Photo provided by Ed Mabaya

ITHACA, N.Y. — Over winter break, a team of Cornell students traveled to Machakos, Kenya, to provide free advice to two local businesses in the seed industry.

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Through the Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Team  program, the students had the opportunity to learn from both businesses about the role of small-medium enterprises that give agricultural inputs to smallholder farmers in Kenya. They also got an in-depth look at issues of food insecurity, government policy and climate change.

The program is run through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and the Cornell International Institute on Food, Agriculture, and Development (CIIFAD). It was originally planned for 2014, but was cancelled due to a terrorist attack in Kenya.

Photo provided by Ed Mabaya

A multidisciplinary team

“For the past twelve years I have led different groups of students to Africa, working on agricultural development projects,” said Ed Mabaya, team leader and associate director of CIIFAD.

According to Mabaya, the goal of the project is to pair students with either a business or a community in a developing country that has a challenge or a problem the students can help solve with a variety of skills. 

What sets this program apart from others is that students are chosen from different parts of campus and different backgrounds because the companies usually need help involving IT and business, among other fields. 

Photo provided by Ed Mabaya

Two promising companies in need of improved management

The students consulted with a seed producer, Dryland Seed Limited (DSL), and a farm inputs distributor, Makamithi Enterprises Ltd (MEL).

“These were organizations I had previous engagement with through my work on agribusiness development and The African Seed Access Index (TASAI). Both companies were very keen on getting business advisory services from Cornell students,” Mabaya said.

Mabaya explained that most of the smallholder farmers in Africa are using seed that they save from previous planting season which often lacks new features such as climate change adaptation, disease resistance and high yield.

They chose these two companies because they “are really serving smallholder farmers with technology that is appropriate, that will increase their productivity and hopefully enhance food security.” They hope the companies can act as key players in making this technology accessible to other smallholder farmers.

The students studied the companies and their key stakeholders and recommended strategies to improve performance and deliver better service to smallholder farmers.

According to Mabaya, the companies gave the students short and specific assignments, such as: “Can you benchmark us against our competitors? How can we better use information technologies to manage our inventories? Can you segment our different customers and come up with an effective marketing strategy for each group?”

The students provided “an outsider’s look at the companies” which can be very useful because most of the managers are focused on the day-to-day operations as opposed to the bigger picture.

“They don’t know what’s out there, how their company fits within the big agenda of food security in Africa, or climate change adaptation. Allowing them to see that bigger picture often opens new windows of possibilities for their businesses and customers,” Mabaya said.

According to Mabaya, one key issue is that improved seed has not been well marketed in Africa, while it’s extremely important for food security. Farmers only buy seeds when it rains, so companies only have a two-week window to sell them to farmers. In that window, they need to sell almost eighty percent of their products. The students helped them reflect on how to manage that moment logistically, and how to be ready for that peak demand.

Photo provided by Ed Mabaya

A service-learning course with a long-term impact

Mabaya said this project is intended as a service-learning course, where the students “should be learning, providing service and also having fun.”

“It was interesting to see Cornell students being thrust into a foreign environment. As soon as we got there we went straight into action and the students were very eager to help,” Mabaya said.

The students also spent a lot of time with the companies’ stakeholders.

According to Mabaya, the last day before departure, they invited the senior management and board of directors of those particular companies to their hotel and presented their recommendations on the next steps to take.

“That’s always a bit of a tense moment because you are never sure of how they are going to receive this kind of information. I am proud to say that each year and especially this year they were just amazed at how well our recommendations addressed their problems,” Mabaya said.

Students are encouraged to keep in touch with the companies beyond their years at Cornell.

“Most students have continued to engage with these companies way after the assignments at Cornell. The companies ask the students if they can look at particular problems and they continue to be involved,” Mabaya said.

According to Mabaya, in previous years students who participated in the program were also inspired to pursue careers in international development.

“I think one of the key lessons for participating students is on how entrepreneurship and innovation can be a key to alleviating poverty, and promoting food security and advancing human development in general. Seeing this in practice as opposed to learning it in class can be transformative,” Mabaya said.

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