As a finalist in the Unreasonable Institute's 2012 Marketplace, I had the great pleasure of meeting (virtually) Winstone Odhiambo - the founder of Edom Nutritional Services. We exchanged a few emails and as I did some more research, I had a feeling there was an inspiring story there. It turns out, he is a prototypical example of someone who had personal experience with a social problem, deliberately studied the issues through his work experience choices and then decided to try and build his own solutions - with no promise of success. I'd be honored to have the chance to spend time with him this summer.
Born 35 years ago in a humble rural set up in the lake Victoria lakeside town of Kisumu- Kenya to parents who depended solely on subsistence farming for the entire part of my childhood years, This childhood experience later shaped my thinking and planted in me the determination i posses to steer my communities out of similar experiences. I later earned my graduate degree in Agricultural Economics courtesy of a full government scholarship. To date I’m nearly completing my masters. My interests lie in social entrepreneurship and life conservation, if not involved in fighting malnutrition; i occasionally volunteer my time to assist game wardens to feed orphaned young ones of endangered species at conservation parks.
"He had informed me earlier in class that he needed to be the first to reach home to get the few crumbs of bread left that morning."
It may be unbelievable, but most of my diet as a young boy was boiled cassava/potatoes + true tea without any milk, maize/millet meal + vegetables. On average, once in a fortnight, my parents could afford a loaf of bread, a half a kilogram of meat and a packet of milk, this however was hardly enough for a family of 6. I was fortunate enough to be a class monitor in primary school and was privileged to access 3 packets of milk in school twice a week from a government sponsored public schools milk program. I saw myself lucky because nearly 50% of my schoolmates were in worse states. In class 6, one of the most painful incidence occurred. I lost my best childhood friend in a tragic and unbelievable accident - while hurriedly on his way back home for lunch, he misjudged the closeness of an upcoming saloon car while crossing the road, he was hit and seriously injured by this speeding car that never stopped to rush him to hospital. He had informed me earlier in class that he needed to be the first to reach home to get the few crumbs of bread left that morning. He died the following morning from over bleeding. I later learnt that the doctors had previously diagnosed him with anemia. This was the saddest event that was to define what I truly needed to achieve in my life: to do all that I could possibly do to end malnutrition and stop the vicious circle of malnutrition-disease-poverty within my own communities.
"Needless to say, I had no clue where my university fees would come from."
I survived these adversities all the way until I finished my secondary school national exams. I had by then chosen what I wanted to undertake at the university just in the event that I passed my exams. Needless to say, I had no clue where my university fees would come from. I kept my fingers crossed and as soon as the exam results were announced, I was one of the few who were not celebrating, Not because I had failed; I actually passed to the astonishment of many, but because I had the greatest fear of not setting foot in the university despite admission to a course that I desperately wanted to pursue. For the next 4 months, I cried, lamented and blamed my parents for being poor. As each day passed by, I lost hope. A family friend came visiting and talked to me about 500 government scholarships for students from disadvantaged families who already had admission letters. He assisted me to do the paperwork and 2 months later, I set foot at Egerton University. With this full scholarship, I qualified for a ‘boom’ (a yearly stipend to acquire some basic/personal requirements that the university doesn’t provide). That is how I acquired my degree in Agricultural Economics.
Very few people in my village have acquired university education courtesy of the very reasons that nearly denied me one. Unfortunately even the successful few rarely are interested in giving back to the very communities that nurtured them and instead choosing to stay abroad.
"my extended family and a few friends bitterly opposed the idea of leaving gainful employment and resorting to the deep, un-chartered waters of entrepreneurship."
When I started this company, my parents, my extended family and a few friends bitterly opposed the idea of leaving gainful employment and resorting to the deep unchartered waters of entrepreneurship. They probably had no idea of my vision and high affinity to entrepreneurial risk taking. I was fully aware that I needed the capability & preparedness to move further away from the comfort zones of pay checks. Worst of all they were convinced that I didn’t have the millions of shillings to start one despite my numerous explanation that business is ideally 80% idea + 20% money. Today they have changed tune and are my greatest supporters. A firm awareness of these critical success factors is what one needs to keep the head clear/balanced when starting a business.
Building working relationships with 20 farmer cooperatives has taken a lot of sacrifices and patience. In a region where many farmers had been duped by unscrupulous middlemen/brokers thus reducing them to mere price takers and sinking them further into poverty, gaining their confidence has exhausted our resources beyond any capital providers’ imagination and comfort zone. What has helped us has been the multiplier development;- starting with 10-20 farmers in a given community, honoring all parts of the deal/contracts. As soon as they realize that honesty is our best policy and their colleagues read [about] their success, we have them shout about it. This has surely enabled us to bring on board many more small scale farmers and engaged their respective farmer cooperatives to do the logistical work on behalf of the farmers, fortunately these cooperatives are 100% owned and run by the farmers themselves and therefore there is no issue of third parties having the lion’s share at the expense of the farmers’ sweat. This is what success means to me. I would consider my self successful in 10 years when I will have brought on board at least 50,000 farmers.
My professional advancement has been largely based on my focus. Between 2004-2008, i worked for a multinational-Proctor & Allan as a CSR liaison. Because of my interests, i developed creative modalities of blending the existing management principles from the For-profit ventures with social values of the Non-profit sector to formulate a new generation of a socially responsible business model and social purpose venture that was to balance Scale with Quality, Financial stability with Social impact, and Community ties with Rapid growth. This however did not go down well with the management who practically were commercially oriented, I opted out to try and implement my concept elsewhere.
Proctor & Allan later shut down their manufacturing concern in east Africa citing high cost of production, relocated to Egypt and turned the Kenyan branch into a marketing franchise which today is very interestingly my competitor.
"I strategically moved to a government agency."
Between 2008-2009, I strategically moved to a government agency - Kenya Industrial Research & Development Institute (KIRDI) (www.kirdi.co.ke ) as a Food Technology Research Intern where I assisted in 3 core functions:
(i) I facilitated vertical growth of small local enterprises that run nutrition programs & process composite staple foods, their entry into new markets and promotion of new value added products.
(ii) Offer these enterprises capacity building and consultancy in common manufacturing facilities and business incubation.
(iii) Promoted initiatives and joint projects with 3 other government institutions involved in standardization, industrial property and the informal sector aimed at upgrading value addition technologies produced by SMEs in the food sector to be market driven, enable them [to] fix the systemic loose ends and missing links in the food value chains purposely to combat extreme poverty and malnutrition.
In the 2 strategic positions, I discovered that there was no organization that had developed a strategy to deliver micronutrient solutions to governments/other institutions in the region. I was extremely uncomfortable with the status quo and could no longer absorb the frustrations posed by the existing systems inability to create designs and solutions to tackle this silent hunger on a broader scale.
"Having had saddening personal experience in my early years... it ingrained in me a passion for alleviating the vicious circle of malnutrition and poverty."
Having had saddening personal experience in my early years, witnessing the obvious intense and tragic effects of malnutrition across the rural neighborhoods and a continued observation of the troubling gap between public healthcare systems in urban and rural households, it ingrained in me a passion for alleviating the vicious circle of malnutrition and poverty. Fueled by the pursuit to marry entrepreneurship with lasting social change, I had a strong conviction to lead and demonstrate one way a small group can utilize this critical window of opportunity to make a global impact, keep the vulnerable populations from reaching dangerous levels of malnutrition through foods that everyone of them eats; not by unproductive & inconsistent charity but with day-to-day consumption of affordable fortified basic staples by creating a shift from treatment of the most severe cases (whose resultant effects come long after the damage is already done) of malnutrition to a focus on prevention. Because I look at fighting malnutrition as an investment in peoples well being and in future generations, i embarked on a quest for a solution:- Sustainable preventive health care strategies with a mission to design and implement comprehensive micronutrient strategies in east Africa. In collaboration with KIRDI and the Directorate of public health, the solution thus became clear; a strategy that would reach these most at risk populations and provide them with the benefits of critically missing micronutrients. Making this solution a reality would have an enormous impact in their health. My business model concept was thus hatched.
Building the business from scratch has been the toughest assignment I’ve had so far in my lifetime. I considered my deep interest to fight malnutrition, skills, talents, contacts, assets and other resources I had that worked in my favor plus the actions I needed to take to get started and make it happen. The only probable way to my success was to leave all perceived comfort zones into the loose, unstructured, demanding environment as a startup which instantly presented plenty of challenges, logistical obstacles and near face of uncertainty. Fortunately, my self sufficiency, perseverance, self efficacy, creativity, internal locus of control, high tolerance of ambiguity and preparedness to do whatever it took to realize my vision enabled me to overcome these initial challenges and adversities. But more importantly, my natural ability to re-assess, re-conceptualize, re-define and re-purpose the crucial aspects of this social enterprise as and when required steered my team to a successful pilot.
What has actually enabled me to build the business here are:
(i) A very supportive team with in depth knowledge of all aspects of the organization from the intricacies of the design to the long term vision
(ii) The teams full understanding of the insights to this widespread distress, experience in navigating through fast paced and resource constrained environment in a developing economy that’s given us the impetus, enthusiasm, patience, imagination and a unique perspective on improving the organizational development.
(iii) Ability to work and corporate with established organizations/government agencies to tackle one of the world’s toughest problems, a strong capacity to build vertical/horizontal relationships/linkages and an aligned social impact with the core business to have as many stakeholders as possible which ultimately makes the enterprise a vehicle for positive social change.
(iv) A near perfect working relationship with 20 farmer cooperatives who’ve enabled us to work with nearly 3,900 small scale farmers who play the most important role of supplying the key inputs.
We’ve had considerable setbacks and other mighty logistical challenges that would ordinarily see a faint-hearted entrepreneur hang up the boots and seek other softer landing zones elsewhere but I constantly consider them as expected feedback - adversities that I need to overcome to produce results that truly matter. These in essence has enabled my team and I to build the venture up to this far.