Sam Ochieng (SO)has carved an inspirational legacy as a successful international businessman and community leader based in the UK. He is actively involved in civil society organisations serving tens of thousands of Africans and other communities in the UK. As an international development champion and entrepreneur, he has led in creating access to international markets for African agricultural produce, thereby empowering rural communities in Africa. The African Diaspora Magazine spoke to Sam to learn more about his work.
ADM: Tell us about your background; where were you born and what stands out in your life from your early years?
SO: I was born in the remote village of Kendu Bay in Homabay County, based near the vast Lake Victoria in Kenya. Growing up in the village was quite a fascinating experience. Memories of walking bare-footed on the hot tropical soil to attend school, dancing in the rain, boys doing their thing, women cooking over the fires in their courtyards or visiting the nearby open air market are still fresh in my mind. Parents would allow us children have complete freedom because they knew there were many
eyes watching out for our safety. We would go fishing, swimming in the lake and even hunt for small animals like rabbits. Those were some of the most influential years of my life and I will always consider my home village the home of my heart. My family was modest, and my parents ensured that they provided the very best they could despite all the challenges they faced.
I lost my mother unexpectedly when I was a teenager, an event which was a major turning point in my young life as it changed my perception on how I viewed various issues. My mother had always stressed on hard work and never giving up, she taught me the importance of being responsible and content no matter the circumstances. This propelled me to always work hard in my studies and always aim for the best in whatever I did. In 1989, I moved to the UK to pursue further studies.
ADM: How important was your family and community environment in shaping the person you have become today, especially when you found yourself now living in a new country without the social structure and support systems that you had grown up with?
SO: I would say that no matter where a person is based on the globe, our values, beliefs and attitudes are influenced a great deal by our childhood. I come from a big and highly opinionated family. Through them, I have learnt the value of teamwork, responsibility, aiming high, open mindedness and time-keeping. As a student leader at the City University, London, I learnt to embrace diverse personalities and cultures which as a result have greatly boosted my confidence, negotiation and decision-making skills.
ADM: What led you to start SACOMA, and what did you intend to achieve through it?
SO: My involvement in community-based activities dates back to 1991. By that time, there existed very few organisations that catered for the diverse needs of Africans who travelled to the UK to study, to visit, for treatment or to settle. In 1998, I was one of the founder members who registered Sahara Communities Abroad (SACOMA), an organisation offering advice to African students. We advanced to a social enterprise, providing information, advice and guidance in various areas like job search, immigration and business start-ups. From humble beginnings, SACOMA has grown gradually and successfully and diversified to other ventures.
In 2011, SACOMA embarked purely to SACOMA LLP, a distribution network for fresh fruit and vegetable wholesale market based at the New Spitalfields Market in London. We import fresh fruit and vegetables from all over the world and have assisted small scale Kenyan farmers by linking them to markets for their produce in the UK. Today, SACOMA Global LTD has established its niche in the global business market. The organisation has also won various awards and recognition, something I am really proud of.
ADM: The early years are usually fraught with challenges – how did you overcome the frustrations of teething problems and persevere?
SO: Setting up an organisation is like taking a leap of faith and because of the uncertainty, many budding entrepreneurs who begin never manage to keep up with the various challenges. I’d really describe myself as a person with a versatile skills-set, a lot of integrity and a willingness to go the extra mile to satisfy a client. It starts with the belief that you will achieve your goals and desires for your organisation. SACOMA Global has strived to focus its energies on its best strengths, working closely with its customers and focusing on professional growth. Situations don’t always turn out the way one would expect but problem solving and formulating strategies to push through out of each obstacle that presents itself has come in handy.
Being resilient, open minded and extremely patient has assisted me a great deal to continue to grow and learn how to manoeuvre successfully in the business world. If it were not for this confidence I would be crippled by some of the obstacles I’ve had to overcome. My success is built on my passion and belief in myself and my business.
ADM: Have you had any support from the UK government or other mainstream British organisations and if so, how have they helped?
SO: Yes. SACOMA has worked with government in various capacities; this includes the London Development Agency, The Learning Skills Council and the European Union, among others. In one of the contracts running from 2006 to 2010, SACOMA worked with the UK government’s Department of Works and Pensions to educate immigrants on the need to save for the future. In another contract with UK’s Electoral Commission we educated blacks on the need for voting. As a result, this saw the number of voters from the BAME Communities increase by 18%.
ADM: You have seen many qualified African professionals move to the UK only to find themselves underemployed and their skills atrophying. From your experience, what is the main barrier they face in getting the jobs that match their training?
SO: The main challenges facing some African entrepreneurs in the UK include lack of international awareness and in addition, adequate empowerment and guidance on issues such as business planning, access to finance, training and lack of mentorship. The way in which most qualified African professionals package themselves has been quite wanting at times. We have had instances where practicing lawyers or doctors in Africa would come here ready to work as night guards. This is how SACOMA comes in to assist in providing information, advice and guidance (IAG) and in some cases practical support to the needs of the community.
Many African entrepreneurs in the UK are capable of drafting comprehensive business plans, but later shelve them. This is often because they have been unable to access finance or their idea has changed from the original plan. There are many African role models in the UK who are running successful businesses. I encourage entrepreneurs to research and look for mentors that have made a success of themselves in business.
ADM: Africa has suffered a massive brain drain to the West and, as your experience has shown, some of these skilled people who are lost to Africa are deployed in areas that fall below their level of qualification. How should Africa turn this tide into a brain gain?
SO: Africans living in the Diaspora can seek to promote their relationship with various development partners, creating a channel through which individuals in their home countries can easily access information regarding various opportunities, be they educational or about business abroad. These forums act as a link between Africans in the Diaspora and local organisations in their respective countries by sending students to acquire education and experience in the UK after which they are assured of employment opportunities back in their home countries.
African ountries need to move entirely from traditional to modern ideologies in farming by embracing new technological skills and borrowing a leaf from developed countries such as Australia and many parts of the world where an acre of land can feed an entire village.
Together with our partners and Knowledge Transfer Partners (KTP), SACOMA has developed programmes that support businesses in the UK and EU and agribusiness in developing countries to organise, improve quality and grow their businesses. Mentorship is also a critical aspect as Africans in the diaspora can assist in mentoring or guiding projects back in their home countries by partnering with educational or government institutions as has been the case.
ADM: Do you believe it’s important for African professionals in the diaspora to contribute to the development of their countries with their professional skills, resources and networks, and what do you advise those who are seeking to do just that?
SO: Of course, yes, the African community in the UK is diverse, heterogeneous and hardworking. They are well educated, highly entrepreneurial, and include successful doctors, engineers, educators, nurses, restaurateurs, social workers and laborers. Regardless of their profession, they generously support their families and friends in Africa. It
is extremely important to understand the relationship Africans in the UK have with their continent in order to figure out the best way to engage them. Some identify with the whole of Africa and others identify with their nation of origin or ethnic or regional identity. Despite the challenges Africa faces, there has been tremendous progress made by
individual countries to support Africans living in the Diaspora such as cheaper communication rates and easily accessible Money transfer channels such as Equity Direct, recently introduced to enable easier money exchange for Africans living in the UK.
Some Countries have gone step further and developed a Diaspora Policy within their national framework enhancing relations with the UK. Socially, Africans living in the Diaspora have gained international exposure, embraced multiculturalism and even intermarried with other cultures, situations that have immensely changed their view of some social issues, slowly phasing away some practices like tribalism and corruption.
ADM: You also promote international market access for African agricultural produce, especially by rural farmers. Can you tell us more about that and how this project has impacted the rural communities whose produce has found its way into the UK and other foreign markets?
SO: SACOMA Global Ltd currently works with smallholder farmers and over 20 democratic farmer organisations, enterprises and cooperatives in eight, countries. We help them build capacity, develop infrastructure, overcome market barriers, adapt to the challenges of climate change and improve product quality – creating resilience and adding value to their business.
Together with our partners and knowledge transfer partners we have Programmes to supports smallholder farmers in developing countries to organise, improve the quality of their crops and add value to their products for both local and international markets.
ADM: Your sweet potatoes initiative has been particularly outstanding; please share a bit more on that success.
SO: First and foremost, I would like to acknowledge my wife Perez Ochieng the CEO of SACOMA Global, who was the brains behind the sweet potatoes venture. During
one of our trips to Kenya, Perez noticed how the local sweet potato farmers in the village, especially women, were being exploited. They had to sell their very fresh and good quality sweet potato produce by the roadside every evening at throw away prices, something she wasn’t amused about. It is from this observation that the idea of venturing into the sweet potatoes industry was born as a way of empowering these women. SACOMA has put sweet potatoes from Africa on the International market. We ensure that
farmers produce high quality sweet potatoes by providing them with necessary skills and facilities to make it work. In addition, we manage the export of these sweet potatoes, promoting local farmers who make a living from this venture. These sweet potatoes then make delicacies to be enjoyed in the UK, such as sweet potato crisps, bread, snack bars and crème brue, just to mention a few.
ADM: What has been your biggest achievement to date and how has that helped push your work forward?
SO: To me, changing people’s lives and putting a smile on their face both in the UK and Africa has been quite motivating and fulfilling to me. Working closely with farmers so that they can lead better lives has encouraged me a great deal and that is one of my biggest achievements. Last July, I was awarded with a Doctorate in Leadership & Humanity by Global Peace, USA and University of Westminster for my immense contribution towards leadership and humanity.
ADM: What can we expect from you in the next few years, some new projects or expansion plans perhaps?
SO: I am just getting started! Although I love the achievements and milestones I have had, I feel that I’m now ready for more challenging assignments something that really excites me. SACOMA intends to diversify to promoting exportation and access to the international markets of many other fruits and vegetables from the African continent. Africa produces lots of fresh fruit and vegetables from the very fertile soils and this can be a great opportunity for the farmers to sell their produce. We also need to explore regional trade within Sub-Saharan Africa. Many people think that exporting to Europe is the solution; I say NO, we need to expand our thinking and look at what our neighbor country produces that we can benefit from.
ADM: You’re a family man and are raising five children. How do you balance work and family life and find time to unwind from your busy schedule?
SO: It’s all about maintaining a work-life balance and adjusting your day-to-day activities to achieve a sense of balance between work life and personal life. One has to learn how to balance and not become too involved in their professional life to a point that they neglect their family. I give credit to my wife Perez who has walked this journey with me from the very beginning. Perez has been my inspiration and motivation towards continuing to improve SACOMA and in addition move this amazing career forward.
I would also like to thank my wonderful children and grandson for always making me smile and for understanding that their parents’ schedule can at times get very hectic. It has been great seeing our children grow and shine in the respective career paths they have chosen.
During my free time, I do a lot of reading and also listen to Music. I also love researching on new ways of further improving our organisation. I’m also actively involved in voluntary work. I established the Sam Ochieng Football Tournament (SOFT) back in my hometown in Kenya as a way of giving back to the community through sports. I was also the Founding Chair of the Africa Cup of Nations, UK for many years.