January 29, 2007

Students Sow Seeds, Hope in Nairobi

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A group of Cornell students deserted their restful winter breaks in favor of countering international poverty in East Africa with seeds.

“Access to seeds is of such fundamental importance when we talk about agriculture development in developing countries,” said Tara Simpson grad, a student in the International Agriculture and Rural Development (IARD) program.

Simpson rounded out a team of five that participated in a 10-day trip to Nairobi and Nakuru in Kenya as part of a field study for Cornell’s Emerging Markets Program in the Department of Applied Economics and Management.

Accompanied by Edward Mabaya, an EMP research associate, the group evaluated and advised two small private seed companies, Freshco and Faida, on strategic management issues, promotional brochures and website development.

“Having a virtual presence is important in the promotion of struggling companies,” Mabaya said. Freshco and Faida’s lack of online promotion is due to a lack of resources that would allow them to grow in the market, a problem that many African companies face, Mabaya added.

“These companies don’t have the resources to recruit new minds to assess their strengths, weaknesses, and threats to help them improve,” said Cathy Tang ’07, a Sun writer.

The trip to Kenya marks the fourth year EMP has worked with Seeds of

Development Program to alleviate rural poverty by improving seed variety distribution. But using students to help developing nations progress in the business market is not a new concept at Cornell. Mabaya said that the University has offered other field research courses where larger groups of 30 to 40 students have dealt with South American and Asian companies. He insisted that limiting the Africa trips to only a handful of students was an asset to the Kenya project.

“[Larger programs] have been very successful with the learning aspect of their trips, but I don’t know how well they did with contribution,” Mabaya said. “I want students to have an intimate experience, and each student should come out feeling fully involved.”

And their involvement was extensive. The students sometimes worked up to 18 hours per day to ensure their pro bono projects were completed for their proprietors. Meanwhile, the seed acknowledged Cornell’s dedication and work. In an e-mail addressed to Huong Pham, grad, Captain Karanja of Freshco Seed Company praised the group for their comprehensive input.

“It is rare that a small company like ours gets a multi-skilled team of highly talented individuals looking into it, dissecting it, and coming out with tailor made recommendations that we can now use to re-engineer and re-innovate our business system,” Karanja wrote.

Though the students’ experience was intensive, the program was not all work and no play. A safari tour was arranged for the participants, while the CEO of one of the seed companies invited the group to attend dinner at the popular tourist site Carnivore Restaurant. Tang enjoyed tasting alligator and ostrich for the first time.

“They presented our table with these large slabs of different meats and cut off portions of what you wanted,” said Tang.

Laura Cramer, grad, enjoyed the Cornell Alumni Networking and Reunion Reception, where alumni spoke to the EMP students about working professionally in Kenya.

“15 or so alumni came, and we got to meet them and learn about their work,” Cramer said.

“It was amazing to see, even halfway around the world, you can find so many people with connections to Cornell.”

Simpson did have one complaint about the trip.“ The difficult part was going from 80 degrees in Kenya to five degrees in Ithaca,” she said.

The Kenya participants will continue their projects for the seed companies in a three-credit course this semester. Mabaya is hoping the SODP and EMP partnership will continue in the future, as companies in Malowi and Zambia have already expressed interest in the program for 2008.

“There is a strong need to link the classroom to field experience,” said Mabaya, “and there should be more programs at Cornell promoting this link between classroom knowledge and using it to help developing nations.”