Many great stories are told about entrepreneurs who failed numerous times before finally finding success. From Thomas Edison’s 10,000 light bulb prototypes to the 400 times Richard Branson launched companies before finally finding success. For Alice Migwi, this plotline is all too familiar coming from a fairly entrepreneurial family. Her father was an entrepreneur as are her mother and brother. What is unique about Alice though is her green thumb and the courage and resolve to iterate.
Read on and learn how Alice:
- transitioned from a successful career at Global logistics firm Maersk to founding a successful business promoting sustainable farming and gardening
- overcame a host of misadventures that included auctioneers, debt and unexpectedly closing a business just as it was taking off
- gained fresh perspective on leading a business and staying true to its culture
Do you come from an entrepreneurial background?
Yes. Growing up, I saw my dad try his hand at many different businesses, most of which did not work out. At one point he gave up and retired early. My mum on the other hand has been keen on trying out entrepreneurship but within safe zones. Entrepreneurship is scary, especially when there’s lots of failure and I believe that seeing a lot of my dad’s ventures fail contributed to her risk-averseness. I on the other hand felt strongly determined to try and not give up.
Opportunities in the most unexpected places
After a nearly twenty year career at Maersk, the business bug bit and I moved to Tanzania where I started a sea food export business to Hong Kong and Singapore. My logistics knowledge came in handy and business was great until market forces changed, flooding the two regions with seafood and the prices plummeted. I then started exporting curios to Poland and experienced some product sourcing and financial challenges, eventually closing the business and moving back home.
We had bought some land while I was away, so I put up a kitchen garden which thrived, with lots of surplus, inspiring my next venture. One day while sitting at a friend’s restaurant talking about the garden, he offered me an opportunity to supply his kitchen. From just one client, we grew to include a chain of high end restaurants and invested in greenhouse equipment as we saw great potential in farming. We also engaged other farms to help meet the demand.
Working with several high end restaurants came with strict quality and consistency requirements as well as long working hours. We increasingly faced consistency challenges amidst fluctuating prices in the farms. Remember my friend’s restaurant? One morning as I was making a delivery, I found the furniture piled outside. As I stood there wondering whether they had changed their cleaning procedure, someone mentioned that they were being auctioned! Long credit cycles, delayed payments and non-payment as in the case of the closed restaurant slid us into debt. This turn of events was extremely stressful and I took a break from business.
Picking up after the setback
A year passed and I finally was ready to get back into business. This coincided with an offer to take up a publishing company, as its owners were leaving the country. It felt like a timely moment to get back to work! With my sleeves rolled up, I went for it but found myself stepping hard on the brakes shortly after as this business too was in debt!
Back to the drawing board
I quickly regrouped and decided to set up Kibandasky (a makeshift restaurant), in the space where the publishing house was located, in Westlands. My green thumb was itching and I made some gardening space next to the restaurant. I also grew potted plants that clients constantly offered to buy. They were also quite fascinated at how much I could grow in my small garden which got me thinking about a business opportunity around that.
I set up a consultancy, hired a gardener to support the process and began to help people set up their urban gardens.
At that time, the cottage industry was also taking off so I started stocking various products for sale on behalf of the producers and sublet some of the space to other small businesses.
Jumping over the roadblock
My restaurant was finally doing really well when I was hit with yet another roadblock towards the end of 2019, my rent was doubled! I tried to work with this change but eventually had to close the business. I now set my sights on the gardening consultancy and as we got into 2020 COVID lockdowns and extended stays at home led to a sudden interest in gardening. People wanted to grow their own food as the pandemic brought challenges of access to food. I stepped in with zoom gardening classes for adults and kids. Later that year I finally registered my gardening business, Gardenology which provides nature based solutions for the urban gardener. Their solutions embrace sustainability, and cover garden maintenance, gardener training, disease and pest control, composting and garden design.
At around the same time I was nominated for the Leadership for Growth program at Amani Institute courtesy of WWF Panda labs . I was a bit apprehensive having gone through countless training sessions over the course of my career that did not link back to application. I had a great experience on the program with the business coaching sessions as my main highlight.
I was able to look at several facets of the business as well as my leadership style, which came in handy when I had to make difficult decisions to ensure that the team was a good fit for the organization. I also turned an idea on composting into a product(COMPOST) that we took to the market through prototyping as part of the program’s Business Innovation Project.
We have since made good strides in developing it including prototyping a partnership with a retail outlet. Through the COMPOST product, we are working to transfer knowledge and get more people to turn their household waste into growing media/fertilizer for their gardens.
You have gone through various phases, sometimes failing and starting afresh or iterating. What is the greatest take out from it all?
Failure is the key that opens success – the decision to turn the key is what makes the difference. You know how you try turning a key and it’s stuck, but you keep trying and it works, then you get to see what’s on the other side of the door? That’s how I feel about failure; and success feels like seeing a small piece of heaven on the other side of the door. I want to keep going for that!
I also keep turning the key because I am raising girls and I want them to not give up even when they face challenges. I want to leave my girls something that they can take over and proudly hand down to their children.
Looking for a leadership development program that translates into direct business impact? Nominate a manager for the six-month Leadership for Growth program and give them access to skills, tools and mindsets that are directly transferable to their day-to-day job. In addition, they will Implement a business innovation project that will create a direct positive impact on your business.