritters or as a side dishes with meat or fish, was a new vegetable that is low in calories, and are a good source of fibre.

That was a message that resonated not only with homesick Zimbabweans like himself, but a wider customer base of health conscious consumers on the lookout for new and varied fresh produce.

For the Enfield farmer, competition from bigger players in the market was actually a bonus.

Promoting and positioning your business is all about communicating how what you offer can help people

Extending his research into learning how he stacked up against the competition helped him better position Mwanaka Fresh Farm Foods and communicate what made his company unique.

Promoting and positioning your business is all about communicating how what you offer can help people achieve the benefits they are looking for or remove their frustrations.

And the future for Mwanaka Fresh Farm Foods?


At the start of his business journey, Mwanaka recalls it was “very difficult” to convince people he was serious about growing the maize in the UK.

“Some people said they needed to see it to believe it – and then when they saw it, they said they wanted to taste it, to make sure it was really white maize.”

But after answering his own questions as whether there were enough people in his target market who wanted what he was offering, whether they wanted to pay the price he was asking and could he get access to them and then creating his marketing, the future look bright.

“I have got people from many countries who come to buy white maize from us – people from east Africa, west Africa, southern Africa, and some from Asia and South America as well. The fact that we are the UK’s only suppliers of maize and understand this market better than anyone else means that we have a wide network of people who already know what we are about and are willing to continue spreading the word about our products. That helps boost the profits we make as we have to spend less on advertising.”

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