If you want to solve a big problem, serial entrepreneur Derreck Kayongo has some advice: Stop complaining. Kayongo fled violence in his home country of Uganda, immigrated to the U.S. with $400 in his pocket and built the $10 million nonprofit Global Soap Project.
All it took was insatiable curiosity about the staggering wastefulness of far too many Americans. He recalls sobbing when a hotel worker told him that guests’ bars of soap—a rare and precious commodity in the developing world—would be thrown away. Through additional research, Kayongo learned U.S. hotels discard 800 million soap bars annually.
Rather than sinking deeper into dismay, Kayongo decided to make a difference. His experience can serve as an inspiration for U.S. producers seeking to bring positive change to agriculture and their customers.
“We’re doers,” says Kayongo, who spoke this summer in Nashville, Tenn., at the Global Sustainability Summit jointly hosted by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute. “We take challenges, and we act.”
Kayongo’s organization now collects soap from 5,000 U.S. hotels.
Problem Solvers. Being an entrepreneurial farmer takes creative thinking above all, says Van Ayers, a University of Missouri Extension community development specialist.
“They’re harvesting creativity,” says Ayers, who has worked with farmers to develop niche products. “They have to think about the markets from Day 1. The world is changing. People want products that are grown sustainably, they want non-GMO products, they want organic, they want local. The major companies are marketing these products.”
Kayongo comes from a family of entrepreneurs and knew he could make something beneficial from used soap, but it took research and collaboration with Procter and Gamble to discover crushing soap would be the only way to remove pathogens. The idea proved transformative, as the soap Kayongo’s team has created travels around the world.
In Kayongo’s view, all he has done is to simply link the “small idea of soap to the power of global markets.”
Along the way, he has made money-saving discoveries, a reminder to farm executives to always explore and ask questions. For example, he accessed $1 million in free shipping of soap overseas in his first year of business simply by taking advantage of tax write-offs for empty ships.
To become an entrepreneur, think outside of the box and aggressively position your product for success, particularly if you are shifting from bulk commodities to specialized offerings, Ayers advises.
“You have to be willing to say that your product is possibly superior to others, especially if it’s a niche, and you’re going to carve yourself out a different market,” he says.
Next Big Thing. Today, Kayongo is building partnerships with peach producers on the West Coast to take their waste—misshapen fruit that typically would be discarded—and grind it into powder that can be shipped to mothers in refugee camps.
He is intent on promoting projects that reflect four core values—service, education, leadership and faith in people—as an American citizen and entrepreneur. Producers can use a similar framework to build their own vision for entrepreneurial new products and services.