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Everyone dreams of doing something that will stand the test of time

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In his previous posts, Gerhard Dust talked about what motivated him to set up his business and discussed the personal challenges he has encountered and the issues his company has had to deal with as his business developed. In this, his final blog post, Gerhard talks about the human desire to leave a lasting legacy, and gives us his six golden rules of entrepreneurship.

This is my last blog for the time being and, frankly, I would have liked to talk more about PolyCare. How environmentally friendly our invention is; how we are able to finish houses in a few days; how it can be made using only desert sand; and how inexpensive this solution is.  Of course you can still find all of this information on our website or on YouTube.

But today I want to talk about entrepreneurship and what an entrepreneur actually is. You see, I have often been asked a very direct question that goes something like this….

“Gerhard, at your age and time of life, why did you start this business?”

Some might find this quite rude, but actually it lies at the heart of what inventors and entrepreneurs are about.  The simple answer is that every person dreams of doing and creating something that will stand the test of time – something great that will outlast them and benefit mankind.

Doesn’t every person with even a gram of compassion carry a dual responsibility: on the one hand towards his fellow human beings and, on the other, towards the generations to come?  My partners and I founded PolyCare because we recognised that affordable housing world-wide is no longer achievable for more than a billion people through the use of traditional building technologies. We might be of retirement age, but that doesn’t mean we have lost the ability to dream and to wish for a better world.  A world where an ordinary person can build their own home; where the money needed to do this doesn’t leak away into the coffers of the multinationals; and where a home is more than a shabby tent made of plastic.

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Sometimes we joke and say that we are like the elderly people in the blockbuster RED. Our definition of RED is slightly different: Retired, Experienced and Dedicated.  I admit that we are proud that our solution has been described as one of the most important inventions of recent times and that it could provide millions of people with quick and inexpensive housing worth living in. So far, for us this has meant endless work, many sleepless nights and often-severe worries about money, technical solutions and bureaucratic hurdles.

But we do not regret any of it.  Many believe that we have transformed a good idea into reality and we have gained many supporters and friends in the process.  So we are proud of what we have achieved so far, but there is still much to do.

You see, being an entrepreneur can often be its own reward and this is especially true when it is also economically successful. But an entrepreneur does not have to become rich to be happy. If we provide the means to make the world just a little bit better, then that will be reward enough.  These old REDs will be able to approach the ultimate finishing line knowing that they have made a difference.  What could be more motivational than that?

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The last six years with PolyCare has certainly taught me some golden rules. These are my golden rules for entrepreneurship:

  1. Fairness – always treat employees and business partners how you would like to be treated. Friends are more valuable than enemies.
  2. Dreams – everyone has the right to change the world. Be brave and set yourself goals that are as big as your confidence will allow, but make sure that you are practical about what is achievable.
  3. Planning – don’t leave things to chance. Plan your steps carefully, review them constantly and always have a plan B.
  4. Develop the team and yourself – look beyond your horizons and learn from others. Invest time in networking. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and lean on the best people you can find.
  5. Commercialise – the best invention is useless unless you can sell it. Everything revolves around the benefits to your customers. Make sure it provides benefits for them.
  6. Team – if you need staff, get the best people, share your vision with them and continually motivate them.

I wish you all success on your entrepreneurial path. Follow your dreams with courage and confidence and don´t be put off by small setbacks.

And finally…..believe in yourself.

Gerhard DustI am grateful that you have read my blog and I am grateful for the interest that you have shown in our solution. Now this technology must reach the people in need. I ask you with all my heart for your support… please spread the word about this invention to the world. Tell your friends via Twitter, Facebook or e-mail.  Let UNHCR and others know that there is a cheaper more practical and ethical alternative to the use of containers in the desert for refugees and for worldwide affordable housing.

Your words might just fall on the ears of the right person at the right time, and that could change the lives of millions.

Best of luck to you all.

To read more about Polycare :

A mature entrepreneur talks about a life-changing event…

Gerhard Dust discusses the challenges he faces in his new business venture…

PolyCare CEO Gerhard Dust responds to questions about his technology

 

PolyCare CEO Gerhard Dust responds to questions about his technology

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In his previous posts [1] [2], Gerhard Dust outlined the events that led him to his current career path and described some of the challenges he has encountered as his new business develops. In this third blog post, Gerhard deals with some of the main questions that his new technology has raised and explains some of the concepts involved.

In my previous blogs I have tried to convey the huge advantages that the PolyCare system offers when building structures of up to three or four stories. However, some of the responses I have received recently have led me to understand that some of you are still struggling to accept that much of this is actually possible.  How can you have a building with no real foundations, and how is it possible to build with blocks that are not cemented together?  What’s more, doesn’t capillary attraction mean you still get rising damp, and can completely unskilled people really do all the building work?

These and many more questions have been continually raised and, if you think about it, with good reason.  For over 2000 years there has been a standard way of building and we all understand it fairly well.  The problem is that when something totally new arrives our immediate reaction is to compare it to what we know and the standards we are familiar with.  Unfortunately this doesn’t always give us a clear picture.

Below I explain the building process with pictures taken on-site when my colleague Ramon Gray constructed a small Quality Control building for TATA in New Delhi, India.

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The start of a PolyCare build requires a flat, level base of wet sand.  This is usually accomplished by making a small 150-200mm channel in the ground, filling it with sand and then levelling it carefully.  In this first picture (left) this wasn’t possible as the construction was being carried out on an uneven concrete base. However, the building system is simple and it can be adapted to practically any situation.  Here, instead of making a channel, our team used some waste materials (the granite strip on the left and the steel box section on the right) to form a flat and level frame for the wet sand base.

The picture on the right shows the start of the build itself.  On the right you can see that base lates have been simply laid on the sand base and bolted together with small steel plates.  These continue around the building and form the base level.
Steel connecting rods are then screwed into the bases and these run right through the blocks, once they are laid on top, and connect to a similar set of plates at the top of the building. Once the connecting rods are in place work can start on laying the blocks.

The laying of the blocks continues with the blocks being placed over the rods and with the rods themselves being extended using simple screw thread connectors.  Gaps are left for windows, doors etc.  When the blocks reach the top of the building the top plates are added and the rods are bolted to them, giving the whole structure immense strength.

There is no sticking, gluing or anything else involved; the blocks are simply laid on top of each other.  This is why our system has often been called “big boys’ LEGO” – for obvious reasons. But I’m not sure that this is an accurate description… the LEGO most ten year olds do is much more complicated!

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So let me explain some of the concepts.

In this system no foundation is generally used (see note) as the structure itself is many times stronger and more resistant to bending forces than a brick or cement concrete wall.  This is due to a combination of the huge strength of the polymer concrete as well as the way that the blocks lock together.  This strength is further enhanced by the tie bar system that produces a very strong box-like structure.  But there are further considerations.  This structure is completely resistant to water, so foundation frost and capillary attraction occurs without any consequence.  The wet sand technique is a copy of the system the Egyptians used to build the pyramids.  While it may seem somewhat crude and primitive, no one can say that it hasn’t stood the test of time.

So, lastly, let me provide some assurances for anyone looking at this system for the first time.  The Bauhaus University is one of the most respected institutions worldwide for architecture, design and materials testing.  They have been working with PolyCare now for over four years, testing and officially certifying practically every aspect of what we do.  They are so confident in our system of building that one of their professors recently assisted PolyCare in presenting and discussing its merits at an international exhibition.  The efficacy of the system is therefore not in doubt and it is currently undergoing full building type approval in Germany.

[Note:  PolyCare fully understands that, in some circumstances, extremely weak or unstable soils will need some level of foundation, whether strip or corner piles, etc.  Site testing will determine where this is necessary.]

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Learn more about Polycare

Previous EEPA blog post on Polycare: 

A mature entrepreneur talks about a life-changing event…

Gerhard Dust discusses the challenges he faces in his new business venture…

A Venture Capitalist’s View: Business plans that net investment

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You only get one chance to make a first impression, and this is particularly true when seeking investment to grow your business. In this guest post, venture capitalist, Dr David Demetrius, sets out how to write a plan that will grab the attention, and the investment, of a potential backer.

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Why do so many promising ventures never get the capital they need?  In the vast majority of cases, it is due to the business plan not having made a good enough case for investment.  So what does a good business plan entail?  Here is what I would be looking for.

It should start with an executive summary, preferably of a single page, but certainly not more than two.  This summary needs to grab the potential investor’s attention in the first five lines.  Don’t start with background waffle.  Make it immediately clear what the products or services of the business are, or are planned to be.  Make the executive summary exactly that: a summary of the whole document including highlights of the market opportunity and the team and ending with a clear statement of what you are looking for and what you are offering in return.  For example, “We are seeking an investment of 100.000 Euros in return for a 30% share of the company”.

After the executive summary, you can go into more detail on the venture.  Excluding appendices, this should run to about 15 to 20 pages.  You need to describe the products or services in some detail, but try not to get bogged down in technical jargon which at best will bore the investor and at worst will totally put him off.  Of more importance is to show clearly what the market opportunity is and what competition exists or could appear in the near future.

You also need to give profiles of the team, their skills and their experience, and indicate what finances they are themselves investing in the venture.  Be honest and point out what gaps there are in the team’s background and skills.  Hopefully the investor will be able to help fill these gaps.  

What investors will be very interested in is what they are likely to see as a return on their investment.  For that you need to have detailed financial projections.  However, there is no point in burying 30 pages of financial spreadsheets into the main body of the document.  By all means have lots of detailed tables as an appendix, but in the main body simply have a page or two showing the key performance indicators (KPIs), such as graphs of projected cashflow, profitability and revenue growth.  Then make it easy for the investors to find the detailed backup to this information, If they so wish, by guiding them to the relevant pages in the appendix.

It is also important that the summary pages on financials includes some “What if?” analysis (preferably displayed graphically).  For example, it can be very reassuring to investors if they can see that, even if actual revenues achieved are only 80% of your projections, the company will nevertheless not run out of cash.  This should not be achieved by simply asking for an overly high injection of funds, but rather by indicating savings in expenditure such as administration costs that would be made in the event of lower sales.   Similarly show the optimistic growth figures for the venture if revenues significantly exceed your projections.

How far ahead should you forecast?  In most cases, I would recommend three years with monthly figures, but in some industries a five-year forecast can be realistic.  (In the oil industry, even 25 year plans are common). Basically you should only project revenue and costs as far forward as you can reasonably see.  Don’t simply take ‘month 1’ and add x% per month to it for 36 months ahead.  Any potential investor will realise that you have no real idea what is going to happen.  Think it through carefully.  For example, will there be months of the year when revenue will be lower due to holiday periods?

I am not saying that following my advice in this post will definitely get you the investment you seek, but I am fairly confident that ignoring these pointers will not improve your chances!

Dr David DemetriusDavid Demetrius is the founder and President of Emadin and specialises in working with companies to achieve strategic growth. He has over 25 years experience in management of and consultancy to companies (from SMEs to large multinationals) throughout Europe, the United States, Middle East, Australia and Asia. With a colleague, he founded a group of companies specialising in management support and consultancy services for complex or large programmes and projects, building it to annual sales of over $ 100 million with approximately 500 professional staff by the time he sold his shareholding in the group.

 

Gerhard Dust discusses the challenges he faces in his new business venture…

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In his previous blog post, Gerhard Dust described how an international humanitarian crisis caused him to re-evaluate his retirement plans and led him down a completely new career path. In this second post, Gerhard tells us about some of the issues his company encounters as his business develops.

You will have seen from my previous blog the huge advantages that our construction system can bring, and these were naturally of significant interest to our visitors from China. The Chinese delegation was keen to see if it would be possible to use waste residue from a gold mine as the main filler constituent in our polymer concrete and if the end product conformed to Chinese building standards.  We demonstrated that not only could we use this waste material but that the resultant PolyCare polymer concrete was anything from 6 to 10 times stronger than required by their standard.  This advantage was further enhanced when they discovered that just 1m3 of this material actually makes 3 to 4m3 of walling.  Consequently, we have made significant progress with this important Chinese company and their delegation left acknowledging that our process could make a major contribution to meeting Chinese housing needs.

Meeting with the Chinese delegation at our R&D plant in Gehlberg Germany

Working on the world stage with a breakthrough technology like ours doesn’t always attract such commercially aware and serious-minded approaches as that of the Chinese delegation.  It can be frustrating at times, and sometimes quite amusing.  Practically every week we are approached by individuals who claim to be close to, or related to, or a friend of, a king or queen, the president, the minister, etc. etc.  In circumstances like these, naivety soon gives way to experience and the realisation that often these people only know someone who operates the lift in a building where someone else who works for the government lives.  The bottom line is always that either they want something for nothing, or a payment in order to “oil the wheels.”  On occasions, of course, our contacts are genuine, but there are also frustrations in what we do.  This is almost an intrinsic part of the process.  When you have something new, and especially when it is a disruptive technology, files seem to get left gathering dust on desks far too often.

For us, though, the world has so many bright imaginative people who are able to look to the future and can see what is needed.  In July, I was invited to the Biennale Architettura 2016 in Venice.  This is a biennial meeting of architects from across the world.  In his keynote speech, the Director of the Biennale Alejandro Aravena described the current world situation in terms of the Urban Age.  This term is used because the current generation will build more cities than all previous generations combined.  By 2050, 70% of the entire world’s population will live in cities and globally there is a desperate need for housing.  Alejandro quoted some startling figures from the US government, estimating that the world needs to build 1,000,000 houses a week at a cost of less than $10,000 (EUR 8,900) each and this needs to be achieved to prevent a further global security threat.  In this regard Alejandro’s opinion was insightful, and possibly goes to the core of what it is that PolyCare is trying to achieve.  He said that this rate of building could only be achieved by adopting new technologies that use new materials and new building methods.

This, of course, is where we at PolyCare started six years ago.  At that time we were only looking at disaster reconstruction, but the same analysis was true for that situation as it is for global housing.  We needed a new technology for slum development and to build low-cost refugee housing, which is precisely why we developed the PolyCare system.

We continue to work to improve the lives of the millions of people who are currently either homeless or living in wretched conditions and continue to work towards achieving the ambitious targets outlined by the US government and described by Alejandro Aravena.

To see more about PolyCare and our revolutionary building technique go to: https://www.dropbox.com/s/hg3qujz7jj9ss1h/VTS_04_1.VOB?dl=0

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SME Week Newsletter: Issue #4

Learning from a generation of mature entrepreneurs

Gerhard DustThe focus this month is on mature entrepreneurs. This group of entrepreneurs has what is perhaps the most valuable asset of all when it comes to creating a successful business – experience. Throughout August, mature entrepreneurs will share their stories on the Promoting Enterprise blog, allowing young entrepreneurs to benefit from their experience and know-how, and inspiring their peers, who may also be considering branching out into a new business venture.

If you know of any mature entrepreneurs with inspiring stories to tell, let us know and we’ll do our best to feature them on the blog and across our social media channels.

It’s not all about mature entrepreneurs though – there is still time for young entrepreneurs to submit entries in the SME Youth Essay Competition and tell us what the EU can do to encourage more young people to become entrepreneurs (details below). If you know anybody who might be interested, please spread the word. Read more >>

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A mature entrepreneur talks about a life-changing event…

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This month our EiR is PolyCare CEO Gerhard Dust. Following a successful career in business, Gerhard was looking at a life of cosy retirement. However, things were to take an unexpected turn. A humanitarian crisis forced him to re-evaluate his position, with major consequences for his future. In this blog post, Gerhard tells us about his motivation, his experience and what it was that led him on his current path.

Gerhard DustThis morning I am driving from my home in Gummersbach to Gehlberg in the German Thuringian Forest. It’s 350 km and a minimum three-hour drive. It’s quite tiring but I have been doing this each week, sometimes twice a week, for 6 years. Today, we are meeting a delegation from China that is interested in our breakthrough technology for building houses. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Gerhard Dust, the Managing Director of PolyCare Research Technology GmbH. We have invented a new way of building that uses essentially waste materials and unskilled labour to make houses and other structures. But inventing something radically new, something that has even won international acclaim doesn’t automatically mean success. Success ultimately relies on being able to enter the market and having the market accept what you do. So today’s meeting with the Chinese delegation is another critical step on the long road often faced by inventors and developers.

For us at PolyCare, and for me personally, this all started six and a half years earlier. It was another bright and sunny day in Florida. The most difficult decision I had to face that day was whether to play another round of golf, go for a swim, or just walk the dog. Life in retirement looked so good then – I had previously stepped down as the General Manager of Europe’s largest book wholesaler business.haiti

But not too far away from where I was at the time, people’s experience of this day would be totally different. There, Mother Nature would lift her head and wreak havoc for millions. By the end of that day, more than 100,000 people would die and millions would lose their homes, their jobs and many – their loved ones. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this would also be a turning point in my life. From then on I would also be inextricably linked to that disaster. Haiti and its consequences had set me on a different course.

In the weeks following that terrible tragedy I had a constant feeling of futility. I had little to offer. Moreover, it seemed that the entire international community could not do much better. Relief in these circumstances relies on food, water, medicines and a tent, if you are lucky. But for me, rebuilding lives, rebuilding families and communities means so much more. It must involve building proper homes, homes that can stand the worst of the weather, and building them quickly. Having all those people sitting around with no work and nothing to do was such a waste of talent and positive energy. And that’s when I started to think…

Why do we continue to use a building process very similar to that used by the Romans two thousand years ago? Why can’t we bring modern technology to building and do something different? What if we could make super concrete from local materials and use it to make components for houses that fit together like LEGO? Wouldn’t that enable the ‘unskilled’ survivors to build their own houses? Can’t we all build with LEGO? If we could, wouldn’t that massively improve the building speed? At the very least this would provide just a chance of motivating and stimulating those survivors who had thought that, for them, all hope had gone.

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A few months earlier I had a chance meeting with Gunter Plötner, a former builder and developer who told me of his idea to turn ordinary local/desert sand into a super form of concrete. This concrete was much stronger than ordinary concrete and was completely impervious to water and frost and could be set in extremely accurate shapes.

The memory of that meeting, and my determination to do something to help those unable to help themselves, led me to the path I am now on.

The meeting I am driving to will demonstrate just such a building technique. However, it has developed so quickly and to such an extent that it is no longer destined just for disaster relief and reconstruction. With a massive worldwide deficit in housing construction it is just as relevant for ordinary housing in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK as it is in Africa, India, South America etc. It provides super strong, very fast build homes for all markets, together with schools, medical centres etc.

So far the building industry has shown ‘interest’ but not much more. Nevertheless, since becoming a winner at the recent TEDx Binnenhof EU invention competition, the world has started to come to Gehlberg to see what we are doing. The Chinese delegation isn’t the first nor, judging by the enquiries we are receiving, will it be the last.

To see more about PolyCare and our revolutionary building technique go to:  https://www.dropbox.com/s/hg3qujz7jj9ss1h/VTS_04_1.VOB?dl=0

 

Starting your own business is an amazing journey – Haris Ioannou

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Haris is a 21 year old student in the third year of an Electrical and Software Engineering course at the National Technical University of Athens in Greece. Aged only 17, he won a prize for the best engineering project in the European Union Competition for Young Scientists (EUCYS) and was also one of the five global finalists in his age category in the Google Science Fair 2013. Since starting college he has developed software for Bioassist, a company focusing on applications that help the elderly with health-related issues. In this blog entry, Haris tells us about his work and his plans for the future.

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What are you working on at the moment? How does this fit in with your wider business development plans?

My passion is inventing and combining technologies and approaches in order to solve problems of everyday life. If I see an exciting opportunity to challenge my knowledge, skills and learn something new, the challenge is accepted.

For the past three years, I have participated in the initial stages of development of a research project aiming at assisting the independent living of elderly people. We have founded a company called Bioassist, and developed an application that remotely monitors the vital signs of older people, such as glucose and oxygen levels, blood pressure etc. in their home environment. It can also remind users to take their medication, keep a personalised health record and also lets users communicate with their relatives via video conferencing.

At the same time, over the past couple of months I have co-founded another project aiming at efficient and secure management of online passwords. Our main goal is to resolve this problem by eliminating people’s need to keep track of their passwords for websites. Our solution is a mobile application called Code Pi! We have built a new way for users to access their web accounts using their mobile device as an authentication element. Essentially you connect your phone and computer under the same Wi-Fi and when you try to log in to a website, it automatically fills in your account details for you. It is important to note that maximum security is ensured for all users by securely encrypting and storing all their credentials locally on their phones, and not on our servers.

haris_ioannou_photoHow do you manage to balance work and life? What is a typical day like for you?

My course is considered to be one of the most challenging in my university. My modules include programming languages, control systems, high-power electronics and robotics. When I want to relax I prefer working out, by running or going to the gym, rarely reading a book and occasionally going out with friends. All of these things help me to take a break from my everyday work.

Most days, after class, I have to attend meetings at Bioassist and Code Pi or at some of my other ventures. Combining studies and work is very fascinating, because you are given the chance to apply your theoretical knowledge in practice. For example, I might have learned an algorithm during my morning class and then I have to apply it into one of my projects. However, most times it happens that I have to use an algorithm that I don’t know yet and so I need to research it. Usually I will come across this algorithm 1-2 years later in one of my classes.

What are the pros and cons of running your own business? What challenges do you have to overcome on a day-to-day basis?

So far I am not fully responsible for the day-to-day operations in any of my ventures. However, I am responsible for the majority of the technical details for each of my projects, such as selecting the new technologies that we will be implemented in new features. I like to see each project not only from a technological viewpoint, but also from a business and a research perspective.

The interesting part is when you have to combine already existing approaches and technologies or even invent some new ones to come-up with the desired solution. If the solution satisfies the problem constrains then, most of the time my team and I publish a paper or launch the feature straight into our product. I think there is definitely a distinction between open time-frame research projects and scheduled product launches, but it does not have to be discrete and watertight.

I am trying to follow this workflow for two important reasons. Firstly, as a student, I have seen multiple projects being started and then abandoned after making only a couple of publications in scientific journals. Therefore I don’t want the projects to which I commit my time to end up like this. Secondly, solving a problem following the scientific method and documenting the result has a great value for the academic community and anyone else interested in the specific topic.

How are you preparing for the next stage of your business? What advice would you give to others thinking of starting their own businesses?

Currently being an undergraduate student, I consider myself very lucky to have people who trust me and really take my thoughts and ideas into consideration. Usually, as a student, you’re not involved in the decision making process of a company, due to lack of experience and technical knowledge, especially in the tech sector.

My goal through this project is to learn as much as I can in a small and very innovative corporate environment. Since my colleagues are both older and more experienced than me, I try to be influenced by them day by day. They have already been in my position and they have probably faced many of the problems that I am encountering. I don’t know where are we going to be in the next five years, I don’t even know where are we going to be in the next three, the market is so competitive and is not as straightforward as a business plan. I am very optimistic that we will have the same focus on our products and our customers and, if this turns out to be true, then we are definitely going to be successful.

Starting your own business is an amazing journey, on which you can learn and do important things. Whether this involves managing people in a team, or making a business plan or even deploying a new feature, these are skills that drastically change the way you think and work. You have to be open to listening to ideas from your team, but you should also carve out a specific plan and lead the team to deliver your product. Many examples show that the age at which you start a company is completely irrelevant to how successful it is going to be. Success it is directly related to how determined you and your team are in delivering the promise that you have made to your customers.

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Q&A with Kenny Ewan

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In this week’s column from June’s Entrepreneur in Residence (EiR), we go head-to-head with Kenny Ewan of WeFarm to find out why he decided to step out on his own, whether he had that ‘lightbulb moment’ and how he secured the funding to finance his start up.

Why did you set up your company?

I spent many years working with isolated, indigenous communities in Peru and saw first-hand the grassroots innovation and ideas they were creating to solve challenges. However, I also saw that there was a huge discrepancy in the way this knowledge was shared, and information in general was accessed, in the developing world compared to the massive trend towards decentralization of knowledge and peer to peer sharing in the Western world driven by the internet. In 2009 I was offered the chance to be part of the Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF – A UK registered charity working with small-scale farmers around the world) start-up team with Claire Rhodes. We put our ideas and experiences together to design the first version of what would become WeFarm.

When did you set up your business, and how long did it take?

we farm 2WeFarm launched as a social enterprise in January 2015, and we launched the product one month later in Kenya.  We had previously been piloting and developing WeFarm as a CPF project for several years before taking the step to launch and scale as a social business – we felt this was a much more scalable and sustainable model.

We developed the product with farming communities in Peru, Kenya and Tanzania which I think was unbelievably beneficial – it meant that we developed something that people on the ground find useful and actually want to use!

Did you have a ‘lightbulb moment’ that led to you starting your business, or which triggered a change in the way you did things?

I think the path to WeFarm being launched was more of a gradual coming together of ideas, experiences and pilots than a single lightbulb moment. However, there have a few special moments along the way. I would pick out the first international test we did with farmers in Peru and Kenya as a great WeFarm moment… I was with a group of rural farmers in Peru as the first messages came in from Kenya, and it was amazing to see people’s reaction to receiving key information from the other side of the world, all in their own language and without internet. That was the moment I knew we had something of huge potential on our hands.

Where did you source funding to set up your business?

WeFarm initially was developed and tested under the UK charity Cafedirect Producers’ Foundation (CPF) and received grant funding from Nominet Trust and Knight Foundation. Then, in 2014 we won the Google Impact Challenge Award. The prize money enabled us to put our plans to launch WeFarm at scale as a social enterprise into action.

In 2015 we were part of the Wayra accelerator programme in London, which included investment into WeFarm.

Were there any EU, national, regional or local business support services, programmes or funding initiatives that helped you set up or grow?

The Wayra accelerator programme was very valuable in getting business support, coaching, mentoring, and certainly  a lot of practice in how to pitch! We have also been part of the Ideas From Europe initiative run by the European Commission over the last few months. This has helped us gain a bit of exposure on the European stage, and culminated in a talk at TEDxBinnenhof, which was very exciting.

With hindsight, which would have been the single most valuable skill to have before setting up your business?

I’d say pitching and public speaking. It’s not necessarily fair that startup businesses are judged on a two or three minute ‘pitch’, but that is the reality. There is no doubt that the startups who can tell a great story and capture people’s imagination in a pitch find themselves with lots more opportunities across PR, funding and entry into different events.

Ultimately you obviously need to have substance behind it to succeed, but I’d certainly advise startup founders to practice, practice and practice their pitch. Or be brave enough to know it’s not your thing, and find a partner who can.

About Kenny

Kenny-Ewan 2Kenny is CEO of WeFarm, a pioneering social enterprise, scaling a unique peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing platform for the 450 million small-scale farmers around the world with no access to the internet. After graduating from the University of Dundee, Kenny went to Peru in 2002 to work on sustainable development projects with indigenous communities. He loved the country so much that he decided to stay. In 2007, he became Peru’s Country Director for ProWorld Service Corps. This international development NGO specialises in projects for isolated, indigenous communities. He returned to the UK in 2009 to join the Cafedirect Producers Foundation (CPF) start-up team. He designed and managed all of CPF’s international projects across East Africa and Latin America.

The Internet for people with no Internet

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In this week’s post from our June Entrepreneur in Residence, Kenny Ewan of WeFarm delivers a TEDx Talk about providing the benefits of the Internet to the 500 million small-scale farmers around the world with no Internet access.

ewan

WeFarm is a pioneering social enterprise, scaling a unique peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing platform for the 500 million small-scale farmers around the world with no access to the Internet. These farmers are isolated; often many miles walk from the nearest village or access point to vital information. They have no way to diversify, improve their farms and livelihoods or even start a new micro-enterprise. Which is where WeFarm comes in. With WeFarm, users can share questions, advice and ideas addressing anything from farming techniques to business ideas, and all accessible to anyone, anywhere – without leaving the farm or having any access to the Internet.
WeFarm picture farm
Since its launch, WeFarm has already scaled to more than 29,000 farmers using the system, with more than 3.6 million SMS processed already. By harnessing the generations’ worth of knowledge contained within farming communities themselves, WeFarm aims to have one million farmers benefitting from the system by end 2016.

About Kenny

Kenny-Ewan 2Kenny is CEO of WeFarm, a pioneering social enterprise, scaling a unique peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing platform for the 450 million small-scale farmers around the world with no access to the internet. After graduating from the University of Dundee, Kenny went to Peru in 2002 to work on sustainable development projects with indigenous communities. He loved the country so much that he decided to stay. In 2007, he became Peru’s Country Director for ProWorld Service Corps. This international development NGO specialises in projects for isolated, indigenous communities. He returned to the UK in 2009 to join the Cafedirect Producers Foundation (CPF) start-up team. He designed and managed all of CPF’s international projects across East Africa and Latin America.

A social entrepreneur’s guide to scaling in rural areas

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In this week’s column from this month’s Entrepreneur in Residence (EiR), Kenny Ewan of WeFarm sets out his tips for how social entrepreneurs working in hard-to-reach communities can scale-up

Many social enterprises focus on providing services and products for people who live in rural parts of the world. However, having a target market of rural communities comes with many challenges. Typically these people are very difficult to reach, both in person and through marketing. So how does one begin to promote products and services to isolated communities of people, and how do you scale in remote parts of the world?

WeFarm female farmer

In 12 months we have grown our network to more than 63,000 smallholder farmers in Kenya, Uganda, and Peru. Our network WeFarm enables these farmers to access vital information through SMS. The majority of the farmers using our service live in very isolated areas, miles away from the nearest village, without an internet connection and without access to any traditional forms of communication.

Working with these farmers as our main customer base has come with its challenges, but we have achieved excellent growth through persistence and hard work. Here are a few lessons that we’ve learned that we think might help anyone trying to make a difference with rural populations.

Involve customers in the design process

As we were developing WeFarm, we did a lot of work testing the concept with farmers and we tried to involved them in the design process as much as possible. Initially, we wanted to create an internet platform or an app, but the reality on the ground was that most people have basic feature phones, so we ended up creating a service that allows people to crowdsource information even through SMS.

WeFarm Press Photo 4

Without spending time with our future customers it’s highly likely that we would have created a working product that nobody wanted to use. My advice would be to get out there and work with the people you want to empower. Be agile, try lots of different things, find flaws, and create something that is actually useful for your customers!

Marketing to rural communities

Marketing to rural communities has been one of our biggest challenges as a social enterprise. The majority of the small-scale farmers that use WeFarm are located in remote areas with no internet access, and have limited access to other traditional forms of media, which can make it more difficult for us to achieve the same exponential growth rate as other technology businesses.

However, a lot of WeFarm’s success so far has been based on achieving great growth in this challenging environment by trying many different forms of marketing in order to reach the people we need to. The majority of successful sign-ups to our service come from radio shows, or educational programmes run in conjunction with farming co-operatives.

Other things that we have tried include local youth training programmes, partnerships models, newspaper advertising, and many more.

Seek local expertise

WeFarm female farmer pictureRecognising where you need local expertise is very important when working with rural communities. There are so many differences between regions in each country and, as a team, we are constantly encountering situations where we require the expertise of locals.

For example, with our recent launch in Uganda, we found a part-time member of staff who speaks Luganda to help us translate training materials and run workshops with farmers. Seize these opportunities where you need local advice – don’t pretend you have all the answers.

There are huge populations of people living in rural areas of the world. Often this means that social enterprises targeting these audiences fail to scale quickly enough and it’s a tragedy because these customers desperately need new innovative products and services!

But there is hope: you can scale a business in rural areas. My advice to social entrepreneurs: 1) Do your research; 2) Try hard and fail fast; and 3) Find the magic marketing activities that work for you.

About Kenny

Kenny-Ewan 2Kenny is CEO of WeFarm, a pioneering social enterprise, scaling a unique peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing platform for the 450 million small-scale farmers around the world with no access to the internet. After graduating from the University of Dundee, Kenny went to Peru in 2002 to work on sustainable development projects with indigenous communities. He loved the country so much that he decided to stay. In 2007, he became Peru’s Country Director for ProWorld Service Corps. This international development NGO specialises in projects for isolated, indigenous communities. He returned to the UK in 2009 to join the Cafedirect Producers Foundation (CPF) start-up team. He designed and managed all of CPF’s international projects across East Africa and Latin America.

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