I am very grateful for the experiences I got through Startup Weekend. It brought me to many countries like Iran and Moldavia but the most impressive one was for sure Sudan. I met a great team there, 249Startups, and discovered the energy and the beauty of Eastern Africa. When I started with Now Sprint Accelerator I wanted to include as many countries as possible from East Africa so I started to reach out through Facebook pages covering Ethiopia, Tanzania, Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya. I had seen a documentary on tv about the Nairobi Startup Ecosystem and I was quite impressed. To my surprise, after 4 cohorts I had to conclude that around 70 percent of participants effectively came from Africa, 25 percent from the Balkans, and very few from Turkiye and SouthEast Asia. This is how I met Carolyne, who started a youth & woman-led organisation named Kimplanter Seedlings and Nurseries Ltd in Kenya and she ended up as the winner of the 4th cohort. She is all about smiles and smartness so I reckoned she would be a great person to interview to understand her story as a startup in Agriculture in Kenya as part of the first vertical for Now Sprint Accelerator, AgriFood Impact.
Carolyne Mukuhi Mwangi, that’s how I see her on my Whatsapp. After the interview, I was quite impressed by what I heard and what a journey she went through before being successful. Actually, she was always successful, she has this magic and drive to always succeed in whatever she does. When she entered Now Sprint she already made money but she was convinced that it might be an opportunity to learn.
She actually started by doing so many things in parallel, it was like a puzzle to capture her story. Although she had the opportunity to go to university she chose to go to college instead and picked Human Resource Management for a course. She wanted to get deeper into how that could help her as in the back of her mind there was certainly growing the idea of doing something extraordinary in her life. Immediately after her studies, for being the darling of the teachers she started to work almost by accident at an MPesa shop owned by her favorite teacher whom she admired as she was juggling a career, businesses, family and being a mentor to many at the same time. One day she received an envelope and she just kept it in the drawer of the shop, unaware it was her pay. So dedicated in doing things right.
Her dedication paid off as she got her first formal job in Embu County working for a Japanese international construction company. The pay was minimal, her parents were hesitant about it but she convinced them. She was 21 years old in 2011. It was a construction company and it was a great experience. She saw a very well-structured company and learned a lot. There she found out that she wanted to do finance. She followed classes after work as she liked to understand human resources and finance if she ever opened her own company. She met with racism in that job but managed it her way. With a smile, I guess. She finished her Finance studies at the highest level, CPA-k. She worked for 5 years in this company and tremendously grew to management level, and at the same time and not to get lost in too many details, opened a clothing shop, ran 2 butcher shops in different locations, and had a child. But wait until you hear about her hobby at that same time.
Carolyne was very early impressed by a friend who ran a small farm while being an engineering graduate. She visited him and that triggered, maybe also other inputs, to get interested in agriculture. During her working at many levels, this kept bogging her mind. As their neighbor left for the US with a green card leaving his farm in her parents’ care she started using that farm for what started as a hobby. Growing plants. Her parents supported her in this choice. She used her savings and started farming as a hobby at 22 years old. In whatever country, that is exceptional, and working full time at the same time! It wasn’t easy and as she was an auto-didact, she used Google, she calls it her friend, to look up how to start growing passion fruit.
A TV station learned about this 22-year-old female farmer and her TV appearance got media coverage during primetime. This young lady started farming. Normally agriculture is deemed to be for people who did not study and now a girl? People started to order seedlings from the passion fruit she was cultivating. At first, she guided people to her supplier for seedlings, but then he sold out his stock and she decided to grow seedlings herself. And she started to make money. Sold out in no time, started with green vegetable seedlings, but again sold out. So she started to see the hobby as a business. She went back to her Google friend to understand what they did in İsrael and India and found out that it was better to use planting trays and Coco Peat Media for a better yield. She had a small wooden greenhouse, 6 by 3 meters, 23 years old, full-time work, evening classes, and all the side-jobs on top. In 2016 she stopped the full-time job and dedicated all her time to the farm. Today she has opened 2 extra places and went from 30.000 to 1.3 million seedlings a year, and hired more youths into the business. It was not all sunshine of course. The first place next to her parents, the owner came back and she had to move the whole setup in 2 weeks!
Carolyne has every reason to be proud of Kimplanter Seedlings & Nurseries, operating in different locations across Kenya — Kiambu county, Muranga County and Kajiado County. After she attended the Now Sprint Accelerator, she restructured the company and changed the management structure. I remembered we spoke about the fact that she was too involved in the operational part and once you grow it is more important to be in the management seat. Carolyne is also a very engaged person and together with an investor, she started a reforestation and food production for proper nutrition project in Kimana, Maasai Land. The setup is to change the local mentality of just grazing off the land with their cattle, but also conserving it by planting trees and using some of their vast lands to cultivate some food for their household use for proper feeding and nutrition in the Maasai Community.
Through the journey and passion to be a modern farmer who inspires other youth despite the challenges, Carolyne was awarded by Kenya President as Best Youth in Agriculture in Kenya and recently she won the Africa Founder of the Year Award -Agriprenuer 2021 (FOYA Awards). She derives satisfaction in impacting communities going into food production for proper nutrition in their households through kitchen gardens. Carolyne has formed “CarolKimplanter Foundation” that runs social initiatives such as “Tunalima Young Initiative”( meaning we are farming while young) that targets youth and school children to sensitize them on the importance of practicing modern agriculture, proper nutrition, Agribusiness as an employer, why and how agriculture affects our GDP so strongly. For Carolyne, it is “Purpose over Profits”.
Going over the challenges, opportunities, and problems in Kenya with Carolyne I saw many known issues coming back that I heard of in the Balkans and Türkiye. What struck me is that Carolyne sees herself as part of the change in agriculture. Especially women are getting their voices raised and taking initiatives. What she did until now is exceptional and she became for sure a role model. More attention in schools is coming and NGOs and the Government talk more about agriculture and its importance. Still, capital to start is hard to find and there is still the “societal stigmatization”. When you go to college or university, you do not become a farmer, it's too low a vision, they say.
Also in Kenya, and I assume in the whole of Africa, getting the right price as a farmer for their produce is hard to get. Sadly, a big part of that problem is also due to the policies. The government is not always on the same side as the farmers. Problems with taxes and VAT, especially with imported food from outside where these same taxes and VAT are not applicable, and in that way, are cheaper than what local farmers can sell. Import of onions from Tanzania and maize from Zambia for example. These imports kill local farmers’ work and life. The is no protection of local farmers. Today all is based on demand and offer, neoliberalism at its best. A known problem all over the world and although food is a primary need, it is too often seen as just a product to make (easy) profit from. Self-sufficiency could be easily achieved for many countries but somehow that path has been left for profits (for a few). Importing seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides with added VAT give farmers a hard time as costs increase. Too often corruption plays a hand in policies next to policies that create a lot of challenges like the obligation of using imported hybrid seeds making it even illegal to grow your own seeds. Once the seeds became a separate, industrial activity, policies were created to protect and grow this business. We touched upon tomatoes who are worldwide starting to look all the same, red but with no taste and just water inside.
Agriculture though is key to Kenya’s economy, contributing 26 percent of the GDP and 27 percent of GDP indirectly through linkages with other sectors. 40 percent of the total population is employed in this sector and more than 70 percent of Kenya’s rural people. This shows the importance of agriculture for the country. The population almost quadrupled from 11 million in 1970 to 39.5 million in 2011, it will double in the next 27 years, reaching 81 million in 2039.
The next step for Carolyne is getting into leadership and advocating the needs and challenges farmers have. She wants to be part of the decision-making, defending farmers and empowering youth and women in agriculture. Today farmers are not very well connected and organised to make their voices heard and weigh on the policies that are made now. I can see a great role here for Carolyne as she has a great background and started the business herself, totally bootstrapped and through self-study.
Before joining EIT Climate-KIC as an open-source climate Accelerator with Now Sprint (more next year), I was asked what were my KPIs for Now Sprint. Good question, but although in business it is all about measuring, the impact of an accelerator is not only measured in how much money is raised after the program. Impact goes further than that and talking to Carolyne gave me the confirmation that impact on the future of the teams, business or emotional, depends on many factors but most of all it is about people, connection, empathy, and sharing. And patience. Carolyne is an exceptional founder and a great role model and for myself a great motivator in continuing to do what I do. Take initiative, share whatever can help, and be grateful. The result is happiness on both sides!