Credit: Farafena

The Farafena founder sees his business pivoting from its import model to focus on African consumers

We asked prominent members of the B.C. business community what they’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic—and how this crisis will change everything from work to leadership. Oumar Barou Togola is founder and executive chair of Farafena, a Vancouver-based social enterprise that imports and sells grain, flour and other food products grown by women farmers in the African nations of Mali and Malawi.  

For B.C. businesses that have survived COVID-19, what’s the most important thing they can do right now to make themselves more resilient to future disruptions? 

The most important initiative we can do right now is to formalize regular reflections on what are the reasons for disruption. What actually has been disrupted, and what will continue to be disrupted? We have learned that we cannot ever become resilient to disruptions to the status quo. Complacency is not an option. We are all quickly shifting to a new normal, and that new normal is “continuous change.” Shorter supply chains, from local production and distribution, will become the new normal. 

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from the pandemic? 

We must maximize the sourcing of products and services from within our own countries. We must shorten and bring transparency to every stage in our supply chains. We have learned to consult more effectively with ourselves and our suppliers to find ways to be more efficient and less contractually bureaucratic. We have learned that the soft skills of listening and empathy are critical.

We are continuing to learn how to take time to reflect on what is really important versus frivolous and purely consumeristic. We have structured moments of reflection every day and we reach out to our vendors and partners to discuss issues that beforehand were never addressed nor contemplated to ever be addressed. A softer, kinder and more caring posture. Many businesses will not survive this new normal, and we should not spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about “going back” but pivot and move forward.

Is there one aspect of your business, or business in general, that you think has changed for good or that you won’t be going back to doing the old way?

We will not be going back to a daily commute to an office. We are now 100-percent remote. We have structured how to effectively use online collaboration tools and formal meetings every day. We are adopting informal principles of scrum/agile in being interactive and responsive. Elbow bumps and social distancing is the new norm. No cash, no writing cheques and faster decision turnaround times will be the norm. 

Over the next few years, how do you expect work to change as a result of COVID? 

For Farafena, we expect to pivot away from exporting crops from Africa to Canadian, U.S. and European consumers to developing sustainable value chains within Africa. This model should also be considered by food importers in Canada to reduce their reliance on imported long supply chains for products from far away. There is very little resiliency in long supply chains based on commodity economics.  

Looking ahead, what leadership qualities will be most in demand? 

Empathy, active listening, storytelling (being able to articulate to every stakeholder, internal and external, a narrative of diversity and resilience and collaboration). Old hierarchical structures will no longer exist. Centralized control will give way to distributed “as-a-service” models. As leaders, we must model the ability to be resilient, patient under duress and, above all, optimistic in the face of the unknown.