For three years, my family lived in East Africa, working for a Christian international development organization, training small-scale farmers on techniques to increase production and doing micro-loans to provide capital for business opportunities.

While these tools have great value, we noticed a problem with the poorer farmers gaining access to the market so they could actualize the profits on their increased production. My African partner and I convinced our nonprofit board to raise funds to start a milk collection and cooling plant to fill in the gap, but to do it with the mentality of a for-profit business generating funds for the ministry.

While we saw small successes in the beginning, we confronted greater challenges, which led to a desire to close the business. My partner and I felt that with another capital injection and some adjustment to operations, we could still make it successful, so we put together a group of investors to buy the company.

But after one more year of putting everything we had in it, we still could not make it happen. And so, we sold the business.

Six months after the sale, I’m beginning to recover from the punch to the gut. However, this experience has provided several learning opportunities.

  • Failure after giving it everything that you have is much better than wondering if you could have done more. If we would have walked away the first time, I think I would have always wondered what could have been. Of course, it was an expensive lesson to learn—but important nonetheless.
  • Similarly, give it everything you have from the beginning. If you sow mediocrity, you will reap mediocrity at best.
  • Always prioritize relationships when things are going wrong. There were multiple times when my partner and I could have pointed fingers towards each other, but we didn’t. There is a difference between blame and pushing one another in love through challenging times. Because of the trust and respect we have for one another, we can try again. But if we had not cared for the relationship, we would have nothing together.
  • “I don’t know” is not always the wrong answer. In the midst of uncertainty, open and honest communication among trusted partners is the best approach. Any start-up, business or otherwise, in Africa or anywhere, is fraught with unknowns. It’s much better to put all of the opportunities and threats on the table before a decision than to act like you have all the answers and ignore the potential outcomes.

I’ve just returned from a trip to Kenya, and we had several discussions about what to do next. While we might have lost the shirt off our backs, we still have our trousers. There are several opportunities available to us which are worthy of exploration.

Because of our past failures, we have processed the experience and learned valuable lessons. While the result of success or failure is important, the way in which one journeys is just as important.

 

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