An Entrepreneur’s Motivation to Move Forward
SEED Failure Series
Upon reflection, Kenya based Jackline Lang'at feels she may have given up too quickly. The 2016 Award winner was piloting the construction of eco-friendly, durable roads while working with women and youth, when elections hit, cashflow stalled and dedication wavered. Now four years on, Jackline is looking back on her failure but keen to launch a new venture. We caught up with her to learn from her experience, a timely discussion in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and its risk to the survival of many small businesses.
What motivated you to start a business in the waste management sector and what inspired your choice to work with women and youth groups?
Jackline: I grew up in a village where the environment is so serene, you go to the river and you hear the frogs croaking, you see the butterflies all around you. But as soon as I went to school in the city I saw plastic waste everywhere. So, finding a solution to our plastic waste issue has been something I have been passionate about since I was young. I also lived in the Netherlands for three years and I was just really appreciative of the clean environment. Since then I have been trying to bring behavioural change to the people here in Kenya. And I have a family of my own now, we live in the city and I want them to live in a clean and healthy environment.
When I started Green Road Ltd I wanted to also alleviate the poverty level in my community. Through my solution, I was trying to tackle all three issues by employing marginalised groups in the community to collect plastic waste and construct eco-friendly, durable roads from recycled plastic.
I was inspired to work with women because of gender roles in Kenyan society. Women do not get a lot of opportunities to work in decent jobs, especially women who live in slum areas. Also, women are very responsible, when you offer them an opportunity that brings value to their families they tend to take it seriously. And I wanted to work with youth because we have a lot of school dropouts who get into drugs and are not active at all. So, I was trying to show them ways in which they could support themselves, that working in these waste collection groups is a way to earn a living.
Can you walk us through the period of launching the business, winning the SEED Award and then the struggles you faced?
Jackline: I launched Green Road Ltd in 2015. At the time I was meeting with different Kenyan counties to sell my products (road material and paving blocks). When I got the certification approval I needed it was time to show the government a prototype and kick off the project. I also started working on community awareness, I was talking to women and youth, organising them into collection groups and making them see the value of the waste they were collecting and dumping at dumpsites.
Then in 2016, I won the SEED Award. Through it, we got support in the form of workshops, training and access to networks through the SEED Platform. The business development support was very good, my team and I were trained on how to improve our project proposal, how to pitch for funding and just to make sure that our project would pay off.
I started facing problems in 2017. I had hired women and youth for the collection, bought five tonnes of recycled plastic, secured a collection centre and an agreement with the county of Kericho. Then soon after it was a period of elections in Kenya and the county closed their books, so no projects would be funded until the elections were over. I had to put the project on hold because it was a period of uncertainty. I did not know whether the same people would come back (in the next administration). If not, I would have to start all over again to secure an agreement.
During this time I had accumulated a lot of debt, but I was hoping once the elections were over I would be able to pick up the project. However, that was not the case. Right after the elections, I faced another challenge that would ultimately stop the project completely. The Kenyan government issued a nationwide ban on plastic bags. The manufacturing, selling and use of polythene bags was banned and that was the source of raw material in my project. That was when I made the decision to stop completely.
After making the decision I felt as if I was at a crossroad and did not know which way to go because I had invested a lot of time, money and resources into this project. My decision to close meant that the women and youth collection groups would lose the income they got from the project. I could not even face them to share the sad news I sent a representative to do it. I was depressed for some time, and I do not think I have regained back that same level of energy. Sometimes I really feel disappointed, because the project attracted a lot of attention. I even get students who are doing research and engineering who really wanted to see how this project would turn out.
As you reflect on your journey with Green Road Ltd, is there anything you would do differently?
Jackline: I think I was not prepared financially. If I was to go back and do the project again, I would not hope to secure funding immediately. I would want to invest personally in my project so that I would not have to rely on external funding so much. Because if I had been more financially stable, then I would not have given up immediately. I would also have diverted my attention to alternative solutions. Overall, I would not blame external factors too much.
What tips would you give enterprises that are currently struggling due to the current pandemic?
Jackline: I would advise them to minimise any operational costs because that is what eats up a lot of money. Also, partners will be more understanding of current circumstances now. If you are in a building where you pay rent, try to negotiate some discounts so that you can survive this period.
I would also encourage enterprises to invest a lot of time in selling their products online because a lot more people are spending their time online now. Take advantage of the different social media platforms to reach your target customer and sell them your products online.
What advice would you give those whose fear of failure is preventing them from trying again?
Jackline: If it’s something you are really passionate about and you think it’s worth investing your time and resources in, then I would recommend you keep going. Because there are a lot of platforms that can offer you help, not necessarily with funding, but with information and networking opportunities. So, before you throw in the towel, have a look around. Because in my case with all the frustrations I faced along the way, I did not immediately try to look for alternative support, I should have done that.
What is next for you? Are you thinking of starting another business?
Jackline: Yes, I am currently trying to see what else I can do around waste management. I am working on a proposal, but it is still at an early stage, so I can’t share too much. But that is the direction I want to go into, still focusing on plastic and finding sustainable solutions for Kenya’s waste management issues. Because if I can make a small impact to help the environment and earn something on the side for myself, then that is what I would want to invest my time in.