Student entrepreneurs apply agribusiness skills, create jobs

When she is not collecting data for her PhD or at home with family, Milkah Wambua is likely to be at her place of work at Kenya’s Egerton University in Njoro, ensuring that everything runs smoothly at the Desktop Lunches cafeteria she manages.

A PhD student in food science, Wambua does not run the eatery for the university or anyone else. It is a business she co-owns with another Egerton student, Joseph Karisa, selling food to students and staff since she started leasing the premises from the university in 2019.

Prior to moving to campus, Wambua cooked the meals at home, packaging and delivering them to customers at the institution at lunchtime.

“I was on a partial scholarship at the time that catered for tuition only and needed money for sustenance, so I was cooking and selling food to support myself and family,” the mother of two said.

In the process, she met Professor Patience Mshenga who teaches at the university and leads the Agri-enterprise Incubation for Improved Livelihoods and Economic Development (AGLEAD) project there.

“She [Mshenga] challenged me to start running the kitchen as a business and start an eatery instead of doing deliveries. However, I had no money to lease premises or equip them,” Wambua said.

Loan secured business expansion

Mshenga advised her to apply for a loan from AGLEAD, an initiative of the Transforming African Agricultural Universities to meaningfully contribute to Africa’s growth and development (TAGDev) programme run by the Mastercard Foundation and the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM).

After writing a proposal, Wambua secured a loan of US$1,800 that enabled her to lease space at the university, but the area was too small. Wambua later moved to bigger premises and, with an additional loan of US$2,400, she moved to the current location where, despite many challenges including Covid-19 disruptions in 2020, she now thrives, employing 10 permanent and five part-time workers.

With sales of up to US$200 a day, she can support herself and her family, and she is moving her business to bigger, better premises outside the university soon to cater to not just students, but the public as well.

Motorcycle helps ailing mother

A similar story of successful entrepreneurship is shared by Evans Ochola, a fourth-year agribusiness management student. He comes from a poor background and won a Mastercard-RUFORUM scholarship in 2017.

While at home during the COVID-19 long break, he received a stipend of US$600 from the benefactors which he added to his savings, and bought a motorbike before venturing into a transport business popularly known as ‘Boda Boda’.

“After working for a few months, I saved enough to buy a second motorbike which I leased to a local youth at a daily fee. Later, when institutions reopened, I moved with the bike to the university and continued with the transport business,” Ochola said.

He’s up at 5am and ferries pupils to the university primary school, which is on campus about 2km from the institution’s main gate. At 8am, he goes to class.

Ochola also bought a crisps packaging machine and, from premises at the nearby Njokerio shopping centre, he makes crisps and fries and sells them to students and the public. He employs two people to manage this business while he studies.

“I’m not closing any of the businesses after graduating in 2022. Instead, I will grow the crisps and fries business, brand it better and expand,” he said.

Ochola is using earnings from the business to support his visually impaired single mother who has been ill since 2013. He also cannot forget his “peasant farmer uncle” who helped raise him after his mother fell ill.

Consultants help students, farmers

Dr Dickson Okello and Fahad Lutta, both beneficiaries of TAGDev, are running consultancy businesses and offer virtual agri-business training courses for young people. They also offer business mentoring to students, one of the most successful enterprises under the initiative.

They do this through what they describe as a “social enterprise company” called Blended Ag-Powered Entrepreneurship (BAPE). They started the company when Okello, as a PhD student, received seed money from AGLEAD.

Okello, who recently graduated and is now a lecturer at the university, is the CEO of the company, while Lutta is the manager overseeing daily operations and supervising their four employees.

“Our mentoring programme allows university and TVET students, including recent graduates, to interact with professionals in their sector, learn from them and build their careers,” Okello said. “In addition, we train graduates in sustainable business models and sustainable value chains in agriculture, and this has enabled students to start successful businesses.”

So far, they have trained two cohorts of 80 and 70 students respectively through short courses in agri-business management, deploying the experiential learning method. They also consult with farmers. Big breaks have been surveys, monitoring, and evaluation plus feasibility consultancies they have undertaken for companies and NGOs, including the United States International University, something they are proud of, given the exposure that followed.

In partnership with Michigan State University, Okello and Lutta have also conducted studies on behalf of USAID on the challenges of youth unemployment in Kenya.

“Consultation for agriculture and agri-business advice, in general, is being given by non-professionals, and we are filling this gap,” Okello said.

Modern structure for bees

Future beneficiaries of such a consultancy could include Michael Kipsin Chepkor who is bringing modern apiculture to the people in the remote and arid Chemolingot area of Baringo County.

Off the Chemolingot-Marigat highway amid dark, rocky hill outcrops punctuated by cactus and acacia shrubs, the MSc student in natural resources management has constructed a modern beekeeping structure.

The wire-mesh structure has a roof made of iron and is secured by a chained, wired perimeter fence and padlocked metal gate. On top are 80 modern hives popularly known as Kenya Top Bar hives. Chepkor intends to expand the number to 120 soon. Bees have not yet moved in or discovered the home, but they should as soon as trees and other vegetation in the surroundings begin flowering, he said.

He has invested US$8,000 into this venture, including buying the land. He won the money in a local business innovation competition for youth sponsored by the World Bank. He also added savings from his stipend as a TAGDev scholar.

“I expect to be harvesting not less than 1,000kg of honey twice a year, beginning this December (2021). Honey from this area is reputed to be the best in Kenya and retails at US$2 per kilogram when raw, and double that when processed,” Chepkor said. He is an orphan who was raised by an uncle.

He hopes to recoup his investment in a few years and wants to spend the money to continue educating a younger brother he has been paying school fees for.