On Thursday night, May 25, 2017, the lawns of Devon House were abuzz with activity as restaurateurs, chefs, producers and foodies gathered to celebrate the crème de la crème of Jamaica’s food industry at the 19th annual Jamaica Observer Food Awards.
Allison and Oral Turner, principals of Turner Innovations Limited—nominated in the Best Food Product category for their Turner’s Choice dried and candied sorrel products—were late to arrive as they had spent the majority of the day in the kitchen. They had been preparing dishes to offer as samples at their booth: sorrel-infused rice, sorrel muffins, and a peppery, sweet and tangy sorrel sauce over Copperwood smoked pork.
On the way to the event, Allison fielded two frantic phone calls from the organisers asking where they were, which put her antennas up. Could it be…? Surely not, she thought, as Turner’s Choice is a baby in the industry, up against some well-known, long-established brands. But as soon as they arrived, they were practically spirited from the VIP car park to the side of the stage. Surely not, Allison thought again. And then their names were called as one of two winners in the Best Food Product category.
“I just started to shake. I couldn’t believe it,” Allison recalled. “Just the endorsement alone, to know that Jamaicans will look at us as the best product—not just in St Elizabeth or Kingston, but Jamaica—it’s going to give us the boost that we are really looking for to promote our product, because we know it’s the best that’s out there right now.”
The Turner Innovations Story
Oral and Allison Turner have practically become stars in the local agro-processing industry over the past three years. The couple, who have been married for more than ten years and are serial entrepreneurs, live and work in Comma Pen, St Elizabeth. Oral, born and raised in St Elizabeth, is a welder by trade. He comes from a background of family farming, runs a farm supplies store and has a knack for reverse-engineering. Allison, born and raised in the United Kingdom to a Trinidadian mother and a Jamaican father, came here in 2000 to find her roots. She also found love, and an outlet for her skills in graphic design, administration and marketing.
One day, in 2008, one of Oral’s customers came into the store, lamenting the fact that he was going to have to abandon four acres of sorrel as it would cost so much to reap that the profit would be negligible. Separating the red calyxes (flesh) from the seed bud is the most labour intensive—thus most expensive—aspect of reaping sorrel.
Typically, farmers employ labourers to hand-strip the buds, or use a broken umbrella stick to push the seed up and through the base of the bud. The latter method is the most widely used, but as one can imagine, it is very time consuming, which drives up harvesting costs.
It was a dark situation for the farmer, but it suddenly sparked a bright idea for Oral. He started bringing sorrel home, and began tinkering with various household items and appliances, trying to find a way to cut the cost of harvesting by automating the process of separating the flesh from the seeds. Allison, usually the optimist, didn’t initially see what he saw in his mind’s eye, and begged him to leave it alone—especially as her kitchen items, broomsticks and even furniture legs were going missing or being maimed in the process of Oral’s experimentation.
It’s not every day someone invents a machine, and certainly not in Jamaica, she cautioned. Besides, if such a machine were to be invented, surely it would have been done already. Perhaps determined to prove his wife wrong, Oral persisted. He even ran a light out into the back garden, and spent many a night working outside.
Seeing The Possibilities
Three months later, he had done it. He had successfully created the first automated prototype of a sorrel harvesting machine. “When I saw this machine, I thought there was still a little man in there plucking the sorrel with an umbrella stick,” Allison laughed. “I just couldn’t believe it. I went online to check if there was anything like it in the world and came up with nothing, so I got excited because I realised that this was going to have an impact on the whole industry. And it kind of scared me, because this was bigger than anything I could imagine. So I decided that we needed real help; we needed the country to back us on this. But I didn’t believe Jamaica had any kind of facility for invention.”
In December 2010, the basic prototype was introduced to the then Minister of Agriculture, the late Roger Clarke. It was very rough, but he saw the possibilities and led the way for the Turners by introducing them to the Development Bank of Jamaica (DBJ). In the meantime, Allison sought business training and enrolled at the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship – Caribbean in 2011. Later that year, the DBJ came on board, providing J$3 million in grant funding that enabled the Turners to produce a more professional prototype of the machine and seek a US patent. The Sorrel Harvesting Machine was granted a US patent in December 2016, after five years of applying.
International interest in the machine has been strong since 2010, when the Turners impulsively put up a website without a finished product, and that has only grown as they have steadily racked up local awards and accolades, the Observer Food Award being the most recent. There are about twenty-two countries that commercially produce sorrel around the world. In terms of production volume, China and Thailand are the market leaders. Other major producers include Mexico, Ghana, India and Sudan. Jamaica is actually amongst the smallest producers and suppliers. The Turners regularly field calls and emails from farmers in other countries that want access to the Sorrel Harvesting Machine.
They are excited about the possibilities of going global, but for now, the plan is to start local, and they will begin by licensing with a major local manufacturer. “The world is our oyster, and we have many options to take the model overseas if we choose,” Allison said.
The Funding Conundrum
Being serial entrepreneurs, the Turners first sought to remain independent with their new invention. “We were working on it during the day and doing karaoke seven nights a week for a living. We just believed that we were going to have to do this ourselves. It’s only when we realised that we had to get the patent made non-provisional and we were going to need help, that we started reaching out,” Allison explained.
They were excited about the possibilities, Allison having done her research, but what they ended up walking into was a brick wall. “We did the Denbigh Agricultural Show that first year and they told us this isn’t going anywhere, leave it alone. We were deflated, but we were determined to make it happen, to prove them wrong,” she recalled. The banks and financial institutions were not interested, and the couple bounced around for a year, hearing nothing but ‘no,’ even after some representatives got their hopes up by visiting them to check out the machine. “It was a horrible experience. They just didn’t see the vision.”
FirstAngelsJA to the rescue
That’s when Allison sought help from the late Roger Clarke, and got connected with the DBJ. The rest, as they say, is history. In 2014, the DBJ had them pitch the business idea to the FirstAngelsJA network, and they found investors almost immediately. “To be able to impact an industry as big as agriculture, which is vital to Jamaica, was very attractive to them. And we had already been backed by the DBJ, so the potential had already been recognised. Jamaica is known for agriculture. It’s a great area to invest in, especially with the impact of our invention,” Allison reasoned. “Besides, how many times in your lifetime will you meet an inventor? Much less one from Jamaica?”
The Turners were ecstatic to meet like minds and be taken seriously. “Entrepreneurship is a dreamer’s world, so the only people who can understand it are people who have followed their dreams and had the opportunities and been blessed enough to be able to finance those dreams and move forward,” Allison reasoned. “We needed a different mindset to look at our vision, to be able to understand it and help us achieve it.”
That same year, through FirstAngelsJA, the Turners met another angel investor from Canada, Grant Seabrook, who also happens to be a design engineer, which is exactly the kind of connection they were looking for. Seabrook came to Jamaica with the intention of providing investment or mentorship, but “when he saw how much work my husband had already put into this invention, he was blown away. By the time he left us, he’d decided to help us upgrade and redesign to a completely commercial version, fully computerised. He did that for us pro bono. You just can’t put a value on that,” Allison said.
That redesigning process took a year, which caused the Turners to push back plans to have the machine ready to launch on the local market in November 2015. The redesign was completed last December, and Turner Innovations received its second phase of investment from FAJ in February 2017. They are now in the process of building the brand new machine, which should be ready for launch later this year.
‘Selling peanuts on the roadside’
All told, the Sorrel Harvesting Machine has taken the better part of a decade to produce and perfect. The Turners now had the funding to get their invention made and commercialised, and they had visions of the items they wanted to be able to make using the machine in the future. But there was still the question of what they were going to do in the meantime, to start bringing in money. Their first meeting with the board was especially eye-opening.
The Turners’ first business plan had, of course, featured earning projections based on what they thought the machine would be able to do. With the Angels now on board, they had to show how those projections would be met, and to their chagrin, it wouldn’t have been able to produce even one third of the projections, prompting one board member to quip that the couple might as well be “selling peanuts on the roadside.” The business plan had been solely focused on generating income from harvesting, and that was neither realistic nor worthwhile for either party.
“My husband was using a lot of sorrel to practice the making of the machine, and we had all this dried sorrel on our dining table. I was totally deflated from that first board meeting, but I looked at it and I thought, ‘I wonder…’” Allison’s inner graphic designer came back to the fore, and she hit the internet, Googling labels for products made from cranberries, which have some of the same properties as sorrel. Inspired, she began to design. After creating the Turners’ Choice label, “I went to the supermarket and asked them if they could seal it in a bag for me. The gentleman who did it came back and said, ‘When can we get this on the shelf?’” This was close to Christmas time, when sorrel consumption is at its highest in Jamaica, so he determined that it would sell well, and sell it did.
Making sorrel products had not been a part of the plan initially, but it has turned out to be just what was needed. At the second board meeting a month later, the Turners walked in and dropped the proverbial mic with their new product. “The meeting had begun at 7:30am, and by 9 o’ clock, we sat down at PA Benjamin and had an international distributor, and the biggest distributor in Jamaica, Facey Commodity, on board,” Allison marvelled. “This is part of the absolutely amazing power of a FirstAngelsJA—knowing people and getting through doors. Within the first six months, we’d sold about $1.5 million worth of product.”
They have since added ready-to-eat snack products to the Turner’s Choice family—candied sorrel and candied sorrel with almonds. Up next is a specialty bottled sorrel sauce, recreating the recipe that proved to be a huge hit at the Observer Food Awards.
A Word of Advice
In addition to funding, FirstAngelsJA also provides investees with networking opportunities, mentorship, advice, and assistance with governance. This includes setting up a board of directors, and having regular meetings. This involvement has been a key part of the Turner Innovations journey. “We just could not have achieved any kind of success, in the time span that we have, without the Angels. It wasn’t just about money. It’s about experience, business knowledge, mentorship, guidance and support and belief. Their belief in us has been vital,” Allison said.
Considering the impact FirstAngelsJA has had on Turner Innovations, Allison was quick to urge struggling entrepreneurs to explore the possibilities of angel investment. “I always say, fifty per cent of nothing is nothing, so if you’re hung up on your business about ownership, you need to let that go,” she said. “Without financing, you cannot move forward. Angel investment is about people who have been there and done exactly what you’re doing, so they understand. You can work with them because they see you.”
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