The plant nursery business creator
Sajjad Hamid SME Consultant Thursday, January 28 2010
ASASCO vegetable plant nursery is the largest and first in the country. It was built by a pioneer who has a firm belief that with patience your dreams can come true.
Naresh Dookhan started his business back in 1987 and through hard work and insight was able to build his operation into a major supplier to some of the country’s largest farmers. He supplies young seedlings from his Warren Road farm in Central Trinidad. The likes of sweet peppers, lettuce, eggplant, bodi and all the popular varieties you will find at the produce market
ASASCO creates value by saving the farmer time and money. The operation involves sowing the seeds in Styrofoam trays with a soil mix and growing them under large sheds to provide a protective cover.
The farmer benefits from strong plants and a head start. Time is money in agriculture.
Sow as you reap
Dookhan’s story begins as with most entrepreneurs, he had to struggle with life in a poor family. His parents were not able to read and write but encouraged him to go to school.
He went to a private secondary school in San Juan and would have to sell produce in the market to make the $60 school fees plus books.
At times he would have extra money for a 25¢ ticket to see Bruce Lee movies. One day his teacher asked every student to come to class with a physics text book that cost $19. Dookhan says liking a challenge, “I did not have the money but I decided to take two days off and work extra hours to get the money. I was the happiest person when I got the text.”
After school he was offered a job at the Ministry of Agriculture but he turned it down. He explained, “I never liked working for anyone. I like working for myself.”
So he, like his father cultivated the land and he and his brother teamed up. He would take care of the farm and his brother would sell in the market. That specialisation helped boost the business.
Agri-preneur Dookhan had some trying times on the farm as during floods he had to man the water pump to save the fields late into the night. His hours were from 5.00am to 8.00pm. His parents were supportive and his first pay of $30; he gave $10 each to his parents and $10 to some street people in San Juan.
A market is born
His hard work would pay off as one day he was exposed to growing seeds in trays. This was new as most farmers would throw seeds on the ground as they did for hundreds of years. They would then carefully transplant them into the fields. He sowed 100 trays of sweet peppers and after they had matured changed his mind about planting it. So he approached a big farmer who bought them all.
He didn’t need to do market research but it was a good test market.
Word got around and he remembers back in June 1988 in the depths of a recession, the rains came early and some Paramin farmers got word he had some matured seedlings. It was uphill from then onwards but the climb was challenging.
One bad apple
After Dookhan “created” a market for young vegetable plants, he had to expand his operations and he rented a nearby property to expand his sheds. His location was good as he was right under the noses of the Aranjuez farmers; the food basket of Trinidad. Soon the landlord wanted the property back so he had to move.
No big deal, he bought a small piece of land and had to transform a swampy marsh in Warren Road. It was not easy. He had to fill and build sheds out of internal funds. He chose not to borrow since he had a bad experience with a bank and so did not trust them.
Cool As Cucumbers
From one lot to today’s three acres the company grew organically; ploughing back most of the profits. It was demanding as it took 15 years but Dookhan was determined and he used a shed by shed expansion strategy. He explained, “I am a patient man.” He built the sheds and designed everything on his own.
He described himself as a people person and it showed when one of his employees walked in. She worked 14 years with ASASCO and he asked her for more time in her office to complete the interview. Integrity is also important as he believes if your customers don’t trust you they will return.
After 20 years in the business, ASASCO faced a number of challenges. Dookhan sees some frightening demographic shifts in agriculture. “Many of the older farmers have died and some of the younger ones have not taken over,” he explains. Though he is seeing more backyard gardeners who do it for the fun and to lower their food bills, the sales are smaller per customer.
Overall last year sales were down and he attributed this to the recession. Dookhan’s response is to vertically integrate by diversifing into farming so he could redeploy his staff and avoid any lay offs.
This enterprise depends on technology to be competitive. ASASCO uses machines to fill the trays and to seed it. Dookhan showed some trays that are designed to keep the plants upright in the wind and easier to remove. This coupled with overhead sprinklers results in reduced labour.
But the technology does not stop there. He buys a number of foreign seeds that are high bred. These are tolerant to certain diseases and pests.
They can produce more and so have higher yield for the farmer. He also grows his own local plants for seeds: ochroes, hot peppers, egg plants and pimentos.
Like any agricultural enterprise water is its life blood. Dookhan showed a 60,000 gallon underground tank that catches rain water. He claims it could not be filled since the rains were lower than years before and the nursery cannot draw water from a nearby government irrigation system. He explains, “The water is too low. I have a few days supply and will have to truck water several times per day.”
Additional cost for him and by extension for many of his farmer customers who will have the same water woes. That may mean higher food prices are coming. So brace yourself.