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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Ann Gachugu: I left my banking job in Australia to farm in Kenya

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“I had a banking in Australia before I quit my job to return home to become a mushroom farmer. After high school, I moved to Australia, in late 1999 to pursue my undergraduate degree in banking and e-commerce.

I graduated in 2007 and joined a local bank as a business support officer. I despised every single day of it, though. The work was neither challenging nor motivating.

 Uninspiring work       

“I wanted to innovate. I wanted to think through my input. I wanted to find solutions to the work assigned to me.In September 2009 — after a year on the job — I declined the offer to renew my contract for a permanent position.

Cost and materials for 3 bedroom master ensuite mabati house

I quit and moved back home with no certainty of what I would do for a living once I got here. With my savings from Australia, I partnered with a friend to start a business to manufacture and sell eco-friendly bags. The cost of manufacturing one bag locally was too steep and the bags were not up to the quality we desired, so we imported them from China.

The market was not ready for these bags, though, and despite persistent and aggressive marketing, we were unable to recoup our investment. In under one year, we lost all the money we had put in. I was devastated. I remember once thinking how foolish I had been to turn down the banking job. I wanted to give up. I got married in October 2011.

My husband is an entrepreneur and his support and counsel has been one of the pillars that motivated me to keep trying even when nothing seemed to make sense.

My next venture was farming. My plan in mid-2012 was to grow vegetables in a greenhouse, but it so happened that there was a mushroom farmer in Ngong (a friend of the family) who was looking for investors to expand his mushroom farm. He said there was a huge market for the crop but there were few big players. I wanted in.

 Sensitive process

“Before starting my business in May 2013, I attended a six-day training course in mushroom farming in Juja.

I was armed to the teeth with information, but I would later learn that this was not sufficient; I needed to know more about the practical aspect of mushroom farming than the theory.

Allow me to delve a bit into that: Mushroom farming is a sensitive biological process. They grow in plastic bags in a mixture called substrate, inside a mud or mabati house. The light and temperature inside the house has to be controlled. Your hands have to be sterilised whenever you are handling the growing crop or harvesting.

The harvest takes four to five weeks. If you get any of these stages wrong, you will not harvest your desired output. “I partnered with the training centre to start my mushroom farming business.

I paid them to prepare the substrate for me and I grew the mushrooms on my quarter-acre farm in Limuru using this substrate. Everything was working out well, but after six months, I had not yet seen any returns from my farm. I suspected that something was amiss, so I took a sample of the substrate for testing.

Lab results  revealed that it was infested with mites and mould. I suspect that my partners had known this all along, but had continued to take my money. I was distraught.

I had once again lost money in a business venture. For six months, I contemplated my fate. I wondered what it was that I was doing wrong.

I wondered whether I had made the right choice in the business I had picked.Nevertheless, I was determined to make the farming work, so I tried again.

I hired a farming consultant in November 2013 to hold my hand as I prepared my own substrate on my farm. It has been eight months and I am back on my feet.

I oversee all the stages of the crop. I supervise my team of four permanent and casual staff. I market the business myself and have built a portfolio of customers.

They include grocery stores and individuals across Nairobi. The business is profitable. Whatever I am making from selling the crop pays my workers’ wages and I reinvest the rest in the farm.

The business is not yet where I want it to be, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I just have to reach it.

 How she did it

  •  There is a price to pay for going against the grain — be ready and willing to pay this price.
  •  For you to succeed, be prepared to fail at some point — it is not failure that defines you; how you get up is what determines how high you will rise.
  •  Thoroughly research your idea to see how you can reinvent yourself.
  •  Pursue your passion — you may suppress it or try to escape it, but it will ultimately find you.
  •  As a farmer, be involved in all the processes. Do not let your workers run your farm, otherwise you may never see the returns from your crop.

This feature was first published in the Saturday Magazine. The Saturday Magazine is a publication of the Nation Media Group.

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