Africallyspeaking

NEW IDEAS . BIG IMPACT

Tag: Business

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Science Meets Society

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Introducing the Cassava
            Research University

Recently recognised as a potential gateway to food security
in Africa, cassava is gaining scientific and commercial
attention. Even Nigerian pop star, D’Banj is
hooked! Food systems expert, Laura Pereira proposes
a game changing blueprint for a progressive industry
boosted by empowered women.

Africally Speaking: Hello Laura. Thank you for speaking to us. So you are a food systems specialist. What does that mean?

Laura Pereira: [Laughs] Basically, it is about trying to understand food by looking at it beyond agricultural production or what ends up on our plates. The idea is rooted in socio-ecological systems. Over the past 10 years or so, there has been a refocusing around food security. This new approach is more holistic in that it trails the trajectory of food items from the farmthrough to processing, retailing and consumption.

AS: Cassava, a major interest of yours, has been identified as a potential enabler of food security across Africa. Why is it still ignored by governments
and private enterprise?

LP: This problem occurs for various reasons. One is the focus on maize, rice and wheat as the three key crops that feed the world. Thanks to the Green Revolution of the 60s and 70s, technological and scientific expertise was poured into developing these crops at the expense of others like cassava which drifted into ‘orphan’ status. Another consequence of technologically enhanced production of major crops is the easy availability of excess yields, which find markets in Africa from outside the continent. Also, there is a stigma attached to cassava. It is often seen as the famine crop – the peasant crop. While working in Nigeria, it was interesting to note the status symbol associated with being able to afford food from abroad. The perception that foreign produce must be better is embedded within a lot of the African psyche. And it is completely ridiculous because our food could be easily appreciated elsewhere. The States, for instance, is buying novel food items such as quinoa! Cassava also suffers another perception problem. Cultivating the crop is seen as more of a subsistence activity than as a commercial enterprise in many parts of Africa. As such, it is still very much grown by smallholders. This makes cassava a difficult crop to scale up.

“Thanks to the Green Revolution
of the 60s and 70s, technological
and scientific expertise was
poured into developing rice, maize
and wheat. Cassava drifted into
‘orphan’ status.”

AS:That is interesting.Tell me more about these scaling up challenges.

LP: I think the problem is influenced by two major issues, the first one being that small scale farmers do not necessarily have access to various inputs including land space. So cassava tends to be produced in limited amounts as it is usually grown alongside more commercially viable crops like maize. Secondly, it is seen as a crop to fall back on so people tend not to invest in it. In Nigeria, we also realised the need to enable market access for farmers as they were reluctant to grow large amounts of the cassava without guaranteed sales avenues.

AS: Your experiences led you to work on the idea of a Cassava Research University with renowned agriculture expert, Prof Calestous Juma. Please explain the concept. Why does it matter?

LP: The idea is anchored in a food systems approach to agricultural produce. So, one tends not to think of cassava as just a basic food item or erivative such as *garri. It is an entire (value) chain. Quite often, universities focus on agriculture. As such, a lot of research interest and funding go into things like biotech or different farming methods. Other important areas such as storage, processing, drying and safe methods of removing cyanide from cassava are likely to attract less investment. Also, there is a great need to develop better marketing strategies for this product. So we thought that in order to encapsulate the entire value chain, various skills and knowledge required to make it a viable economic endeavour need to be considered. That was where the idea of the Cassava University came from. Our aim is to create a point of confluence for enterprise, scientific research and training in best farming practices which would enable graduates to positively respond and adapt to changing circumstances.

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“Cultivating cassava seen as more of a subsistence activity than
as a commercial enterprise in many parts of Africa. It is still
very much grown by smallholders and difficult to scale up.”

AS: Who would qualify to study at such an institution?

LP: The plan is to run courses for a range of people including farmers, entrepreneurs seeking to enter the cassava space and government officials who want to know the best way of creating policies that could benefit this area. It is important to gather the right mix of intellectual capital and knowledge about cassava
for such a university to function effectively. The teaching staff would comprise farmers, scientists and business leaders.

AS: Several agricultural research institutes exist in Africa. Why imagine a Cassava University instead?

LP: Indeed. There are many research institutes on the continent but they tend to attract insufficient interest. We opted for a university because it presents a an ‘easier to embrace’ connotation. Also, when Prof Juma initiated this concept, his aim was to create a space, not just for scientific research but also for community engagement and capacity building. So we envisage the university to have two structures: a main centre, which would have a strong research focus, and spin offs, which, like the main centre, would be transdisciplinary spaces of engagement. However they would address local problems. For example, a spin off centre could be a place where farmers gather to share information on best practice and propose new ideas for research

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“We envisage space, not just for scientific
research but also for community engagement
and capacity building.”

AS: Given its position as the world’s largest producer of cassava, Nigeria would be an ideal location for this institution. What has been your experience with the nation’s government concerning this matter?

LP: I found there were clashing priorities at different levels of decision making. Although the governor of Osun State – where I worked for a while – was very interested in collaborating with cassava (and some cocoyam) farmers to set up an institute, it became evident that the private-public stakeholder mix for such a project needed to be negotiated very carefully.

AS: Have any other countries or organisations shown interest in the idea?

LP: The World Bank showed some interest, but we preferred to keep it more in-house. It is all very well having an idea but putting it into practice and ensuring it is done in a way that is sustainable, irrespective of what is thrown at it is really the key. Prof Juma has been in talks with organisations such as the Innovation Institute in Arusha (Tanzania) about possibly implementing the university model, but a concrete set up is not yet on the cards.

AS: How can private investors take advantage of the opportunity of a Cassava University?

LP: There is definitely a space for corporates. Private  investment really needs to happen but from an ownership perspective, the best way forward is through a public enterprise as monopolies on this kind of idea are not ideal. Take the dominance of companies like Monsanto and Syngenta around innovations in GM foods for example. This has been problematic because of the intellectual property that gets captured and its possible social implications. Also, the lack of transparency involved makes people even more wary. One could argue for Non Governmental Organisations such as The Gates Foundation as a possible alternative that can bridge the divide between public and business interests more easily but their work, with Monsanto, on drought resistant crops in Africa, has also received some backlash. Despite such risks, private sector input cannot be underestimated. The Cassava University needs to be not just an academic endeavour but also an establishment with real commercial and economic potential.

AS: Are there any significant new developments regarding this idea? How does its future look?

LP: The Global Cassava Initiative is interested in bringing this idea to fruition. We hope our discussions with them, as well as potential public and private sector stakeholders will ignite a coming together of key people who will take things forward.

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A
way to
empower women

AS: In a recent study, Nigerian academic, Temidayo Apata, observed an overall female dominance of the cassava value chain in the nation’s South West region. What did you make of the gender dynamics in Osun State?

LP: I found that women dominated the traditional value chain of harvesting, peeling, grating and drying cassava. These labour intensive activities mainly happened at village level where the crop is processed at a central point. However milling plants, where cassava was converted into a commercial product for transportation to markets around the country, were usually run by men. They involved very technical processes which took away the hard work that women were putting into traditional methods. Hence, women, as a workforce, became replacable.

“A cassava university could empower women
with knowledge, entrepreneurial and
mechanical skills to enable them compete
effectively and realise financial benefits
from the crop’s value chain.”

AS: Women could empower themselves by upskilling to take on new roles within a more mechanised work place. Why is this not happening enough?

LP: I think it is because processing facilities tend to be owned by people with capital and these are usually men. Also, women are unlikely to apply for factory jobs because they are usually located far away from their families. The interesting thing about village level processing is that women can have their children around them while working. This set up enables them to mix their traditional duties of taking care of the household with this more commercial aspect [of processing cassava]. However a factory situation is less family friendly; rural women are more likely to opt out of it because cultural norms highly value their ability to care for children at home. City women, on the other hand, are usually more able to make alternative childcare arrangements and can therefore enter mechanised work spaces.

AS: How could a Cassava University enhance economic prospects for women?

LP: A place like that could empower women with knowledge, entrepreneurial and mechanical skills to enable them compete effectively and realise financial benefits from the cassava value chain. Unlike an agriculture or economics department, an all encompassing, interdisciplinary space such as a cassava university would present a platform for raising very important questions such as the impact of gender dynamics and how it could be used in an optimal way within this area.

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Follow Laura Pereira on twitter via: @laurap18
Images courtesy of Laura Pereira.
*Garri is a grainy product of cassava, which is widely consumed
across West Africa and in the diaspora.

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A geek with a plan


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    Award-winning Cameroonian techie, Churchill Nanje was a high school student with a penchant for breaking rules. Today he is causing another kind of disruption. And it is changing Africa! The Google  inspired geek talks innovation, business and big dreams with Ngum Ngafor.


Hello Churchill. Thanks for speaking to AS. Picture this: you are at a cool techie mixer and you meet Mark Zuckerberg. How do you introduce yourself? [Laughs]. I would say I am Churchill Nanje, a young, self taught software developer-turned-entrepreneur based in Buea (Cameroon). I have been been running businesses in technology, web and mobile enterprise applications since 2006. Njorku.com – the job search engine for Africa – is a startup I recently founded.

What attracted you to the tech industry and how did you become a part of it?

It happened by chance. As a high school student, I was into science and computers. This was when the telecoms sector was booming in Africa. My plan was to study telecommunications at university and work in that industry. But I didn’t make it to Cardiff or Sheffield University (in the UK) as I had hoped to. Instead I headed for Trustech Institute of Technology (in Buea, Cameroon) with the view of focusing on computer repairs for a year while thinking of my next step. It was there that I got introduced to web development, which I loved doing. After my training, the school hired me as an instructor. While teaching, I started building websites for people and eventually left the organisation to start my web development and consultancy service, AfroVisioN Group.

Your latest venture, Njorku has caused quite a buzz. What inspired its creation?

Several things. As my AfroVisioN workload increased, I needed to hire staff to manage it. Also, in the technology world, people switch jobs a lot. Another problem we have in Africa is that most skilled young people tend to travel abroad for other opportunities or they leave to start their own companies ( which is a good thing). I always need to hire people very fast because the work is always there. However when I initially tried to do this, it soon became clear there was no one place from which I could source talent, so I decided to build a platform where anybody looking for work could interact with prospective employers.

I understand why you would create such a service to cater for your needs. But what convinced you that others could benefit from it too?

Well, I looked around and realised many people were looking for work. Also, on talking to some companies, I learned that they spent a lot of money and time trying to find the right talent. My research showed organisations were spending about half a million CFA ( $1000) to hire a good engineer or accountant, for instance. The recruitment agencies they were working with also had difficulties managing their data. This mix gave me an opportunity to create a technologybased solution to these problems. Award

Running your own business must be rewarding but also challenging. What are some of the major issues you grapple with?

My main challenge lies in finding the right human and financial capital. Njorku runs on a lot of servers which are costly. As the priority now is to develop the product we need to keep investing in it financially. Getting the right skill mix can also be difficult especially as some technologies I would like to work with in the future are not y et part of learning programmes in our schools here. My way round this problem is to hire young people and train them in these areas.

How did you manage to secure financial backing for Njorku?

I have always ensured that I work extra hard for my clients so they would be so satisfied with my services that they would wish to see me succeed even more. Those who backed Njorku are people with whom I have developed good working relationships. I told them about the project, they liked it and came on board.

What has been the response to the platform from recruiters and job seekers across the continent?

Job seekers are very impressed. There are people using it in Kenya, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mexico, Hungary as well as the UK and US. Generally, recruiters are positive. We’re working on specific tools to meet their needs You are not the only one in this game. How do you plan to keep ahead of the competition? , For now, we are unique in a sense because Njorku is the only job search engine focused on opportunities around Africa. If competitors come, it won’t affect our goals because we will stay focused on what we set out to do. As a team, we will judge our success or failure by our ability to meet these objectives.

“I dream of an ecosystem as vibrant as Silicon Valley’s”churchill2

As a keen innovator, you have expressed interest in building a product that facilitates food processing in Cameroon. Tell me more about this please.

This idea comes from my interest in finding out how things work. Once I had grasped the function of technology, I started trying to procreate things. So when I saw that (the wastage of agricultural products) as a problem, I thought I could use my skills to help people in this area. At the moment, I am still working on a concept. Many ideas spring to mind. For instance, while brainstorming with my team recently, we realised that the problem lies beyond the preservation of food and their products; produce usually decays because farmers take it to market but are usually unable to sell it all or consume the unsold food. It also became clear that farmers sometimes hold on to crops which eventually rot because they don’t know who to sell them to. A potential solution to these problems is to set up whole foods supermarkets around the country, from which we could sell food bought from farmers on a wholesale basis and preserved for resale.

You recently visited the USA for a business exchange programme. How was the experience and what did you find Cameroonian and American techies could teach each other?

I was one of delegates from various countries who attended a programme organised by the US embassy and State Department. We travelled across four states and learnt about business-government relations in the USA through encounters with entrepreneurs, Chambers of Commerce and NGOs. In terms of what we can teach each other, I think Cameroonians ( or African entrepreneurs/ techies) come up with really outof-the-box creations which their counterparts in the US are less able to think of because they do not face the same constraints as Africans. On the other hand, techies in America have advanced systems which we are yet to develop because we are still at the start of the internet (age) in Africa. So we can learn from the decades of research and development they have been working on while they can gain a perspective of how situations they faced many years ago are being replayed in another context. Take the iROKO TV creator, Jason Njoku for instance. When he went to Nigeria (from London) to set up his business, he didn’t assume things would just work for him. He went to Alaba market to negotiate movie rights with producers. Mr Njoku also understood the limitations of the Nigerian legal system, so instead of signing written contracts with the marketers, he recorded their sales of rights to him on video. Now we know that contracts can also be done like that. The constraints in Africa are pushing its techies to figure out interesting things which can inspire their Western colleagues.I recently found out on facebook that some UK banks have adopted the mobile money transfer system which started in Kenya. This is an excellent example of how South-North knowledge transfer can work.

How would you describe the state of your country’s tech industry today and the way you envisage its future?

Allow me to focus on Buea as that is my base. Before I started out there were hardly any developers and most of them left the country. I stayed was because I saw the game changing potential of this sector. In fact, I have always dreamt that one day we will be able to have a vibrant ecosystem, just like the one in The (Silicon) Valley. I am confident that within the next couple of years we are going to have a similar set up in Buea because the community is growing fast. Recently, a young man who has been doing part time work with me, while studying Computer Engineering at The University of Buea participated in a Google competition and won. He just returned from Google’s Head Quarters in California.Things like this will be happen more regularly and there will be many more young people who can write code, engineer new gadgets and build software.

“Constraints in Africa are pushing its techies to figure out interesting things which inspire their Western colleagues”

You enable a selection of university students to gain free access to your facilities. What is the motivation behind this?

It is mainly social. When I was learning, I didn’t have a computer as my parents couldn’t afford one, so I depended on cyber cafes where people would take a shine to me and allow me to use their computers for free. Sometimes I would help the cafe owners sell internet time in exchange for use of their servers. For over a year, I enjoyed free net and computer access. That helped me grow my skills and develop a successful career. So I see what I am doing is a way of continuing that chain of opportunity. I hope the young people I enable today will achieve as much as I have or even more. Also, this programme creates the right conditions for developing an easily accessible talent pool which might be lost if the very bright students I work with cannot afford training fees.

Running a venture like Njorku must be demanding. How do you manage to relax?

[laughs]. I love music! If I wasn’t writing code, I would be a musician. At times I sit on my piano and just play (he’s self taught) or learn a new tune. I like the fact that this has nothing to do with computer screens or monitors, so it relaxes my mind. I also play table tennis and swim. Travelling to new places – preferably with no computers – is another hobby.

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What is the future for Churchill Nanje and Njorku?

In a few years, I hope to be able to impact millions of lives around the world with my skills. As for Njorku, I would like it to serve millions of job seekers in the easiest and most convenient way.

EXCEL IN BUSINESS LEADERSHIP

The best way to lead is by gaining a sound understanding of your field of expertise and demonstrating best practice (to your team and peers) through action.

As a tech entrepreneur in Africa, micromanagement works best for me because finding the right talent is a challenge. I train my staff and oversee their work until their output meets satisfactory standards.

To lead effectively, one needs a solid vision. That is, an outlook that considers success and failure within a specified period. It is important to sell ideas to one’s team by telling them about the overall plan and identifying its risks and benefits.

Friendliness with team members is a good thing but when in charge, you need to be very disciplined when rolling out necessary changes. Firing, hiring or any kind of change management must be done with the conviction that it is the best way to deal with the given situation. While this is important, it is equally necessary to learn from mistakes and evolve.

A constant quest for knowledge is also vital. I learn everyday. In fact, I feel bad if a day goes by without me learning something new. Prioritising the welfare of users/ local communities is the best way to ensure sustainable growth and development. This is something good business leaders must know.

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