Trust Earned: Craig Irvine Named EY’s World Entrepreneur Of The Year Master Class for Southern Africa

Having been raised in the family business, YPO member Craig Irvine’s passion and persistence were developed and nurtured from a very young age with one aim: to work in the poultry farming business. Irvine’s is majority family owned; a third-generation business started in Zimbabwe in 1950. Though his career path has never altered from this aim, the scope and breadth of his business ventures have rapidly evolved over the last 15 years. Craig’s hard work and dedication paid off in myriad ways, most recently through recognition as a Master category winner in the 22nd annual EY World Entrepreneur Awards as one of Southern Africa’s top entrepreneurs in 2019.

Craig’s vision has remained steadfast: to replicate what his father had built in Zimbabwe across the sub-Sahara. His purpose: “To change lives in Africa by producing affordable protein and growing businesses.”

Starting small, building relationships

Having worked at Irvine’s Zimbabwe in some capacity since the age of 8, Craig joined Irvine’s Zimbabwe officially in 2000, which coincided with the start of the country’s economic meltdown. He ventured out of Zimbabwe in 2004 during the height of hyperinflation, almost as an economic refugee to start a new business venture at significant personal financial risk and some sacrifice.

“Adversity is a powerful motivator,” says Craig.

Moving to South Africa gave Craig the opportunity to follow on from his father’s legacy and was the beginning of their regional diversification. He grew the farming venture into Africa and initiated the startup of five greenfield projects in five new countries over a 15-year period and currently has more in the planning phase.

Irvine’s takes a global/local approach to expansion. “In each new country, we build a strategic alliance with a local partner with common values, as we believe local knowledge is key,” he says. In Tanzania, for instance, Irvine’s partnered with a long-time customer who didn’t have enough capital to build new facilities after its lease had expired. “Irvine’s had the capital and expertise, and they had the local knowledge — a powerful combination,” Craig says. “It’s been a very successful relationship.”

Over the years, Irvine’s has grown from a traditional family business to a modern, dynamic organization while carefully cultivating the values and behaviors that only a family business can have.

“Our strategic aim and geographic diversification was to bolster market reach and share while enhancing consumer access to affordable protein throughout Africa,” he says.

Changing lives in Africa

Irvine’s operations in Africa, combined with their clients, produce over 300 million chickens per year. Chicken meat and eggs remain a very affordable source of animal protein, and protein is essential for the physical and mental development of children. With 22% of children under age five globally suffering from stunted growth due to malnutrition, and the greatest concentration being in Africa, affordable protein becomes critical.

“While our farming ventures help to provide affordable protein in Africa, the business is also a stimulus for local maize and soya production given they are staple constituents of poultry feed,” explains Craig. Between the production of poultry and the locally grown inputs to the business, employment for hundreds of thousands of families has been created to feed nations.

The phrase “growing businesses”, is to describe Irvine’s aim to grow their own business as well as those of their suppliers and customers.

Giving farmers a guaranteed off-take makes their cropping business viable and sustainable. In addition, Irvine’s services support over 60,000 small scale chicken farmers across the region whom buy their day-old chicks, feed and other inputs from them.

“These 60,000 small scale farmers grow around 65 million chickens a year, providing communities with vital quality protein and generate a combined total of over $355 million in revenue and $141 million in disposable income,” he says “Irvine’s does not sell a product but rather a business opportunity.”

Developing entrepreneurism

Craig’s devotion to the industry and the value he and his family have placed on relationships has inspired countless upliftment programs throughout the region. “I am a strong believer in empowering people to improve their lives and, this is best illustrated in the opportunity Irvine’s creates for informal growers to run profitable businesses. These in turn create wealth and upliftment to their communities.”

Cornerstone to the success of the small-scale farmer is the ongoing technical support that Irvine’s provides, uplifting the client base, which is predominately women, with knowledge to become better farmers and as a result, more successful business people.

Innovative approaches

More to just uplifting technical skills to the small-scale farming sector, ”We’ve striven to integrate first-world technologies into the Irvine’s Group businesses in order to ensure their customers are as successful as they can be,” explains Craig.

While extensive training programs are in place to ensure customers are taking care of the basics, and continuously improving their husbandry skills, Craig is conscientious of the typical African chicken farmer’s struggles. “We are incorporating innovations to help address the ramifications of poor infrastructure, lack of access to capital, limited technical information, impaired access to market.”  For instance, the lack of reliable power and poor infrastructure makes maintaining a cold chain, essential for the storage of vaccines needed to protect birds from an array of diseases very difficult. To address this, Irvine’s was the first African producer to introduce in ovo vaccination technology in their hatcheries. This allows for the chicks to be vaccinated inside the egg during the incubation process before they are hatched. “In ovo vaccination reduces stress and results in a day-old chick with a stronger immune system and significantly lower susceptibility to disease,” explains Craig, “resulting in a more profitable flock.”   Irvine’s has also developed an app, now in phase two, connecting farmers to live bird markets, restaurants and other end consumers helping them to find markets for their product and have an integrated logistics component to assist customers in getting their chickens to the end consumer.

Prediction models built into the app forecast when customers require feed for their next order of chicks. Further to this, there is a navigation component that will show images of the customers premises as well as GPS coordinates to assist with delivery given there are no street names or numbers in most African communities. “In the future, Irvine’s will be able to give financial institutions history and information on growers to assist with obtaining finance for their customers,” he says.

“Our strategic aim and geographic diversification was to bolster market reach and share while enhancing consumer access to affordable protein throughout Africa.” Craig Irvine, Managing Director Irvine’s Group

Earning trust through purpose driven leadership

Having grown up in the business, there is not a job on the farm that Craig has not done, which he believes is important in leading a team in such a diverse business. Being a family business Craig has a great sense of pride but also reputational responsibility to the Irvine’s Group.

“As a steward of the brand, I believe that reputation in business is everything and this belief has served the business well.” Craig explains that when focus groups were deployed via a marketing firm to help with market research, the messaging they came back with from extensive interviews with Irvine’s customers, suppliers and employees was integral in their rebranding effort. “Trust Earned” was the result of this effort and a tag line, which Craig felt rang very true to both his identity and that of the business.

He also believes in empowering people to improve their lives. Irvine’s creates opportunities for informal growers to run profitable businesses, which in turn create wealth and upliftment to their communities. “The cornerstone for this to succeed is relationships and ongoing technical support,” he says. “I try to lead by example inspiring team members to live these values.”

Empowering his team

Craig has implemented a true Servant Leadership approach to managing Irvine’s and this has resulted in a very positive culture shift. Team members are entrusted with decision making and empowered to do so speaks to Craig’s belief that you need to empower people.

”Empowerment is key to Irvine’s continued growth and we’ve developed a mentoring program for high potential individuals across the businesses to help bridge the skills gap which is inherent in the market space which Irvine’s operates.” Through the mentorship program, in which Craig himself mentors, Irvine’s can accelerate individuals into management positions much quicker than without.

Passionate about creating a positive future for Africa, Craig strives each day to empower his own team members who in turn support thousands of small businesses. These small businesses contribute significantly to their own community’s upliftment. Craig continues to inspire both Irvine’s team members and the greater community through living his values, entrepreneurial spirit and leadership. Trust earned.

EY is YPO’s strategic learning advisor. 

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