Bomb disposal veteran wins WBS Heropreneurs Award

14 December 2018

  • Iain Church wins Warwick Business School Bursary Award
  • He will receive a full scholarship to complete an MBA at WBS
  • Iain served in the Balkans, Iraq, and led bomb disposal in Helmand Province
  • His social enterprise aims to lift 325,000 Malawians out of poverty

Lifting 325,000 people out of extreme poverty in a land-locked African country may seem a daunting proposition for even the most ambitious entrepreneur.

However, Iain Church is no stranger to shouldering responsibility for the lives of others.

During more than two decades in the British Army, the bomb disposal expert was responsible for disarming mines and other munitions in Bosnia and Kosovo and making potentially life or death decisions as a squadron second-in-command in Iraq. He even designed new protocols for attacking IED networks in Afghanistan while commanding bomb disposal operations in Helmand Province.

Iain left the army two years ago to run Moringa Miracles Limited (MML), a social enterprise founded by his late father-in-law in Malawi, South East Africa.

Moringa Miracles provides free moringa trees for farmers to grow alongside their existing crops, then buys back the seed to produce moringa oil for use in the cosmetics industry.

Smallholders are trained how to grow and maintain their trees and are shown how to turn the leaves into a powder that can help to ease the widespread Vitamin A deficiency in the country.

Now Iain has won a Heropreneurs Award, which celebrates veterans who run their own businesses when they leave the armed forces.

Iain won the Warwick Business School Bursary Award, which includes a full scholarship to study for an MBA at WBS so he can learn new skills to help his social enterprise thrive.

Iain, 45, said: “I am humbled to have won the inaugural Heropreneurs Warwick Business School Bursary Award. The size of this opportunity is huge and I look forward to repaying the faith that Warwick Business School and the award judges have shown in me.

“Completing an Executive MBA will be a significant milestone in my entrepreneurial journey and it will have a lasting positive impact on the fortunes of Moringa Miracles Limited."

Iain joined the army aged 21 after university and served for 21 years in the Royal Engineers, including operational tours in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and the Middle East, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

He said: “When you have made decisions that can affect whether people live or die, you approach life outside the army knowing there is very little that is going to phase you.

“When we entered Kosovo, we were working flat out every day for eight weeks. Some tasks were straightforward, like a civilian finding a hand grenade.

“Others were more complicated. Some bomblet strikes took the best part of a day to clear.

“In the military you can never clear to humanitarian standards, you simply don’t have the time because you have to move on to the next job.

“After you cleared a farmer’s land he would ask, 'is it safe to put cattle back in that field?' It’s the children who herd the cattle, so while you want to reassure him and say, ‘yes, we’ve got everything’, you have to caveat that with the fact that it’s not an exact science and one or two bomblets have fallen further outside the cleared radius. It is a huge responsibility.”

Related course: Executive MBA

However, Iain often found it hard to use his entrepreneurial instincts in the armed services.

So when his father-in-law passed away in 2013, less than a year after launching the concept trials for Moringa Miracles in Malawi, Iain believed he could make the social enterprise a success and took a period of leave to try. In 2016 he made the decision to leave the army to focus on the new venture.

Iain said: “The aim was to take best practice from the NGO world and meld it with the best of the commercial world to create a self-sustaining social enterprise that could give rural Malawians a permanent way out of extreme poverty.

“Lots of projects have tried to do that and failed. One encouraged a lot of smallholders to grow chilies instead of their staple crops.

“For the first couple of years everything was great, people made a lot of money, relatively speaking. Then prices for chili plummeted and you had a swathe of smallholders who couldn’t afford to sell their chilies because the price was too low, and couldn’t grow food for themselves because all their land had been put over to growing chilies.”

Instead MML gives each smallholder 40 moringa trees to plant around the border of their usual crops. Those who have no space to plant the trees can pool their share and plant them in communal areas next to rivers to prevent soil erosion and flooding.

After just one year each tree produces 5kg of moringa seed which the company buys from the smallholders for use in the cosmetic industry. The waste product is given back to the smallholders to use as a water purifier and the company also shows them how to make powder from the leaves that can be used as a dietary supplement to tackle the widespread Vitamin A deficiency in Malawi.

Moringa Miracles has a team of 30 full staff who run a 20,000 strong smallholder programme. They also work with 45,000 smallholders in programmes run by two international NGOs.

Iain said: “The aim is that by year five of operations we will have lifted 325,000 Malawians out of extreme poverty. I think it is very rare that NGOs and private enterprise work together, but there is no reason why that should be the case.

“NGOs are always under pressure to move on to new problems. In the past, if they moved onto something like malaria prevention, they would have to stop working with the smallholder programme and all the good work they had done would be undermined.

“A social enterprise is there for the long term and it is better placed to see things through.

“Now if the NGOs we work with need to move on and focus their resources on other problems, we can inherit those smallholders and continue to support them to ensure there is a lasting legacy.

“We can do so much more than provide these smallholders with a sustainable source of income. In the regions where we work 45 per cent of children suffer from stunted growth because they have a Vitamin A deficiency.

"Eradicating that could be a game-changer and our approach offers the very real possibility of a Malawian grown solution to a Malawian problem.”

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