Developing data and leadership skills to fight poverty

John Wanjiku, 24, comes from a poor family in Kihoya village, Murang’a County, a tea growing area of central Kenya, where farmers like his parents typically earn a modest living from growing tea on a strip of land and from growing their own vegetables.

Without a scholarship it would be difficult for most young people from this type of background to make it to university, but Wanjiku is one of the lucky ones.

Via the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program he has been supported through higher education at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, one of the country’s top research institutions, studying first for a BCom and now for a BA Honours in IT, specialising in information systems.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Now he is putting that knowledge to good use to help with one of his community’s perennial problems. He has developed a mobile phone application that he calculates could save Kenyan farmers back home more than KES33 million ($330,000) a month.

Wanjiku’s family in Kihoya, like many of the 565,000 tea farmers in his homeland, lose more than 40 kilogrammes a year of harvested tea due to delivery lorries not collecting their crop at the right time from the collection centres.

On his course, he has been studying business intelligence and the importance of collecting large amounts of data to be able to look at trends over time and identify problems at different levels – nationally, regionally and by branch, for instance – that the business should address.

“With the tea problem, we were trying to capture data on delivery time, so that in future we can predict with accuracy what is happening, where and how. It is about coming up with a model that will use data to predict the optimal way to collect tea,” he says.

Matching the times of arrival of the farmer with their tea and the lorries to collect the tea is the critical problem. John remembers many times coming home from school as a child and finding his father was still at the collection centre, often late into the night waiting for a lorry to arrive.

Many families leave one of their children waiting with the crop, which has an impact on their education by reducing attendance at school or making them too tired to learn the next day. Sometimes he himself would be the one waiting and he remembers times when the lorry did not come until 3am.

The problem stems from a lack of two-way communication between the farmer and the tea collection centre, so a farmer might turn up with tea at midday and have no idea when the lorry will come.

This can prove disastrous as tea is a very fragile crop.

Highly perishable

“It is highly perishable,” Wanjiku explains. “If you pile it up and leave it somewhere after plucking, heat will build up and the tea will burn, turning green leaves to brown – and they won’t buy the brown tea.”

An additional issue is that the farmers and their children who help them are left waiting in low temperatures – tea typically grows on hill slopes – and they catch colds and chest infections, adding to their problems.

Wanjiku has created an app for the feature phones that farmers use – old models from 1985 to 2000 that have a USSD that enables people to access an application by dial-up. The farmers will use it to dial into the system, which operates in the local language, specify a collection centre they are about to use and the amount of tea they will transport there.

This data is sent to the tea factory, which works out a schedule for the lorries to collect. The system then automatically calls the farmer to inform him at what time the collection will take place so he can plan when to take his crop to the collection centre.

Wanjiku believes this system, if scaled up across the country, could make a dent in the KES10 billion (US$100 million) losses that Kenya’s 54 tea factories are suffering from not being able to collect tea at the right time, with severe knock-on effects on individual farming families who are losing revenue.

Currently he is waiting for the go-ahead from the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) to begin a pilot using this system in Gatunguru, central Kenya, next month.

“We spoke to the famers and they love the idea. The tea factory in Gatunguru loves the idea. Now we just need approval from the KTDA,” he says.

Wanjiku has been able to work on this for several reasons. The starting point is that the Mastercard Foundation is funding his university costs, which include the cost of obtaining a passport, medical aid, flight tickets, accommodation, food and upkeep and, of course, tuition.

But the scholarship is not just about money. There is a strong emphasis on transformative leadership, provided via extra-curricular lessons on the topic, and ‘give-back’ sessions, another pillar of the foundation’s work, which encourages Mastercard Foundation Scholars to use their learning experience to give back to their community.

In his year the University of Pretoria (UP) scholars programme asked Wanjiku and other scholars to be involved in a programme called ‘Enactus’, working on different community projects near Pretoria.

He worked on projects in Zama Lesedi City and Mamelodi in South Africa’s Gauteng Province, both areas where employment is low and families live in hardship – typically in small tin-roofed shacks – and where schools grow vegetables in their grounds as a policy to ensure students have a vitamin-rich diet, because their families struggle to provide a diet rich in vitamins at home.

In Zama Lesedi City, market analysis found that community members were using expensive unsustainable and often dangerous forms of lighting such as candles and paraffin lamps, which also offer only poor light by which children can do their homework for school.

Building local skills

Wanjiku was part of a team that showed five community members how to make sustainable and affordable lights running off solar energy – with a lifespan of up to three years and an automatic switch to charge mode when exposed to sunlight – and trained them in how to run a business making the lights.

“We designed a solar light that would outperform other solar lights on the market and could be sold to the community at affordable prices,” Wanjiku says.

“People did buy it and we got funding from Ford, the motor company. With that we were able to train more people in Mamelodi in how to make the light and give them financial literacy courses so that they could manage the project on their own.”

Wanjiku says classes in leadership, diversity and emotional intelligence under the UP scholarship programme and the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program have enabled him to become a “more confident person, able to look at a problem and propose a solution”.

He said a great advantage of the transformative leadership sessions under the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program is that they are attended by other Scholars from different institutions, studying different disciplines, “so for any skill you might need, it is readily available and you can ask yourself what is it that we can do with these skills to engineer solutions”.

“Let’s assume one person is doing engineering, another social development and another information systems and you ask what can we do together that might change or solve something?

“This is the only time when you will have access to all these different people in the same space for almost no cost. So that means you can use the ideas to achieve something.”

Rewarding compelling leadership

In 2017 he entered the Resolution Social Venture Challenge, a collaboration between the Mastercard Foundation and the Resolution Project, held at the Mastercard Foundation Baobab Summit in Johannesburg in 2017. The competition rewards compelling leadership in a social venture organised by the youth.

John’s project to help tea farmers, named ‘Ukulima Halisi’, won the challenge, earning him seed money, mentorship and access to a network of young global change-makers to pursue his project.

If it comes off, farmers will be able to take their tea to the collection centre and be done with the whole deal in the space of half an hour, avoiding wasting the crop and thereby increasing the revenue for their families.

There is a lot resting on the decision by the KTDA.