I am currently reading John Kay’s great book obliquity and he talks about the concept of “hindsight rationalisation” this is when we like to pretend to ourselves as things worked out to plan all along.

I have been thinking about how The Broccoli Project unfolded, it had some initial seeds in my previous company – my most successful failure to date!   We as a team wanted to create something that was useful and made a difference and  it was about 26 months ago today that I sat at Knead at Wembley Square in Cape Town researching thermal printers and security paper – I wanted to print stuff out – I like to experiment with ideas and I had  created a fantastical business plan that would see the roll out of some 500 POS devices that would be deployed around the country and it would magically print out vouchers.

Problem 1 – the development of the device was quite intensive and required skills we did not have, also

Problem 2 – required R3m+ capital to buy the hardware, but hey the excel spreadsheet supported it :)

So I bought a prototype of the POS device for about $1,500 – (gulp) and it’s now a great doorstop.

So plan B was buy a thermal printer and design something that was within my reach, a few weeks later I was strolling down the road and I passed a store selling the Brother QL650TD label printer – out came the (personal) credit card and 15 minutes later, I owned a thermal printer – I played around and out of the ether came the first prototype food voucher.

Sample Voucher Prototype

Sample Voucher Prototype

It was magical – the idea, food vouchers – a way to make a difference. I could feel it, I was on to something here – I could barely contain my excitement – I had to blurt out to my then business partners – “look at this (the food voucher)” lets do it! It ? There was something  here. So we  went ahead and rented a space at the Cape Town station and started the idea of exchanging food vouchers for demographic information – so answering the questions ‘where do you live’, ‘what phone do you have’, ‘what is your name’ and ‘what is your phone number’ were sufficient currency to exchange for a food voucher – what a rich experience. 300 loaves of bread and 5 hours later and I knew – this was big.

1 month later we introduced biometrics and partnered with desmond tutu and things were looking more and more interesting, what had we created ?

I could hardly believe it – I was working with technology, helping people and having fun – could it get better ? It did – in February 2009 I was invited to submit a business plan to the inaugural World Innovation Summit in Barcelona representing Cape Town (and South Africa, and Africa – *gulp*) out of 24 countries – and in what was the most outrageous turn of events, we placed second overall and first in most social value!

A number of other plaudits followed, including attending the World Economic Forum in Dalian, China – who thought researching thermal printers might lead to this!

This is all great and the awards have been meaningful and validating, but I did not start this to win awards, it was to make a difference. Which brings me to my happiest achievement this year.

A little over a week ago, I sat in a meeting with Suzanne Ackerman from Pick n Pay and related the story – the crazy thing was that about 23 months ago, we sat in a meeting with her with a food voucher and some software that I had cobbled together over about 2 days – it was functional, but we were winging it.

She wasn’t exactly sold on the idea, but she gave us the time of day and people we should talk to – and we did.

Fast forward 24 months and this is where we are now…

In the next few weeks, we will be doing a final test run where in some Pick n Pay stores, you will be able to buy a book of vouchers that you can keep with you in your car. When you see somebody that you want to give something to, but you don’t want to give cash because you don’t know where it will go (booze, glue – who knows) you can give them a voucher that they can exchange for food – awesome! Soon these books will be in all Pick n Pay’s.

I have an amazing feeling about the coming year, and I am looking forward to the next steps – but this is also not a solo achievement. Nothing of this magnitude is ever the work of a single person I (and We) have had the support of tremendous partners who early on saw the potential and helped craft what were basically sketches on a napkin into where we are today.

Developing the underlying software that forms a vital part of where we are going has been a difficult and in some cases painful process for both ourselves and our clients – but I am lucky that the lead technical & database architect has supported my often irrational changes and put up with my strange and sometimes vague descriptions.

We will have some guest posts from other people and other Broccoli’s in the coming months.

You know how it goes, Good ideas often have lonely childhoods - it looks like The Broccoli Project is growing up now and I can’t wait to tell you more…

MaZ – head of broccoli!