Heifer Kenya Country Director Esta Kamau

Unlocking capital for youth-led agritech enterprises

Q&A: Heifer Kenya Country Director Esta Kamau discusses the organisation’s work in financing and mentoring youthled agritech enterprises to scale up their innovations for the benefit of smallholders

Briefly introduce yourself and your role at Heifer Kenya

I am Esta Kamau, serving as the Country Director at Heifer Kenya.

Tell us briefly about Heifer International and its presence in Kenya.

Heifer International invests in farmers and business owners because we know that having a secure source of income can be transformational for families and their communities. With support from our teams and partners, we support project participants in building profitable businesses to attain a sustainable living income. Heifer Kenya has worked with smallholder farmers since 1981 and has partnered with communities to end hunger and poverty.

This partnership has enabled us to acquire deep insights into the immediate problems impeding enhanced productivity by smallholder farmers across various regions in Kenya; At present, Heifer Kenya’s programming footprints cut across 26 counties. In our early years, our work focused on increasing local farmers’ standard of living through the livestock, dairy and poultry value chains. A large part of our work also involved strengthening access to local markets through business planning, marketing, and capacity building.

As we began the reimagination of agricultural transformation in Kenya, leaning on our multi-decade experiences and local knowledge, we mainstreamed a sustainable locally-led approach to our programming anchored on values-based holistic community development which enables all-inclusive empowerment of smallholder farmers, strengthening them to make transformative decisions as households and communities.

We are integrating innovation to scale up agricultural transformation, what we are calling cows to capital. We are doing this through access to innovative finance, technology, and leveraging of partnerships.

What informs your special focus on youth-led enterprises or innovations?

Young people are leading our work in the agritech space because we see their energy fuse with the boundless potential of technology to drive innovative solutions that sustainably transform agriculture. More importantly, Kenya is a country with a thriving young population, out of the total population of 47.6 million, about 35.7 million Kenyans (75.1%) are below 35 years old as per the 2019 census.

Kenyan youth have shown that they possess the grit, innovation, and skills to completely transform sectors and bring economic transformation to levels never seen before. We have channelled this energy and innovation to tackle challenges in the agriculture space, through the AYuTe Africa Challenge which combines the power and energy of the youth with the limitless possibilities of technology to support smallholder farmers in growing their businesses and incomes. The programme is used by Heifer to engage and empower the youth as critical catalysts for unlocking commercial capital and opportunities.

It identifies agritech solutions that are highly scalable, sustainable, and impactful on smallholder farmers’ incomes and output, and encourages the commercial growth of start-ups, entrepreneurs, and products that provide such solutions. We work with winners of the competition by cocreating more impactful solutions and providing innovative capital (funding, mentorship, networks) which enables them to scale their work. The ripple effects include more smallholder farmers being served, enhanced food systems, an increased number of businesses involved in the ecosystem and a bigger ecosystem of providers.

What are some of the programme’s milestones?

Our experience of partnering with smallholder farmers and communities has provided us with a unique perspective – one that harnesses the innovation and energy of young innovators, alongside the limitless potential of technology, to craft scalable and enduring agritech solutions tailored to the unique needs of smallholder farmers.

The impact has been transformative – driving heightened productivity, amplifying incomes for farmers, job creation, unlocking commercial capital fostering agripreneurs, and elevating the capabilities of our food systems. We launched the AYuTe Africa Challenge on a continental scale and established local chapters across Heifer’s host countries in Africa.

At the end of August 2023, we concluded the second edition of the AYuTe Africa Challenge Kenya, where we awarded cash grants to seven young agritech innovators. We launched AYuTe in 2022 and so far, we have received over 400 applications, trained, and mentored over 230 innovations and awarded 0ver $40,000 in cash grants.

Are there some agritech innovations supported under the AYuTe Africa Challenge that stand out for you as having had a significant impact on smallholder farmers?

Our collaboration with Hello Tractor is a prime example, we conceptualised the pioneering Pay-As-You-Go (P.A.Y.G) tractor financing service. This service facilitates affordable tractor rental services to smallholder farmers delivered via a tech platform that links equipment owners to booking agents to farmers’ requests. This innovative solution, co-designed with Heifer’s $4.5 million seed funding, cascaded into heightened productivity and incomes for over 21,000 smallholder farmers in three countries (Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria).

A vibrant ecosystem emerged, featuring 100 tractor owners, 200 booking agents, and 150 tractor operators, collectively nurturing progress. In Kenya, some impressive direct impact statistics include assistance to 34,396 smallholder farmers, emergence of 39 tractor owners, engagement of 78 booking agents, employment of 93 tractor operators, and the servicing of 11,444 hectares of agricultural land.

Based on your experience assisting young entrepreneurs, what are some of the challenges that they encounter in running businesses?

The youth represent a significant segment of the population and bring forth a multitude of innovative ideas and solutions that are truly inspiring. However, these young innovators face challenges ranging from limited access to finance, inadequate training, and insufficient infrastructure. Traditional financing models often fail to meet their needs, stifling innovation, and growth. Moreover, the perception of agriculture as a low-income profession discourages many young minds from pursuing it as a viable career option.

To empower these agripreneurs and create a thriving agribusiness ecosystem, a paradigm shift is imperative.

How can collaboration among public and private sectors, and development actors mitigate these challenges?

Partnerships and collaboration bring together diverse expertise, resources, and perspectives to help tackle complex challenges holistically. Our signature program in Kenya and across Africa is hinged on building strategic partnerships and co-creating inclusive and profitable business models that improve incomes for farmers and other actors across the value chain.

Collaboration among partners such as Governments, the private sector, smallholder farmers, innovators, women, youth, and development actors is a powerful solution for investing in youth enterprises as they can pool resources, expertise, and networks to create a more comprehensive and supportive ecosystem for young entrepreneurs. Partnerships with the youth are a key focus for Heifer, and this has led to several initiatives like our AYuTe Africa Challenge. We have seen that partnerships lead to increased women and youth participation in agriculture due to the reduced labour-intensive practices that innovative technologies provide, and the growth of agritech as a subset of a booming tech ecosystem that has attracted significant interest, investment, and job creation.

How important is mentorship and training for youth-led enterprises?

We believe innovative capital is both tangible and intangible; it is the sum of access to finance, access to markets, knowledge-sharing, global networking, access to technology, and mentorship. Through AYuTe we not only award winners but provide training and mentorship for a minimum of three months, so it is not just about grants but also providing a winwin ecosystem for most of these young enterprises.

By equipping these young people with the right skills, we enable them to drive innovation in agribusiness while integrating technology and finance as enablers, which then supports smallholder farmers to identify and exploit agribusiness opportunities. Mentoring these innovators not only fosters their personal and professional growth but also enhances the success and sustainability of their ventures, ultimately leading to more lucrative and impactful investments.

When you are not working, what is that one thing that you enjoy doing?

When I’m not working, one of my most enjoyable and fulfilling activities is supporting girls’ football teams from less privileged backgrounds through mentorship and providing academic scholarships. I actively mentor a specific girls’ football team that we built from the ground up, and through this initiative, we’ve successfully enabled some talented players to pursue further studies abroad. I strongly believe that there’s an underrepresented voice in the sports sector, particularly in football – the voice of women. An example is the disparity in attention between the men’s World Cup and the women’s World Cup. My passion lies in empowering as many individuals as possible to become advocates for women’s voices in sports and to champion equality and recognition for women in the field.

If you were to give young people just one piece of advice, what would that be?

I live by this mantra, “Believe Begin Become.” My message to the youth in all fields, not only agriculture, is to go for the available opportunities. Avoid self-doubt and the search for reasons why you can’t chase your dreams, instead exhibit resilience and take action. You need to take that initial step to make it happen. You have to Begin to Become.

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