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How I rebuilt my agri-business after COVID-19 shocks

By Mercy Kimani

Mercy Kimani, the Executive Director of Chaqula Ltd, knows what it is like to fail. When COVID-19 hit and Kenya went into lockdown, her thriving business also shut down. In this second Inspiration Session with Kenyan Fellows, Mercy shares her journey and lessons that have seen her through it all.

This is who I am and this is what I do

I have been farming since childhood. Today, I am here in my capacity as the founder of Chaqula Limited. I work with farmers in crop production. My passion is growing nutritious food and making it accessible to everyone. I have a background in early childhood nutrition and I have worked extensively with the Deaf. My research at university showed that there is a big relationship between disability and diet. My passion is therefore to create awareness and educate farmers to grow food well, and to have people eat it.

This is how I started Chaqula

Chaqula was born out of a crisis. I wanted to go into education and policy because I loved my job working with the Deaf at the University of Nairobi as a sign language interpreter. It was a good opportunity for me to leverage my knowledge in nutrition and disability. Then I was retrenched in 2003. Fortunately I appealed and got my job back, but I started thinking about alternatives to employment. So I started distributing organic farm inputs as a part-time side hustle. In 2007, I finally resigned and answered my call to go back to the farm and leave the lecture hall. I was quite busy as there was a high demand for my services and products. Chaqula grew and grew.

Mercy Kimani, the Executive Director of Chaqula Ltd

Everything was going well until

COVID-19 hit and we had a total shut down. We did not see that coming, and there was no way we could have planned for it. Our model was 100% farmer group based. We mobilised farmers into groups in their villages, depending highly on face to face weekly meetings. Upon lockdown, we could no longer go to the villages to meet with farmers. All of a sudden we had no work. In March 2020, we decided we couldn’t continue. Not knowing how long lockdown would last, we had to send employees home and close the office indefinitely and moved our things to our warehouse in Kirinyaga. All my 22 employees and myself were now unemployed.

Here is what happened next

COVID-19 was a real wake up call. I would not be where I am today without that experience. They say you learn more in failure than you do in success. It is when you fail that you face yourself because failure tests your values. I had to get therapy to cope with the disappointment. But then I started seeing opportunities where there were none before. The distribution side of our business started picking up because people were now ordering fruits and vegetables to their homes rather than going to the market. We had lots of orders. It was like the sun breaking through the clouds for us.

My support network held me together

I had a lot of people to talk to. I leaned on my family, friends, colleagues, even my bank. I also have great faith in God. I kept calling my farmers just to check in and they were always optimistic, refusing to allow COVID-19 to disrupt their lives. They kept asking me when we would reopen, which kept me hopeful. In addition, there were a lot of resilience programmes coming up, providing people with platforms to talk about their struggles during COVID-19. I tuned in to many of them and that was very helpful to me, connecting with people in the same situation as me. I also found a good distraction in crocheting. Life has to go on.

A working market system would ensure farmers get adequately compensated for their efforts

I created a negativity-free bubble

I avoided news. I don’t own a TV and I would delete people’s forwarded messages about news. I didn’t follow news at all. People thought I was in denial, or was burying my head in the sand. But I did not want to go looking for news because it was so negative. That was my survival tactic. I also read a lot. I bought lots of books which I would read in the morning, work out with my neighbours and later join webinars and online classes. My days would pass like that.

And then we pivoted

It was a good time to rethink our model and ask ourselves what’s next? We realised that we still had our farmers, and their products, and we remembered why we started the business. People had to eat. We could still ship products using matatus. We did not have an online capacity then, we started doing business through the phone. We called farmers and asked if we could see them one on one, and slowly restarted, though on a much smaller scale. We have recovered quite well and I am hopeful that we will soon be back on our feet fully.

We are doing things differently now

We have looked at our value chain and changed it to be more holistic. We are now bringing every stakeholder into play. And we have finally embraced technology! We now have a site where people can buy produce online, and have registered all our farmers. We even have zoom calls with our farmers – many need help from their children and nephews and nieces to log in but they show up. It’s so exciting. We are changing our language to be more business-like. We are encouraging our farmers to be more involved with the entire process, and to look at themselves as entrepreneurs and not just as producers. This mindset shift has been one of our biggest changes.

Courage as a catalyst

One of the hardest things was coming back after failing. Because the fear was always there, that maybe I will try and fail again. But what’s the alternative? As long as life continues, you have to keep going. I latched onto the confidence that I knew how to build a business before. That is what I took with me to new meetings, new funders, new clients. If I built the first one, why wouldn’t I build another one? You have to remember as a founder that before there was anyone else in your company, there was you. You were employee number one. So trust yourself.

Some survival tips for you- do what you can to stay alive

Know that tough times will come. Do not get shocked when it happens and ask why me? It’s not “why me?”, it’s “when me?”. Problems are part of us and part of our responsibility as leaders and business owners is to solve them. We would not be where we are if we were not providing solutions. Remember that what does not kill you makes you stronger. Worrying is what will kill you. Rather than worrying, be proactive, have frank conversations and make tough decisions. Know when to stop and count your losses early. For instance, moving out of our office because we could no longer afford the rent saved us a lot of money. Watch yourself, watch your own habits. I was very busy as an entrepreneur and now I had an entire day to fill. I had to rediscover who I was without my business. If in debt, have conversations with your bank to reduce all the pressure on yourself. Take care of yourself and do what you can to stay alive.