Friday, September 12, 2014

My Summer Work: Business Incubation Curriculum for Agriculture Technologies

When I accepted the offer to work with Land O’Lakes International Development Division, as a summer Enterprise Consultant, I could’ve never imagined the impact I would have on a group of farmers turned agriculture technology entrepreneurs, and more importantly, the impact that these inventors would have on me.

Land O’Lakes is a recipient of an award from the US Agency for International Development, USAID, to implement Innovations in Gender Equality (IGE) to Promote Household Food Security. This is a two-year (Sep 2012-Sep 2014) program that aims to develop local capacity for building and sustaining women’s empowerment in Tanzania’s agriculture and food security arenas.

IGE, in conjunction with the Coalition for the Advancement of Women in Agriculture in Tanzania (CAWAT) facilitated a series of competitions entitled ‘Women’s Agricultural Innovations Awards’ (WAIA). These competitions were designed to target locally designed innovative technologies that address the needs of farmers, with an emphasis on the needs of women farmers in Tanzania. As a result, 21 women-friendly agricultural technologies were selected as sub awardees of these competitions.

The task was to travel to Tanzania for the summer to design a business incubation curriculum for the sub awardees. I have worked with start-ups in the past through previous employment and my current experience on the Social Venture Fund, a student-led impact investment fund at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. However, I have never worked with companies that are pre-revenue, and as early as the blueprinting phase of business development.

Before traveling to Africa, as a true MBA student, I did my due diligence. I talked to successful entrepreneurs, business incubators, and researched key authorities of agriculture development in the region including Feed the Future and ANDE. It was the initial consultations with different sub awardees that directed my work the most.  Below are some of the main insights that I gathered while conducting my research:
  •   Many of the business development resources, from funding applications to mentorship opportunities were geared toward English speaking participants, which excludes a large segment of the Tanzanian population that only speak Swahili.
  • All sub awardees that I came in contact with expressed a desire to gain access to financial resources. Many lacked the collateral needed to qualify for traditional loans and were looking for ways to raise, maintain, and save enough capital to run their business
  • None of the sub awardees that I came in contact with viewed business as a 2-way conversation with customers. They were creating amazing products, but not consulting their customers to provide valuable feedback to make their technologies even better.

The curriculum I compiled provides a general framework for starting a business including: Business Model Overview, Customer Discovery, Marketing, Finance and Partnerships. There are 17 sessions that make-up 5 days of training in total. I split the pilot trainings up into two workshops in Morogoro, Tanzania during the months of June and July 2014. Even though the trainings are based off of highly credible frameworks such as the Lean Start-up methodology, the curriculum has been modified to relate to gender-specific, agriculture technologies in developing nations. Some of the highlights of this training include:

  • Rural Technology examples to relate to participants
  • SWOT Analysis specific to Agricultural Technology Landscape
  • Gender Specific questions & reference
  • Speaker series session featured representation from a self-made local female entrepreneur & micro-finance consultant
  • English & Swahili translated materials
  • Market externalities specific to agriculture technology sector in developing nations to highlight reasons that farmers may not adapt technologies

Below are a few pictures from the pilot training this summer.
Teaching the sub awardees about the business model canvas 

Participants calculating the cost of their technology taking into consideration all factors including: labor, raw materials, equipment, overhead. One participant previously calculated costs to be 30% less than the actual value.
Handing a certificate of completion to one of the participants at the conclusion of the training

As far as next steps, – The Land O’Lakes IDD Technical Team plans to submit a proposal to ANDE’s 6th RFP for the Capacity Development Fund, supported by the Lemelson Foundation and Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women. The goal of the Capacity Development Fund is to increase the productivity and effectiveness of ANDE members, as well as to encourage increased collaboration between organizations, while creating tools and insights that can help the SGB sector as a whole. Selected proposals are eligible for a grant up to 18months and $50,000.
If selected, Land O’Lakes plans to produce a guidebook and best practice report on accelerating enterprises – specifically, technology/invention-based enterprises in the agriculture sector in emerging markets. The business curriculum would be included in the guidebook, with potential to influence the broader ANDE community and industry as a whole.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Tạm biệt Vietnam!

I turned 28 in the mountains of Northwestern Vietnam on the back of a Russian Minsk; a motorcycle older than me and wonderfully appropriate for the undulating roads that connect Hanoi and my homestay for the night in Mai Chau. My guide had done well to steer us away from the stresses of the country’s congested (and dangerous) highways. We took back roads that I would not have found on a map, and even stopped for tea at his childhood home in a village normally closed to foreigners. The trip was a birthday gift to myself, and as I would be leaving Vietnam in just about a week it doubled as a chance to reflect on my time in the country.

Resting along the way.
That night I sat cross-legged on the floor not at my homestay but at the home of a neighbor who had invited my guide and I for dinner. The power had gone out, as it often does, so the room danced with flickering candlelight. We drank rice wine poured from used plastic containers and I tried my best to navigate the traditional toasting protocols that dictate who drinks when. It was great fun. The food spread out before us was delicious and included a local delicacy that I only tried reluctantly – dog meat. I pretended that it was my birthday celebration, and my unexpected hosts made it a memorable one.

Beautiful Mai Chau from above.
The hospitality I found in Mai Chau I found everywhere I went in Vietnam. It was in the markets and the alleys of busy Hanoi, the beaches of Da Nang, and the terraced rice fields of Sa Pa. Vietnamese people are deeply friendly and welcoming, which isn’t the common perception at home. The question that I have most often received about my summer has been whether or not I felt any lingering anti-American sentiment from the war. The answer is decidedly no, despite the fact that two blocks from my homestay rests a downed American bomber in a lake, memorialized by an adjacent war museum. As far as I can tell from the friendships that I made and the conversations that I had, Vietnam is somewhat remarkably a pro American country. What this says about the U.S. Military’s misadventures in certain parts of the world is a topic for a braver blogger.

Vietnam’s friendliness was not new to me – I had been to the country twice previously. What was new to me, though, was the type of work that I would be doing: I had never worked for a non-profit before. I’ve spent my career in the private sector, and business school was my chance to gain exposure to the other side. My experience at SNV in Hanoi was an overwhelmingly positive one. My colleagues were all passionate about their work and the effort they put in to managing the Vietnamese Business Challenge Fund. The painstaking process they went through in selecting investments yielded a portfolio with significant potential. The portfolio companies are all positioned for both profitability and positive social impact.

Experimental rice production at a seed company.
It was visiting these companies that I most enjoyed about my work. Each was unique, and each was led by entrepreneurs passionate about making a difference in Vietnam. The funding they receive from the VBCF is critical to the viability of their business plans, which made the work I was contributing over the summer feel important.

I am so lucky to have had this experience, and I know that I will carry these lessons with me throughout the rest of my career!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Somebody Almost Walked Off with All of My Stuff

Balaka, Malawi
Kwitanda, Malawi

Don’t worry. I didn’t get robbed. The title of this post is a nod to Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.  In it, the Lady in Green tells us “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff…what I got to do/ I gotta get my stuff to do it to/ why don’t ya find yr own things/ & leave this package of me for my destiny”. Lady in Green calls this stuff “the anonymous ripped off treasure of the year”, her “memories”, “calloused feet”, “laugh”, “chewed up fingernails” and “poems in the pot”. Lady in Green’s stuff isn’t just stuff. It’s a euphemism for identity.

While journaling one morning, I looked down at my watch to confirm the date. August 11, 2014. Time is moving quicker than it did ten weeks ago.

I examined the sports watch/heart rate monitor I bought for $20 over six years ago. Though retrieving it from my Junk Draw of Doom (you know you have one too), this plastic and rubber watch has been incredibly handy throughout my time in Malawi. Why don’t I wear this watch more often, I genuinely thought to myself. Oh yes, I remembered, because I have a super fancy, super shiny designer watch waiting for me at home.

Nowadays, fancy watches are no longer used for telling time. Fancy watches are used to signify status. Fancy watches signify wealth. Fancy watches signify importance, as in, “I’m super important and can wear a fortune on my wrist to remind me that I have to be somewhere at a certain time because I’m so important”. Fancy watches tell people that not only are you important, but your time itself is important. Your time is expensive. Fancy watch wearers don’t wait 5 hours at an antenatal care clinic after walking over an hour on a dirt road just to see the one nurse in the village. The one nurse who, one this particular day, neglected to tell the clinician she was staying home even though she lives next door. No, fancy watch wearers don’t wait. Fancy watch wearers have appointments.

Fancy watch wearers don’t queue at a borehole to collect water for their homes. They have faucets (that don’t get shut off like they do in Detroit).
Borehole to collect water
Fancy watch wearers don’t walk. They have cars. Really fancy watch wearers have drivers.
Women leaving the ANC clinic. I am unsure if they received treatment.
Fancy watch wearers don’t carry their own medical records on a flimsy paper card titled, “Health Passport”. They have doctors with offices that keep their records for them.
Woman waiting and holding her Health Passport.
My fancy watch is not just a watch. It’s evidence of opportunity. Of possibility.
Let me be clear. This is NOT a reflection on the burden and/or privilege of First World materialism. This reflection is about stuff. Real stuff. Real stuff like status. Real stuff like access. Real stuff like privilege. Real stuff like choice. Real stuff like survival.

I visited Kwitanda last month. This small impoverished village near Balaka has stuff. It has electricity poles and cables…that aren’t connected to any homes. It has a motorbike ambulance…that doesn’t work. It has health centers… that are understaffed. It has pharmacies… that are out of stock of antimalarials.
Inoperable Motorcycle Ambulance
Kwitanda has real stuff, too. Real stuff like lack of infrastructure. Real stuff like scapegoating. Real stuff like indifference. Real stuff like classism. Real stuff like poverty.

These things, this stuff, isn’t just stuff. They’re powerful indicators of health status, educational attainment, and life expectancy. Like your zip code in the States, this stuff determines your future. To make it, you need the right stuff.

So what should we do?

It’s hard work getting people the stuff that they need instead of the stuff that gets our names on organizations and buildings. Hand soap is not sexy. National ID system? Takes too long. Waste management infrastructure? Next! An emergency response system that doesn’t require you to drive to the station to pick up the police so they can attend to your emergency (that is, if you have a car)? Well, that’s just a mouthful. Tablet computers? Yes please!

I believe VillageReach, my host organization, has found that critical balance. One of our projects, Chipitala Cha Pa Foni (Health Center by Phone), is an mHealth solution for providing women and mothers with important maternal, newborn and child health information. The project offers two services: a toll free hotline offering health information, advice and referrals and a Tips & Reminders service that sends voice or SMS messages to registered pregnant women, women of childbearing age and guardians of children under one year of age. The Kwitanda Community Health Project, the other Balaka based project, entails a multipronged approach to improving health outcomes in the Kwitanda village through health education in water and sanitation, child health, reproductive health, nutrition, and so much more.

VillageReach implements “innovative” public health solutions in last mile communities. “Innovative” is often code for eHealth, mHealth or multidisciplinary approaches. VillageReach does this. But most critically, VillageReach also shows that sometimes the most innovative solution is to simply give people what they need. Sometimes you need a fully staffed hotline that provides critical health information to callers. And then sometimes you just need a razor to cut your umbilical cord. Sometimes you need a text messaging system to encourage expectant mothers to deliver at a health facility instead of at home. And then other times you just need lid on your toilet.

At this point in the summer, I am preparing to present on my organizational assessment at VillageReach’s Seattle headquarters. No organization is perfect, but the folks at VillageReach are a hardworking group. As the organization grows, I feel confident that VillageReach will also continue to grow their capacity to provide the right stuff that will truly make a measureable impact on improving health outcomes throughout Malawi.

I want to thank WDI and VillageReach for an amazing summer (or winter according to Malawi’s seasons). What I wanted out of my internship is exactly what I got— an incredible opportunity to stretch myself both professionally and personally, increase my knowledge about public health and health-related systems and challenge my assumptions about, well, pretty much everything.

This marks the end of WDI posting for this summer. To continue following my musings about international travel, as well as read some unpublished posts about my time in Malawi, subscribe to my blog For Colored Girls Who Travel ,“Like” my Facebook page, For Colored Girls Who Travel, or email me at

Zikomo! Thanks again for reading my posts!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Great thanks to WDI, Krishi Star, fellow interns, and lastly Bandra for the wonderful memories...!!

Krishi Star Retreat to Chopra Farmhouse

Figure 1: Trip to Chopra farmhouse
The team spent a weekend retreat at the Chopra Farmhouse, farmhouse belonging to the company Director Agastya’s family, located close to Vangani. Our journey there took us by paddy field plots and farmers were seen tending young paddy shoots. The peak of monsoon season now is perfect growing this Khariff crop. We started with sessions identifying our personal values and how that corresponded to company values and Krishi Star’s value to customers. I shared with the team, important takeaways for me this summer. Other activities included are: visit to nearby farms, team building sessions, river swim, cooking dinner with Krishi’s tomatoes, and a night of singing together by the garden with fireflies. It was a weekend of great learning, team building, and lots of fun times.

Next Steps and New product

One of my next tasks is to determine whether Krishi Star should focus in single- or multi-crop in its product portfolio strategy. From my research on major agri players in India such as Pepsico, Hindustan Unilever, and Jain Irrigations, many serve the role as an Input supplier, supplying farmers with quality seeds, irrigation technology, pesticides and fertilizers and engage in contract farming. Some even collaborated with local Indian banks to provide loans to farmers. This alternate chain created new hope and channel for farmers to sell their produce. While we have seen this progressive option via contract farming, it is most relevant to processor actors with huge marketing capabilities and a stable and big market to sell to. For Krishi Star, the important takeaway from this exercise is realizing the importance of establishing appropriate backward linkages and determining target market need. Understanding limitation of production and financial capabilities is another important factor in determining next step strategies.

My final task is to evaluate product feasibility of the processed onion products. Four main types includes: Dehydrated onions, Onion powder, Preserved/Pickled onions, and Onion Paste. Dehydrated onion is the most mature category of all, with India exporting 118 crore (12% of all onion exports) of dried onion annually. The US is a major producer of dehydrated onion and in India, Jain Irrigations dominates. As mentioned in my earlier post, price hikes haunted onion prices lately due to shortage in domestic onion supply. In 2011, India imported onions from Pakistan and in 2013 from Egypt. This pose a potential for processed onion.

Bandra and memorable Hindu festival

Figure 2: Human pyramids

Leaving Mumbai and especially Bandra forced me to leave behind great sentimental memories that I would not have gotten had I not become a WDI fellow. Sad to leave behind people I have met in my neighborhood: the Frozen food shop Auntie, Gary from Pedro foods, and not forgetting Fruit seller Mama, whom I often buy bananas from. Despite living for a short time, I have witnessed few celebrations: India independence day, Hindu festival Krishna Janmashtami in Maharashtra. During the Hindu festival, locals form human pyramids to fetch a pot filled with goodies hung about 20-40ft high on local streets. It’s a competition and the team that fetched the pot gets awarded with real cash. 

WDI, Krishi Star and fellow interns...

Figure 3: Myself as WDI fellow undertaking my mission in India

I would like to extend my greatest thanks to the William Davidson Institute and Krishi Star (Bryan, Agastya, David) for a wonderful summer internship. Thanks also to other interns from Kellogg (Jason and Greg), IIT Mumbai (Aniket), Albert, and Remma for making work fun and enjoyable and for the  great times. One of the greatest takeaway is to be able to work in a team of people from various backgrounds held together by our common goal to empower farmers and end poverty. Will certainly miss the long and endless team meetings and not forgetting the Krishi Star post-it notes jokes!!!

Figure 4: Bandra station

Figure 5: Krishi Star team

Figure 6: Krishi Star team

Note to future interns #4:
1. If you are using Apple, you will want to know Maple, the local Indian authorized reseller and service center in case of computer breakdown. There is one service center in Santa Cruz.  My MacBook air wouldn't turn on and was checked in the service center. Although it took almost 2 weeks to repair, my laptop came back impeccable.
2. Cant stressed enough to bring mosquito repellent. Thanks to prior WDI fellow Rosser Ben Chen for donating his repellent to me! Those came in real handy!!! Go Blue!!