Anna de la Vega – “If you believe in something, just keep going!”

In this #YesSheCan blog, the wonderful Anna de la Vega, the founding director of The Urban Worm, speaks to us about her diverse career journey, building her business from the ground up and the importance of learning to keep going and believing in your value and worth!

Hi! My name is Anna de la Vega and I’m the founding director of The Urban Worm CIC. We are a social enterprise that promotes world farming and regenerative, organic waste management and agriculture and gardening practices promoting the power of the worm!

My journey to starting my own business…

I started as a journalist, a photojournalist and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll show the world all the world’s ills and make everything better!’ – very naive.

I knew after learning about the media, I couldn’t have integrity doing that and I didn’t want to go down that route, so I had to change career paths. Before I did that, I actually had an internship in Nepal with the Kathmandu Post.

I then went to work with a charity called Practical Action. If you haven’t heard of Practical Action, it was founded by Ernest Schumacher and he’s the founder of the Green Movement in the UK. He wrote a book called ‘Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered’. He was campaigning for appropriate technology that we can control rather than being dependent on big machines and the people who have to come in and fix and it’s costly. So, that’s what I worked with in Nepal.

We then travelled with the charity and documented their projects. So, they were making revenue and then people could get across the river in like an hour rather than a ten-hour trek. So I was really interested in wanting to come back to the UK and work in development and ecological stuff.

When I came back, I studied human security and environmental change. I did a master’s at Nottingham Trent and I specialised in food and urban agriculture and my eyes were opened to the corruption of the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry and how this was having a negative impact on the farmers and justice.

During my course, I learned about vermiculture, which is the academic term for worm farming and I got really into that. Then when I graduated there was an economic collapse and there was no work in Nottingham but I didn’t want to go to London.

I decided to set up The Urban Worm – there’s a problem and this is the solution to do something about it. I suppose it started with me thinking “Right if I can stop everyone buying Miracle-Gro!”

So, it’s to provide people with an alternative that’s safe because synthetic fertilisers are very harmful to the soil and to our health, and they run off into and pollute our waterways. This was a practical solution. I started with education really to just raise awareness about the problems with synthetic fertiliser and that using worms and their manure as fertiliser was an alternative to that.

So it’s really about justice, human health and planetary health. That is how I started!

“It’s really about justice, human health and planetary health. That is how I started!”

My experiences being a director of my own business… First of all, I would never have even thought that I wanted to go into business or run my own business or anything, so I had a lot of learning to do. I think learning my own value and worth, that has been the main thing.

Working in a male-dominated industry… It’s tough. In waste management, women are underrepresented and obviously in agriculture as well. People often think you’re sweet and you’re nice and you know that isn’t just what we are, we do have similar but differing qualities to men.

it’s difficult being a business and running a business and thinking ‘CEO’ and power suits. But yeah, we do have to both when you’re running your own ship and you have to learn how to stand in that world as well.

I’ve had experiences where there’s just the assumption as well that you can work for a lesser pay – but that doesn’t happen anymore! So we have to cut through that and it’s important to support other social enterprises and organisations that we don’t do things for free or say ‘blah, blah, blah, did it for free.’ We need to work together by us understanding our own value and worth and that supports other businesses as well.

“I had a lot of learning to do. I think learning my own value and worth, that has been the main thing.”

My mantra is… from Marianne Williamson, ‘Our Deepest Fear’.

‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be Brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous – actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world… And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.’

I moved house but I did have it printed on my wall because I’ve had to face around women and jealousy – this is a real thing that I’ve gone through with my business.

I’ve overcome barriers during my career journey… Not coming from an agricultural background or business background or anything like that and just starting out, I guess that’s been the main thing.

Not having any contacts or any ‘in’ in any industry whatsoever has been hard, it would have taken me a lot less longer to get where I am now if I did. I’ve had to work a lot harder from the beginning, I haven’t been given any help within the industry. I’ve let my business grow organically so I’ve never had any investment.

But now things are good – the worm has turned! I’ve been contacted by a well-known

shopping centre in London that wants worm farms, and we currently have industrial worm farms in McArthurGlen Designer Shopping Outlet in Cannock, Birmingham, and also across 3 military sites in the East Midlands.

“But now things are good – the worm has turned!”

My advice to everyone about the environment would be… Don’t buy Miracle-Gro, don’t synthetic fertilisers are harmful to the soil and the harmful to our health. They kill the life in the soil. The soil is alive – it’s a living sort of living organism.

There are more microbes in a tablespoon of worm manure (healthy soil) than there are humans on the planet. I think people kind of forget that the soil is alive.

This is life and what we put in our garden is important. We support organic farming, and you get organic veg boxes from your local farmer but in our own garden, one thing we can do is not use synthetic chemicals, pesticides, and insecticides and just be kind to the soil. It gives us life and it’s a giver of life – it’s everything!

We need to look after the soil, it sustains us and the famous quote by Charles Darwin, says, “worms are more powerful than the African Elephant and are more important to the economy than the Cow.”

So that was then when people started to understand the importance that we need to look after our soil. We’ve destroyed it with chemicals. So – looking after the soil is my main advice!

The power of worm farming is that… anyone can do it in their garden. It’s a really easy way to manage your waste. I know that not everyone who lives in the city might not have space to compost, but you can compost worms in a tiny space. They only need a ten-litre bucket, and they just need to be fed your veggie scraps and they need oxygen. But they’re very low-maintenance pets!

You can go on holiday, and leave them for a few weeks, they won’t mind – and you will get the best organic soil in the world containing all the nutrients your plants need.

Worms can eat up to twice their body weight and reduce the volume of the soul by 90% and they even clean dog waste! The toxins in dog waste, whatever passes through their body becomes clean, so it’s about regeneration as well.

From a philosophical and spiritual perspective, it’s about rebirth and regeneration. So, turning something toxic into something clean and every day is a new day.

There’s been a lot of research in India on how worms are cleaning land contaminated with DDT and PCBs. So, they can really fix everything. Oxfam is using Tiger worm toilets in refugee camps. So, any manure, any organic waste, if it’s been alive or pasteurized, worms can work with it.

My advice to anyone in their career is… Find what you love and don’t give up, that’s the main thing. If you believe in something, just keep going.

I mean, most people would have probably given up by now or tried to get an investor. No, and it has taken me a long time to be financially secure for nearly a decade.

I’ve just kept going and I didn’t start this to make any money, I just did it because I knew that it was the right thing to do.

My biggest advice is, it’s going to be hard, and people might laugh at you. I think people thought I was mad at the beginning and they thought it was a bit of a fact that you can’t make a living.

But just keep going and find what you are passionate about and if you want to do this for the rest of your life and be the best in your field, then you need to love what you do. and then it never feels like work. It doesn’t feel like work to me, it’s just my life.

I’m very blessed, I feel very lucky and I’m very fortunate that I’ve found or rather, the worms found me something. So, this came to me somehow through the cosmic universe and chose me to do this job. If you’re doing something right for the world, doors will open for you. If you are living the right path and doing the right thing, then life will give you a hand to see.

Work hard and believe in yourself because sometimes other people won’t, and that takes time as well to have self-worth, it’s a lot of learning.

Be prepared to fail. I think everyone’s scared of failure, that’s the biggest thing. People don’t want to start anything because they have this fear of failure. But you have to fail – that’s the first lesson you have. You have to do a lot of failing to succeed.

“Find what you love and don’t give up… If you believe in something, just keep going.”

Building my business, The Urban Worm… is like ‘Look at me now!’ I’ve earned and created my own business, my own kind of industry even because education for worm farming and vermiculture is very underdeveloped in this country.

So, I’ve had to push hard but now the doors are open and it’s a great sign for the world that people and things are changing. Big organisations you would never think of, and the most unlikely customers want worm farming.

We’re working with Newark and Sherwood Council at the moment, they’re a really good council and we’ve installed 40 worm farms in schools and local schools. I convert wheelie bins into worm farms designed to compete with this idea of changing the idea of ‘waste’. It’s going to be a wonderful new year for worm farming!

“If you’re passionate and committed, they will support you and it changed my life.”

When I was in the Winston Churchill fellow… I was funded to go to America and Cuba in 2006, and that really changed my life.

I encourage people to apply for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travel Fellowship. It’s fully funded research up to eight weeks anywhere in the world from anything from agriculture, science, education, art – anything.

If you’re passionate and committed, they will support you and it changed my life

I went to America and Cuba and when I went to America, I went to visit two prisons and 11 of their prisons had worm farming. There were and there may be more now, but I went to Monroe Correctional Facility in Seattle. All the waste in the prison, which is run by the inmates and then the local council, is provided with the organic fertiliser from worm farming. So, it’s giving back and it’s a nice rebirth story.

In Cuba with the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost 8% of its imports and exports overnight and they were using twice the amount of chemical fertiliser than America per hectare. So that just destroyed their soil and they were just growing sugar cane.

But luckily when worm farming was introduced into the country two years before, they did know about it and that really helped them get through that dire situation because one ton of work compost replaced the need for eight tonnes of cow manure. So, it reduced the labour, and they didn’t need access to all the chemicals and the machinery, so worm farming really helped them.

Some wonderful things are going on in the world. If you want to research and you travel, it’s a great way to learn. It’s really done a lot for the UK as well as some really interesting projects out there. So yes, please apply!

You can learn more about Anna’s business, The Urban Worm, here
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