A day in the life of a commercial consultant

As part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded New Business Models for Sustainable Trading Relationships project, IIED has been working with a commercial team and a small Kenyan flower business, Wilmar Agro Ltd, to export flowers grown by smallholder Kenyan farmers to UK and US supermarkets. IIED’s sustainable development expertise has been complemented by the commercial expertise of consultants, such as UK-based William Van Bragt, who has helped Wilmar Agro Ltd develop and manage a commercially-viable and sustainable supply chain and build a network of contacts and links with other businesses. Here, William Van Bragt blogs about a day in his life.

6.30 AM It’s still dark and the alarm goes off. After a shower, breakfast and coffee it’s time to check the emails, which will set the tone of the day.

The first five emails are the normal junk accumulated throughout the night – I’ve always wondered how they know that I’m starting to go bald and overweight! There’s an email from our partner, Wilmar Agro Ltd from Kenya, to say they have been unable to source some of the flower products for the next delivery in three days – this means around 10% of the total planned shipment will not arrive as expected. On paper not sending 10% of a shipment doesn’t sound like the end of the world. But, as these flowers are worked into a bouquet, this 10% is crucial as it potentially renders the other 90% useless. The tone for this morning has been set and it’s not a good one.

My first action is to send an email back to Kenya to ask why the flowers can’t  be sourced. In the beginning of the project receiving a reply could have taken days but, since the promotion of a staff member, Mercy, to business development manager, communications has vastly improved (excluding the times that their email server goes down, which is VERY frustrating).

A quick answer pings  back: there’s  been a hail storm in that area and the product has been damaged. “Hail in Kenya?,” I think.  A quick search on Google proves that it does happen.

A farmer tending his sunflowers in Kenya. Credit: Abbi Buxton

This means that product will not be available until the next flowers have grown,  which will be weeks away. I reply and ask what other products they have available as substitutes. (One of the first rules of the job: if you have a problem always offer a solution even if it’s not what they want to hear).

While they are thinking about other products I have the ‘envious’ task of calling the flower packer, our UK commercial partner, to tell them the  news, and they are not impressed. The bouquet is under stricter “rules” than normal bouquets. The bouquets will carry the Rainforest Alliance Certification seal, which means that 70% of flowers in the bouquet needs to be from certified Smallholder Farmers. This means we can’t just get the product from elsewhere as we would fall foul of the rules.

An email arrives from Kenya with possible flower substitutes and suggesting there’s increased availability of some of the current flowers. I forward this email to the packer and follow up with a phone call to “bounce” some ideas around.

They can now call the buyer at the supermarket chain asking very politely (some people call it begging) if we can change the composition of the flowers in the bouquet. They suggest  to maybe increase a bit of this and remove some of the other so we are within the required parameters of the bouquet being made with at least 70% small holder flowers.

Most of the morning has passed by and in all the excitement I’ve forgotten all about my coffee. While waiting for the response I grind some coffee beans and make a coffee – strong roast, I think, as could be a long afternoon.

Back in the office there is evidence that the packer has got hold of the customer as there is an email from the customer expressing their disappointment in the failure to deliver as promised. But they have agreed to a re-design of the bouquet. Samples will have to be made up and sent to their office for final approval.

I get in the car and visit the packer to see what options are open to us. On arrival they are already busy making different compositions while trying to stick to the same theme and – more importantly – similar costing.

Current selection of flowers: limiting factor

One of the issues we discuss is that the current selection of flowers is a limiting factor when developing flower bouquet designs. We’re missing the bold striking colour element, which you get with the likes of roses and chrysanthemums. Neither of these are grown by smallholder farmers in Kenya. This is because the farmers growing the flowers don’t have the capital to pay for high input costs, such as polythene tunnels to protect the flowers, because they don’t have enough land to grow the high volumes of flowers required to make it economically viable.

We discuss the flower trial ground we have set up in Kenya with the help of the supermarket chain. This should produce two or three different types of flower products. These flower varieties could potentially address this problem. But they can only be taken forward to commercial trials  with the backing of a committed retailer. Land area is at a premium and farmers can’t afford to grow crops without a market.

In the meantime they have created several different bouquet options just in time to get them by courier to the retailer. By the morning we will know what has been approved and the extra flowers required to be added to the existing order so it can be sent from Kenya to the UK in time for packing and sending to the shops.

Back in the office I realise my coffee is still there…now cold. I email Kenya to tell them the news and make sure that they are ready tomorrow to get the extra flowers as soon as the order comes through. I emphasise that the quality needs to be 110% otherwise I will need that remedy for baldness sooner than I hoped for.

All in all, Mercy and Wilmar Agro Ltd, the company I work with in Kenya, have done a great job warning the customer early enough about a problem completely out of their control, and found and offered alternative products. This is in sharp contrast to when I first joined this project, and it makes me proud to see how their communication skills have improved, and how they‘ve efficiently dealt with the problem.

5pm in the UK, 7pm in Kenya. It’s time to call it a day and have tea as in two hours I will be having email conversations with a retailer in the US who is interested in buying smallholder flowers from Kenya. They have different requirements than the UK market. They’re interested in buying a different flower product (flower bunches which are less demanding than the flower bouquets) which will be packed in Kenya, which means the Kenyan company is capturing more of the profit in-country, but this creates its own challenges. At least that will keep it interesting!

I spent all day solving one problem and, quite honestly, I’m no further than I was this morning. But in three days flowers proudly grown by a Kenyan small holder farmer, with the proceeds benefiting his or her whole family, will be in the UK. Once they arrive, the flowers will be packed and sold in-store for the consumer to enjoy and then dumped on the compost heap two weeks later. That customer will never know how much effort, stress and work has gone into that bunch of flowers!

Find out more: Read Linking smallholders to modern markets

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