Building a Resilient Business Around Women: The story of Dagoretti
SEED Success Series
Behind the Enterprise: How a Community Can Inspire
Violet Matiru grew up without electricity on a farm at the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, an aspect of her life that led her to want to better the environment around her. From using kerosene lamps and lighting a fire every day with firewood for a cup of tea before school, she decided to support herself and her community by launching the Dagoretti project. It has since moved from a core business of converting human waste from paid for latrines for market goers, to biogas to be reused for cooking and heating water, to other environmentally and socially relevant activities.
Originally a wildlife biologist working as a researcher with elephants, Violet was working with communities to find solutions that addressed the human-wildlife conflict and conservation issues. After completing her MBA, she decided to focus on communities, saying “I felt that communities were treated either as recipients of assistance or … as the enemy, nobody was treating communities as adults who have skills, who have resources, who have the motivation to better their lives.” Even further, Violet went on to work with NGOs, seeing how the different theories within the UN conferences seldom actually make it to implementation on the ground. However, when she worked as a small grants advisor for 16 years she was better able to see the impact that small grants can have directly on communities.
Launching Dagoretti Market Biogas Latrine
The launch of Dagoretti Market Biogas Latrine sprung from local community needs and the search for lasting local impact. Violet credits a local environmental group, the Millenium Community Development Initiatives (MCDI), with the beginning of her journey. Many of the co-founders and staff of MCDI, including Violet, were working for an NGO linking civil society to UN practises when she began asking, “Where we come from … how are our women benefiting or even part of these international processes?” From there, they set up MCDI to work within their own community and started documenting some of the good practises they’d learnt there before launching their own enterprise.
When Violet and her colleagues eventually set up the Environmental Barometer, an environmental magazine aimed at featuring community groups, she found that interviewees were asking what real assistance she could provide them with. Interested in expanding her impact, she began working in support and got a second grant for community projects on the ground that were addressing some of the challenges she would come to take on with Dagoretti Market Biogas Latrine.
How does Dagoretti Market Biogas Latrine Work Within the Community?
Abuse of water resources, lack of access to water screens, lack of facilities for people to use; these were just some of the many community issues Violet hoped to address with her enterprise. After launching in 2016 though, she found that she wasn't familiar with how to manage the business side. Wanting to focus on enterprising women, Violet partnered with another woman who owned a beauty business, setting her up with her own group so that she could manage the facility with autonomy, a decision she credits as a key factor for her success.
Now as a successful established enterprise and having won the SEED Award for Gender Equality in 2016, Dagoretti Market Biogas Latrine provides a multitude of community services resulting from its biogas converter and solar energy panels. By charging customers for toilet services and showers, the women running Dagoretti are able to turn a regular profit, even during the pandemic. The waste from the toilet facilities is then converted into biogas, which is used by the company’s restaurant for cooking, where visitors can also charge their mobile phones for a small fee.
Navigating the Challenges of Being a Woman in Business
As part of a successful, women-led enterprise, Violet experiences her fair share of roadblocks. She says she and her colleagues are constantly battling the misperceptions of being a woman in business, but her resolve to persevere is always resilient. And resilient is exactly what women must be when launching an enterprise like Violet, as the barriers they have to break through to enter business can be discouraging. Among the most prominent barriers are psychological bias, childcare challenges, lack of financing, fear of failure, and the lack of network and mentors. “A lot of the microfinance institutions don’t tell you the kind of destitution that women are forced into,” Violet says about financial struggles that women face, “because of borrowing from these microfinance institutions.” In Dagoretti’s case, the pre-existing community network of women focused on environmental impact left no shortage of network, but psychological bias was starkly present often.
Violet even reports that county government officials have tried to extort the women in her employment because of their revenue, but she is steadfast in her resolve to never allow this to happen. To protect her employees, she calls the officials and tells them that her enterprise is offering services that should be offered by the government itself, and that she is increasing the value of the Dagoretti market and thus the revenues for the county. One of the most common issues she faces, she states, is that men feel they can exploit women’s resilience and labour for their gain.
Finding Success During COVID-19
As with any enterprise, the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a unique new set of challenges. With the government restricting the hours of the local slaughterhouse, a key customer, the restaurant business crashed. The other aspects of her business suffered as well, with only two to three customers per week using the shower facilities compared to the 20 to 30 people before the pandemic.
However, working in an essential industry has lessened the burden on Dagoretti Market Biogas Latrine. The amount of demand for water and gas may ebb and flow but it will always exist, making the business essential and profitable even in the worst of times. Even the restaurant business is picking back up as traffic slowly resumes.
Key Lessons for Resilient Success
With a business moulded around women, Violet says it is essential for women to receive more training in technical areas, this would inspire more confidence in themselves, and enable them to do smaller technical fixes themselves. She wishes that women could receive training like those offered by the Barefoot Foundation in India which trains women on using solar equipment.
When starting her enterprise, she notes that she focused on building a team of enterprising women with business experience rather than working with pre-existing groups that were created for other purposes. This is a mistake that she said she has seen other enterprises make, she says, because pre-existing groups often have a history of conflicts and debt and not all the members will be equally passionate about the enterprise’s mission. Building a team of women from scratch who are driven to better the community through water access and biogas is part of what she credits her success to, as the enterprise can then design an equitable workload and management structure that benefits the whole team.
When it comes to business, Violet urges autonomy for those running it. It is essential to train women so they can make business decisions themselves, as Violet recognises that the women in her enterprise are the ones on the ground and have the best understanding of how to ensure it runs well.
The Future of Dagoretti Market Biogas Latrine
Violet sees a bright future for her enterprise, especially as it continues to generate revenue for women during COVID-19. She says that there is still demand for her services and as her business grows, she sees a bright future ahead for herself and her community, even branching into policy.
“We are now networking with groups which are facing similar challenges,” she said, highlighting how Dagoretti is bringing the local communities together so that they can see themselves in the bigger picture. “We are hoping to also grow and be able to become a policy influencer,” she explains, hoping that the community groups could then glean a greater benefit from government assistance. “We are now seeing how it can be fed from the bottom up.”