Yvette Atieno Ondachi happily admits to being stubborn. Frankly, it’s a quality not many people would aspire to but in the case of this 40-year-old Kenyan, it’s clearly a strength that has served her well. Leaving a lucrative career in pharmaceuticals to launch a social enterprise that enables small-scale farmers to deliver fruit and vegetables to 50,000 consumers on a weekly basis is definitely not for the weak-of-heart.
“I made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t give up no matter how tough things got. And trust me, they’ve been tough. But I’m glad I’ve held on. Successes are affirming and lots of people want to be affiliated with what you are doing, but failure creates an opportunity to reflect and explore newer and better ways of doing things. Mistakes are a stepping-stone to greatness especially when they are embraced and not shunned. There’s always something better awaiting me on the other side of a challenge,” she says cheerfully.
A typical “child in the middle”, Yvette recalls her older sister getting lots of attention when she hit the big milestones and her parents being unfazed when her turn came. But there’s no bitterness there, just good humor: “From an early age, I learned if I was going to stand out, I’d have to be extraordinary. To this day, I seek paths that few have followed. I like to be extraordinary; normal is boring,” she laughs.
With a BSc in biochemistry from the University of Nairobi, Yvette spent 16 years working for big pharma such as AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline. Mostly focused on sales and marketing, the 40-year-old has range of experience in the industry. In her last position before heading out on her own, she traversed East Africa with the job of improving access to medicines in eight countries. It was these trips that planted the seed for her new venture.
“As I traveled around, I was perturbed by the level of poverty. A majority of the population couldn’t afford decent healthcare and were subjected to mediocre medicines simply because they didn’t have money. It was frustrating witnessing the helplessness, and I knew I wanted to do something, but what? It was when I realized that most people at the bottom of the pyramid rely on agriculture that I saw an opportunity to use my marketing experience for good and help farmers achieve a decent wage.”
As a transitioning step, Yvette invested in a greenhouse tomato farm in Eastern Kenya using her savings and some personal loans. It was a steep learning curve with five years of straight losses, but she persisted to the surprise of many. There was method to her madness after all.
“Mostly it was because I’m just stubborn and refuse to give up. But I had also developed relationships with smallholder farmers who were facing equally tough times. In the fifth year, when things started to turn around and I recovered much of what I had lost, I knew I was ready to give the business my full-time attention and take it in a new direction. I understood the pain farmers went through and finally had something to give them.”
Her business, Ojay Greene, is an agricultural social impact enterprise that seeks to increase the incomes of smallholder fruit and vegetable farmers in Africa by linking them to urban markets where demand is continually growing as a result of rapid urbanization. The company also advises farmers on best practices in agriculture, provides high quality seeds, connects them with microfinance firms, and offers training on topics such as how to adapt to climate change. When they join the program, farmers’ get consistent and continued access to customers. Yvette and her team sign contracts for specific food crops, which they commit to buy. On the customer side, the company takes care of the logistical nightmare of buying fresh, high quality local product. They routinely test their products to ensure they meet food safety requirements and can trace every fruit and vegetable to its exact origin.
A huge milestone came the day Yvette was invited to join the Village Capital accelerator program, she resigned from her job the very same day. Village Capital applies a peer-selection process whereby a cohort of about 12 businesses work together to solve different problems in a specific sector (in this case agriculture). Along with one other participating company, Ojay Greene was selected by its cohort peers to receive $50,000 in investment.
“The VilCap accelerator was really beneficial. It gave me the opportunity to refine our business model and convince my peers that this was the business to invest in. It was hard work but we won our first investment, which enabled us to test our model of linking smallholder farmers with profitable urban markets.”
However, it didn’t take long to realize that much more funding was needed to build the infrastructure necessary to create traction. And yet funders needed to see traction before handing over any investment. “It’s like the chicken and egg story. Which comes first?” she asks earnestly.
Fortunate then that Yvette and her young, dynamic team were selected among eight businesses to win $100,000 at the Pitch for Impact Competition in the wings of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in 2015. “It was absolutely affirming. It gave us the motivation to shift gears and attain a new level of dynamism.”
And while winning these accolades has clearly been two of the proudest moments in her professional career, a more personal moment marked the high point.
“Earlier this year I went to a rural village to recruit smallholder farmers into our program. Although we did not speak the same language, a 97-year-old woman expressed her overwhelming gratitude for bringing progress to her village. In the African culture, the highest form of blessing is that from an old person. It was such a moment of honor.”
Ojay Greene plans to grow its presence in five sub-Sahara African countries within five years, empowering 160,000 smallholder farmers and playing a significant role in improving hunger, poverty and food security in Africa and beyond. So to all the nay-sayers who think African women are neither good, ready nor strong enough to handle the pressures of scaling a business, the proof is in the pudding.
And to all the women looking to launch and seeking inspiration? Listen up, Yvette has some advice:
“Don’t focus on your limitations rather focus on your potential. Agriculture is a great industry to work in and there’s plenty of room for many more to get on board. Come, let’s change our continent together.”
- You will have more down days than up days, but never forget the reason why you started doing what you are doing today. Keep the dream alive.
- Be resilient, be supportive and be collaborative.
- Before you start, make an effort to speak to three types of people: (1) Those who tried and gave up – understand the pitfalls they faced and what made them let it go; (2) Those who tried and succeeded – emulate their learnings and what gave them the cutting edge; (3) Those who tried and are trudging on – understand what keeps them going.
- It takes a different way of thinking to be effective. A business owner who continues in the same mindset is bound to fail miserably. It’s critical to recalibrate.
- Partnerships don’t always work. It can be very draining when visions are divergent or when partners take on a competitive rather than collaborative position. It’s easier to walk away and seek a better, well-matched partnership.