Have you met David Adjei?

The architecture profession tends to be viewed with a narrow scope. Most people aspire to be some version of Norman Foster, wanting to design their own version of the Gherkin. This is the perception of Architecture as an industry, with most companies focusing exclusively on design. “There are so many avenues we can pursue as an industry,” says David Adjei, innovative founder of London based architecture firm Cognition London.  “Construction is a very traditional industry and it’s plagued by a lot of problems because we are not innovating as well as other industries,” says David.

Construction is a very traditional industry and it’s plagued by a lot of problems because we are not innovating as well as other industries

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David believes there needs to be a rethink in the way architecture practices conduct their business and what they include in their businesses for that matter. He’s leading by example through his own architectural practice which he set up in 2014 whilst completing his masters degree. Before we get into where he is now, let’s look at his unconventional route into the industry.

[Read: How this black business man started his business during a recession]

How did it all start?

He originally wanted to be a graphics designer but this quickly changed when a community organisation called Construction Youth Trust came into his school. The organisation was raising awareness of the construction industry and showcasing the different career paths within the industry. Better yet, they also offered 4 weeks of paid work experience, which got then 16 year old David’s attention. “I had no interest in construction, I just saw it as a way to make some money and get some work experience,” explains the ‘archipreneur’.

I had no interest in construction, I just saw it as a way to make some money and get some work experience

David successfully secured 1 of 20 work experience places with Balfour Beatty and Moucel where he gained an overall view of various roles in the construction industry. “This was my turning point,” says David. It was during this work experience that he fell in love with architecture, leading to his enrolment onto an architecture degree course at Nottingham Trent University in 2008. However, due to poor time management, he says, he ended up getting a displeasing 3rd in his degree. This made it impossible to get a job, especially at a time when the industry was still recovering from the 2007 financial crisis.

Realising his predicament, he decided to take a job at Barclays bank and two years into it, he had another epiphany brought about by the loss of his grandmother.

“It was a mixture of feeling guilty for not spending enough time with her and the reminder that life is very short that led to my decision,” says David. Following the loss of his grandmother, David decided to go back to University to study part-time masters in architecture. Maintaining a demanding architecture and work commitments became untenable, so he left his job at the bank.

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Launching Cognition London:

Leaving his part time job gave David time to focus on his demanding course but it presented another challenge, lack of income. He had no income and relied on his mum for financial support. Determined to generate an income and make his own way in the world, he launched Cognition London in 2014. In the beginning he leveraged his network from his previous employer to secure work which was mostly house extensions at the time.

This got me through my masters which I finished with a merit

Following the success of with his masters and knowledge acquired, he continued to build his company and had developed a network of recruiters who kept him informed when companies were in need of architectural consultants. At the same time, David completed his RIBA ((Royal Institute of British Architects) chartership in 2018, which put him in a new league as he was now able to bid for substantial pieces of work. Unusually David did not have the luxury of employment with an Architecture firm as many graduates usually do. However, he is well known within the industry through projects that he’s worked on with a number of well known organisations. For example he has partnered with architecture firms such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), tp bennett, Benoy and populous to name a few

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Cognition London:The next level

His big break came when the industry implemented BIM (Building Information Modelling), a framework for working and producing architectural designs, managing projects, delivering and maintaining projects. It’s a digitised way that integrates all the construction project works on a single set of 3D live model. This can then be accessed by all those involved on a construction project.

David learnt how to use BIM and revit, the software used to implement BIM during his degree. “At the time, we didn’t know that it was going to be such a in demand skill in the industry.”I got my first major business to business contract without having an interview with the company”. His appointment for the contract was solely based on his BIM knowledge and a small portfolio of designs he’d worked on previously.

So, what are the benefits of using BIM and why was it such a game changer for David you ask. Well with BIM clients and professionals have the benefit of seeing everything associated with a construction project in one place. For example, a project manager can see the cost of materials and project life cycle; electrical engineers can use the same drawing to view all electrical wiring for a project. At the point of implementation, David was one of a handful of people who knew how to use the framework and technology associated with it. Having this edge took his business to the next level.

“After the initial contract, there was no looking back, everybody wanted a piece of me. It got to a point where I was turning down work, that’s how in demand I was” explains David.

Yet David was still facing some challenges with the business of running an architecture firm. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. For example, I didn’t know how much time each piece f work would take,” reveals David. Perhaps due to inexperience and under appreciation of the value he was adding, which led to him under quoted contracts.“I didn’t fully appreciate that I was building a space and adding value to it, so I essentially undervalued myself, which I don’t do anymore,” says David.

I didn’t have the support and network of other architects who I could bounce ideas with so I was shooting in the dark a lot of time but it was a good way to learn.

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Business model

David has broken away from the conventional architecture firm business model which usually focuses solely on design. He has created a diversified business in Cognition group which  consitis of

  • Cognition Architecture – the RIBA chartered practice that offers services such as architectural design, construction and renovation
  • Cognition estates – A property development and rental company focusing on buy to let, build to sell and build to rent markets.
  • David and Alexis – The interior design arm which David runs with his wife Alexis

Clearly not one to comform to the statusquo, David also keeps business operations very lean, which means heavy use of third party vendors  and sub contractors. “I outsource the time consuming admin work, which frees me up for business development. I have found that my model creates a competitive culture between the vendors and subcontractors because they want to do the best job so that I employ them for future projects”. This is unlike most architectural companies which tend to have all business operations dealt with in house and only deal with a few sub-contractors.

“I think in time, design focused architecture firms will be taken over by major construction companies, so for this reason there is a need for change there business models,” says David. This has always been a sensible and logical move for construction companies. A more recent example of this is Arups, a well known engineering company who recently added architecture to the list of services they provide.

David is now turning his attention to the wider architectural community. Through his recent election as a RIBA London Council member he hopes to bring his innovative mindset and energy to the council to help the profession forge a new road for the future.

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Meet UK’s only white maize farmer

“Don’t waste your time” – This is what the president of MGA (Maize Growers Association, an independent organisation that identifies information needs for its maize growers) told David Mwanaka, a black entrepreneur, in 1996. He had identified the MGA as his first port of call in helping him to understand how he could make his dream of becoming a white maize farmer in the UK a reality, but was advised not to grow it as it could not grow to maturity in the cold UK climate. “I felt so dejected after that phone conversation and decided that I was going to grow white maize to prove him wrong”

What is white maize you ask? – It’s simply corn with white kernels instead of the yellow ones that most of us are used to. White maize is a staple food in the Sub-Saharan Africa diet, with consumption of up to 450g/person/day. It’s also popular among South American countries and is commonly consumed as white maize flour, which is used to make e.g. Arepa (Venezuela and Colombia), Ugali (Kenya), Posho (Uganda), Sadza (Zimbabwe), Fufu (Ghana) and Nsima (Zambia) to name a few.

I felt so dejected after that phone conversation and decided that I was going to grow white maize to prove him wrong

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Today David is the UK’s only white maize farmer. Having ignored agronomists from MGA, David also became the first farmer in the country to grow white sweetcorn, which he supplies to Sainsburys and Harrods. Having succeeded in growing white Maize, David also owns 2 groceries stores based in Enfield and Walsall where he sells other Afro-Caribbean foods along size his white maize and maize flour.

So how did he get there and what exactly were his beginnings? I had the pleasure of speaking with David Mwanaka to understand just that.

[Read: How this black business man started his business during a recession]

Humble beginnings:

David was born and grew up in a rural part of Eastern Zimbabwe called Nyanga. Being the youngest of 10 siblings, the 20year age gap between David and his brothers and sisters meant he was the only child at home as his siblings had flown the nest by the time he was 12 years old.

“When I think about my older brothers and sisters, our relationship is more akin to a parent-child one” explains David.

Most African families in rural areas rely on subsistence farming, growing some of their own food for consumption with the excess sold to provide an income for the family. This is the type of farming that David grew up with. As a young boy, he was responsible for planting trees around the family home and it’s here that his passion for farming grew.

“This is probably the reason I became a farmer” says David.

Farming is like art. You start with a blank canvas in the form of bare soil and seeds then after 3-4 months you have art, that is a tree, bearing fruits. For me, seeing the transition of seeds to a grown tree is really therapeutic

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Moving to UK:

David arrived in UK in 1991. Frustrated by the lack of free press in Zimbabwe, he hoped to continue his journalism career. However, it proved much tougher than he thought and despite gaining further qualifications in journalism in the UK, he was still unable to find the job that he wanted.

Realising that he had to put his dreams on hold, he took a range of jobs to support his wife and young children, including working as a traffic warden a.k.a public enemy No.1. “I didn’t enjoy the jobs that I did. I basically did them to survive,” and so achieving his dream of growing white maize became an outlet for his frustrations.

I didn’t enjoy the jobs that I did. I basically did them to survive

Another disappointing aspect of life in the UK was not being able to enjoy the foods that he had grown up with in Zimbabwe, including his favourite – white maize. He tried to find it in shops and markets that sold African and Caribbean food, but nobody stocked it. So, in 1996, he decided to start growing it himself, persuading the landlord of his flat in Tottenham, North London, to use a small plot of the back garden.

[Read: Female restaurateur, from working in a bookshop to owning a restaurant and property portfolio]

Becoming a white maize farmer in UK:

David Mwanaka with wife Brenda Mwanaka

My wife didn’t take me serious and felt it would be impossible to become a farmer in the UK,” he recalls.

His first efforts were unsuccessful. In fact, it took another five years and many late nights of research and experimenting before he finally grew a successful crop in 2002. However, this success was short lived as he now faced the struggle of finding farm land to grow maize.

He began by knocking on the doors of farmhouses on the outskirts of London and asking farmers whether they had any acres to let. “They all thought no, he’s up to something. I mean, if someone comes round to your door asking if you have any land to grow white maize, which you’ve never even heard of . . . it’s very suspicious.”

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David’s luck finally changed when he put an advert for farm land in Loot magazine and was contacted by a journalist wanting to write a story. “At the time I wasn’t aware of any farmers publications and it was free to advertise in Loot magazine,” he explains. The ad didn’t bring any interest either, however it did attract a call from a journalist from The Observer who decided he wanted to support this black business man, and wrote an article about David’s efforts to become the UK’s first maize farmer. After the article appeared, two people approached David with land, one in Wales, which was too far, and another in Enfield. He went for Enfield as it was closest to where the family lived in Essex.

Who wants to buy white maize?

Things seemed to be looking up after David acquired the 10 acres of farm land in Enfield, the family planted and successfully harvested the first lot of white maize. However, as David solved the problem of growing the cob, he was presented with another problem of where to sell it. “We weren’t even sure if there were customers out there that were willing to buy our maize, “says David. He initially attempted to sell the crop from the boot of his car to a congregation leaving church but only managed to sell a dozen cobs.

It was so discouraging and I wondered if I was going to fail after investing so much time into nurturing these crops to grow

Not one to give up, once again David turned to free newspaper ads, a tried and tested method that had previously worked for him. It was through this as well as word of mouth from diaspora communities from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Bostwana that the orders grew as people came to know what he was doing. Today David has established his own distribution network which continues to enable him to sell his produce.

Now in 2020 David also sells other products such as pumpkin leaves, tsunga (mustard leaves), sweet potatoes, maize meal (dried maize that is grounded into flour) and much more from his farm shop in Enfield (North London) and Walsall (West midlands) as well as owning more land around UK , which is also used for farming. If these locations are not in your vicinity, that’s not a problem because Mwanaka Fresh Farm foods also deliver across the UK and Europe. Customers can buy products through Mwanaka Fresh Foods website.

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