Written by Annmarie Morin, Waterstep Field Consultant
About 18 months ago, I was tasked with bringing to life BASEflow’s bleach-making initiative that was introduced to us by WaterStep, one of our strategic partners. Since I was not doing much at the time as a recently unemployed youth looking for work, I took on the challenge – and what a challenge it has been.
One of the first things I ended up doing was driving BASEflow’s flood response effort where I had to coordinate the production and distribution of bleach to households that were affected by the massive floods, caused by hurricane Idai, that hit Southern Malawi in 2019. We reached 2313 households with bleach, for disinfecting surfaces and hand washing, accompanied by hygiene training; it was such gratifying work and I felt I was making a difference (as cheesy as that sounds now). I was on a high! I felt unstoppable and ready to take on the world, but little did I know that a major low was on my horizon.
Muthi, my team leader, challenged me to think about expanding the bleach making initiative into the commercial space and see if there was any market potential for the bleach. Spurred on by this, I decided to apply for a competition called The Future Summit run by the Social Impact Incubator (SII), a capacity building initiative for small and emerging social enterprises/organizations. I was confident that the BleachMaker, an award-winning technology in its own right, would get the recognition it deserved (and a little bit of investment to scale operations). I went through the first two stages of the competition without a hitch; at the first stage I had to apply to the program by providing a high level presentation about our solution, followed by the second stage where I had to present our solution to my fellow ‘contestants’ and get valuable input from the SII. As I sailed through each stage, I could see that the judges were impressed with me which didn’t surprise me given my bubbling personality and boundless confidence! But then came the final stage: the public sales pitch. My goodness, nothing could have prepared me for what I faced!
I sat through other sales pitches by other presenters who were, frankly, more confident and had cooler ideas than I had. What excitement I had left turned to nervousness and angst; Muthi tried to take my mind off the nervousness by walking with me around the sale pitch venue, but it didn’t help much. I don’t remember the few moments on stage, it’s a blur now. All I remember is that me and my bleach making idea came third to some other high-tech app-solution that just wowed the socks off the mostly millennial audiences and the stone-faced judges.
I was gutted, seriously. After that, I didn’t think I could do this again. I felt like an impostor, a fraud, a charlatan! I was shaken and my enthusiasm was all but gone. I tried to distract myself with other field work, but I could still feel the shadow of that loss, that failure, looming over me, and the bleach making work felt like it was dying.
But, in 2020, things changed!
The global pandemic led to a spike in interest for our bleach within a short span of time. We received an order for 1000-Litres of bleach from an International NGO which I was able to deliver within less than 3 days of production time (which actually meant I had to stay up all night, with coffee and a hard-dive of movies, in the office making bleach). After that, I brought in an undergraduate engineering student to help me deliver bleach to 35 health care facilities in rural Blantyre to help them combat the spread of coronavirus within their facilities; a story I wrote about in another blog . It’s only now I realize that, with each order, with each sleepless night of bleach production, I was rediscovering my confidence, my faith in myself. I felt, pardon the exaggeration, alive again!
And then, it happened again.
Muthi encouraged me to apply for another social investment opportunity, this time it was for the Growth Accelerator Call for Innovations to respond to the spread of COVID-19. If we were successful, there would be start-up capital to scale-up the bleach making business.
We could invest in proper branding and distribution of the bleach!
We could hire a salesforce and drive door-to-door sales!
We could increase the number of BleachMakers so we could increase output!
I could feel myself getting excited about the prospects and then, dread set in, followed by a cloud of self-doubt.
It’s happening again, isn’t it?
Did fate, the universe or karma convene a gathering to orchestrate the popping of my emotional balloon for their viewing pleasure, as if there was not enough misery in my life? Despite my dread, I could feel a gentle groundswell of self-confidence trying to break through from under my self-doubt.
Is it happening again? I remember persistently thinking to myself. I didn’t have an answer to that question, but instead I decided to take it in strides.
Just like the Social Impact Incubator competition, there were hoops and stages we had to go through; at each stage, I enamored myself from feeling excitement, which, if you knew my personality, was like walking between the raindrops during a monsoon. And then, like the Incubator competition, we made it to the final stage of face-to-face interviews with the Growth Accelerator assessors who came to our offices in Blantyre. With the help of Muthi and Hector (BASEflow’s Ecosystems Programme Specialist), the 3-man interview panel seemed convinced with our pitch, but I wasn’t keeping my hopes up. Once the assessors left our office and we went over everything we said or should have said or could have said, the next thing to do was wait. And wait. And wait.
And for 4 weeks, we waited and we got no response. It happened again, I kept telling myself.
I told you it would happen again!
And then, after weeks of waiting to the point of giving up, we got the results: out of 160 applicants who submitted their ideas, only 19 were selected for onward start-up financing.
Me and my bleach making idea were among them! We got it!
I got it!
Right now, I’m in the middle of unenviable paperwork to get the start-up capital (worth US$ 15,000) through the door for us to get started. My mind is buzzing with eagerness to hit the ground running. But as I go through the paperwork and try, unsuccessfully, to put my mind to rest, I reflect on my journey of managing the BleachMaker, my highs and lows, and now I understand what Winston Churchill meant when he said:
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts”.
As I move into another phase of my professional career, I don’t know what fate, the universe or karma have in store for me, but, as I bring it back to life, I plan to find the courage to continue and make this Bleach Business, my first born, a success story.