Learning from Failure

By September 1, 2011 Agriculture One Comment

When I was a kid, I remember my dad routinely encouraging me in the midst of failure as I grew up.  “It doesn’t matter so much that you failed,” he would say.  “What matters most is that you learn from this failure and don’t repeat the same mistakes that led you here in the future.”  As a result of dad’s willingness to allow me to mess up as a kid, I have developed a strong tendency to be fairly risk-taking in most endeavors that I have undertaken over the years.  The merits (or lack thereof) of this characteristic I possess can be (and are) hotly debated often by those closest to me, but the one thing all can agree on is that this characteristic inevitably produces some failure along the way.

Failure is a very important part of growth as a leader.  Failing, admitting that you have failed, and then learning valuable lessons from that failure enables a leader to effectively take advantage of opportunities as they come up, better understand his own limitations as a leader, and experience a higher chance of success when faced with similar challenges in the future.  As part of Nuru’s commitment to learn and grow, I want to tell you a bit about a pretty big failure with the agribusiness program we just experienced that we seek to learn a great deal from in moving forward.

One of the goals of Nuru’s agriculture program is to introduce a cash crop that our farmers can plant during the short rains season.  The main reasons for this goal are to build more crop diversity into Nuru’s ag program, provide a cash crop that serves as an alternative to tobacco and the harmful effects of farming tobacco, and to help the farmers produce a higher level of increased income to more adequately empower them to make wise choices in planning for their family’s future.

In January, we decided to try to experiment with teff as our first cash cropTeff is a wheat-like crop that serves as the main ingredient in Ethiopian injera bread.  Why teff?  The short answer is that we were absolutely certain of a large, untapped market that would allow our farmers to capture large margins, and teff is simple to farm.  How did we know this?  A year ago, USAID issued us a grant as part of their Market Linkages Initiative to help us improve the efficiency of our maize-buying business.  As part of that program, they also introduced us to several larger players in the commodities trading business in an effort to help Nuru connect small-holder farmers with larger, more stable markets.  USAID set up a partnership with the third largest exporter of commodities in Kenya, and we began to talk with them about maize markets and markets for other crops.  I visited the company’s corporate HQ in Nairobi to discuss them becoming a buyer of Nuru maize.  The corporation’s leadership team insisted that, instead, we begin producing teff with our farmers.  They quoted prices for teff in the east African markets as high as 1,000ksh/kg which was truly astonishing.  They were certain of the stability of this large, untapped market.  They even agreed to give us a small handful of seed if we would run a pilot with a few farmers and consider rolling out teff as a Nuru cash crop.  Not knowing any better, we left the office excited about the potential for this new cash crop and the seemingly large, untapped market for teff.

After we got back in Kuria, we planted the spoonful of seed we had been given as a demonstration plot at the granary and collected 13kgs of teff at harvest.  The crop seemed perfect.  It had a good yield, a short three-month growing cycle, required no fertilizer or chemicals, and was easy to farm.  We decided to pilot the crop with a group of 22 farmers to see what yields we could produce and what challenges we would encounter at a slightly larger scale.  Even though our staff was sworn to secrecy, rumors began to circulate through the farmers (as they always do) about the unusually high price this crop could bring in the market.  Subsequently, excitement about teff travelled and grew quickly throughout the seven sub-locations where we are currently operating.  Farmers closely monitored the progress of the teff as the 22 pilot farmers grew and maintained the crop.

Harvest time came…amazing success!  The 22 pilot farmers had been given 0.5kg each to plant, and they harvested 160kg on average.  At the original quoted price, this would have been an incredible, life-changing profit for the farmers (after cost of farming approximately 130,000Ksh or $1,400 each).  So, we went back to the company to report our success and tell them we were ready for large-scale production and rollout to all 2,000 Nuru farmers in the short rains season.  The company refused to buy our product at the pre-arranged price, stating that the markets had changed wildly.  “Well, what price can you give us then,” I asked as I tried to control myself from exploding.  “You know,” the manager on the other end of the line said in an indifferent, unapologetic tone, “the market for teff in other parts of east Africa has really dried up.  We can give you 60Ksh – 100Ksh per kg.”  I was devastated.  At that price, some of the farmers wouldn’t even be able to pay for their cost of farming the pilot crop.  I aggressively looked for other markets we could tap into in order to realize a larger margin for our farmers, but came up dry in my search.  We eventually bought the teff from our 22 pilot farmers at 100Ksh/kg, and then had to pay them additional money to cover the cost of experimentation that they had incurred during the trial.  They and the other farmers were not happy with the results.  They were frustrated with my inability to secure a better market, and they were justified in their frustration.

I learned a lot of lessons in this failure – lessons I wish I didn’t have to learn at such a high cost to the community:

  • Research markets thoroughly via multiple sources before even making a decision on a pilot.
  • Verify stability, size, and current conditions of potential markets prior to a decision on a pilot.
  • Don’t trust leads on commodities markets just because they come from a credible, reputable firm.  Single-source leads should never be relied on in isolation in cash crop selection – even in the pilot phase.
  • Manage expectations of the community.  Set expectations very low and be 100% sure of your ability to deliver on those expectations before releasing ANY information to the community about a new initiative.

I learned valuable lessons that will allow us to grow and more effectively select better cash crops with more secure markets.  Nuru farmers proved to be even more gracious than my dad in putting up with my failures.  They are cautiously optimistic that we have learned from this first mistake and will provide a viable secure market in the next trial.  So, the search for a viable cash crop in the short rains continues.  If any of you have any interesting leads that you think could be options for us to research and consider, please pass them along.  I can assure you that we will thoroughly research the viability of a stable market before implementing a pilot.

About Jake Harriman

Founder & CEO — Jake graduated with distinction from the US Naval Academy and served seven and a half years as an Infantry and Special Operations Platoon Commander in the Marine Corps. Jake left the military and enrolled at Stanford Graduate School of Business to found Nuru International. Upon graduation, Jake led a team to launch Nuru’s first project in Kenya.

One Comment

  • Vivian Lu says:

    Brave and important post, thank you. I am proud that Nuru proves that its work is about ending extreme poverty, not about egos. I wish we saw this more often from practitioners. The Admitting Failure website and annual Failure Report published by Engineers Without Borders Canada also set great examples.

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