Bio Energy Egypt founder Mahmoud Galal failed three times and took a corporate job before he succeeded at being an entrepreneur.
But all it took was a little luck, a big contract, and that experience from his first failures to turn it around.
Failure #1: Nile flowers
Galal started out with an idea in 2009 spurred by a university project in Damietta monitoring fish farm water: recycling water hyacinths which strangle river systems.
“Nile flowers are bad, they use a lot of water and grow fast. My idea was to take this plant and use it to make animal feed. I had success [in making] a prototype, but when it came to mass production I failed.”
But the real reason why he failed - and one that dogged his later projects - was that he did not speak the language of his prospective market: small farmers.
“This product was marketed as animal feed for small farmers who have one or two cows, so when they saw us, wearing jeans and speaking english, they were afraid of us.”
Failure #2: biogas
In 2011 the new graduate Galal launched into a new project around biogas. He succeeded in developing biogas from agricultural refuse, chicken manure, all kinds of waste, in small units.
But once again he failed: it was the same problem. “We didn’t speak their language.”
Failure #3: paper
In the same year Galal started a trial on recycling agricultural waste such as rice hay into paper.
“We succeed with a prototype but to make a business from a prototype is very difficult,” he said. Further, the business fell over “because the quality of the paper was very low”.
The trial stopped in 2012 and, finally chastened by his consistent run of flops and in need of earning some money, he gave in to family pressure and took a job with Procter & Gamble.
“I cracked and I joined the corporate life,” he said. “I worked for only six months because I didn’t feel comfortable with this job.”
During those six months Galal, itching to get back to doing something he was interested in, met a friend who worked for the cement company Italcementi Group.
Italcementi was just then in the early stages of testing biogas as an alternative fuel to government supplied natural gas.
After Galal poured out his ideas for agricultural waste-fueled biogas, the friend put him in touch with the manager in charge of the Italcementi project.
Two meetings later, Galal had a contract for 1 million Egyptian pounds (US$113,000) and said goodbye to the corporate gig.
Finally, success #1
Dayra for Waste Management and Recycling, now Bio Energy Egypt, was launched in 2013, and now has 11 employees and buys waste such as rice hay for 100 Egyptian pounds (US$11) a ton from over 700 small farmers.
The business makes around 3,000 tonnes of gas a month.
Galal said that after six years of trying, he’d learned to “speak the language” of his suppliers and they’d learned there was value in the waste they disposed of.
“It is related to culture, it takes time,” he said. “A few years ago they called us crazy guys… Now they are aware of the value of this waste and they sell it,”
It’s all, he says, down to trial and error.
“Every entrepreneur knows this, if you try more you get more."