M-Shamba: Protecting the environment through sustainable agriculture
By Felix Collins, co-founder of M-Shamba
Creating a business with purpose
M-Shamba was conceived in early-2018, inspired by the EU passing legislation allowing European fish-farmers to use the more sustainable black-soldier fly larvae (BSFL) as an alternative to fish-meal, something which is incredibly destructive to the environment. I, along with my university friend, Jing, saw this as a sign that the future of agricultural protein would be insect-based and as such looked at how we could trade in BSFL as part of a low-risk fundraising strategy. Given that we were both in university at the time, it wasn’t a big deal if we didn’t make any money out of it (although that would’ve been nice!), but it wasn’t long before we realised that what we saw as a bit of a side hustle, might actually develop into a much more meaningful opportunity.
At the same time that Jing and I were developing a more thorough company model, we met Saif and Joe. Also studying at Warwick University, we met by chance at a talk given by a society that both Saif and Joe were already involved in. We turned up late to the talk so had to follow up with the society representatives and before we knew it we were all discussing the virtues of insect agriculture. As Jing and I started outlining our thoughts around BSFL and how we could leverage low-tech farming processes to help alleviate poverty and empower youth agriculture, it became clear that Saif and Joe had similar ambitions as well as a shared passion for social entrepreneurship.
Joe had good exposure to the effects that agriculture has on immediate local communities as he lives in Sri Lanka and being from Kenya, Saif had also been inspired by first-hand experience of young farmers plagued by subsistence farming and extortionately low incomes. Inefficient and often exploitative, agriculture was an industry primed for disruption. As we were all determined to contribute and find a solution to these problems, it was clear that there was synergy in our ambition and M-Shamba was born.
As a team, we all have a mixture of experiences and connections. I am based in London, while Jing lives in Thailand outside of university term time, Joe in Sri Lanka and as mentioned, Saif is from Kenya. Between us, we all had encountered people that had experience in agriculture or who were happy to offer guidance from the outset.
We knew that Kenya was the perfect location for M-Shamba and decided this was where we would focus our efforts quite early on. Kenya sadly has tremendous food waste, with 43% of perfectly edible produce being sent to landfill due to aesthetic restrictions imposed by Western food-buyers. Youth unemployment and poverty are also major issues, with young people in rural areas in particular struggling to get the same opportunities their predecessors had to acquire their own farms.
With M-Shamba, we intercept the industrial food-waste that would otherwise go to landfill. Food-waste becomes high quality sustainable protein and fertiliser, which can then be sold or used as a substitute for fish-meal, demand for which is currently tearing Lake Victoria apart. The nutrient-rich manure of the insects, frass, can also be applied to farmers soil to aid the regeneration process and lessen the impact of soil degradation.
Importantly, the M-Shamba business model also provides young people with a way to own and scale their own insect farm without requiring much land or seed capital, so they can operate without traditional agricultural restrictions. This allows them to generate regular income, helping to alleviate financial strain and improving quality of life for them and the communities around them.
Through our university, we entered M-Shamba into the first round of the Hult Prize, an initiative that supports start-up enterprise and aims to breed the next generation of social entrepreneurs. That process gave us a number of concrete goals which we needed to achieve within a given timespan which helped to keep up momentum. This allowed us to embark on specific research projects, for example research into insect growing techniques; and we reached out to organisations like ICIPE and an initiative called สวนผักมูลไส้เดือน (there is no direct English translation) based out of Rangsit University in Bangkok, Thailand. We had also read a lot about the concept of ‘Genchi Gembutsu’ – a business principle used by Toyota amongst other leading companies, which means ‘go and see for yourself’. We used our university break to do just this and started farming for ourselves. Immediately we encountered numerous problems, such as larvae drying up or flies not even laying eggs in the first place. Dealing with these problems sped up project implementation as it forced us to be solution-focused from the beginning. We realised if we made marginal improvements every day in-line with our plan, overall project implementation would be a more natural and organic process. Within a couple of months we developed the necessary breeding facet of our operation and are now in a position to rapidly scale up capacity if we can secure the necessary funding.
Farming is sexy… right?!
Our greatest challenge has been understanding how to make agribusiness attractive to young people. This has recently become a big theme in Africa, with campaigns such as #sexyfarming (launched by the Afrika Youth Movement Committee on Agriculture) which aims to promote the agricultural sector to rural youth. We know we need to make sure our model empowers and motivates young people so that they could see it as a viable career path. Although we know this is a challenge we alone will never be able to overcome, Saif has taken time to discuss the project in depth with a small but diverse group of young Kenyans to generate ideas about how we can tailor our service to better suit them. We are also trying to collaborate with DOT Kenya to develop a network of youth influencers. We have also received valuable guidance from a famous Thai inspirational speaker and author (Master Pop), who is helping us develop a coaching and soft-skill program to inspire and empower youth from the outset and ensure their voices and experiences are reflected in our solutions.
One of the best pieces of advice we have received so far came from a family friend of Joe’s: “Listen first then act”. We are a very young organisation, so appreciate that we need help in developing the most efficient farming mechanism we can. We make a huge effort to speak to people who have on the ground experience, connecting with experts and making sure we are listening to the needs and traditions of the communities we want to support. Its early days but looking back, we wish we had had the confidence to reach out to organisations already on the ground at an earlier stage, especially when we were in the process of coming up with our business model. We found that, once we did reach out, many of the problems we faced had been faced by other people and a lot of the solutions had already been found. We lost a lot of time figuring out some of the solutions on our own.
Our top-tips for those starting out:
Although definitely no experts, the following learnings have helped us in getting M-Shamba off the ground!
1. Having a clear objective in mind is necessary but not sufficient; you need to have a rough idea of the steps you need to get there. Putting it down on paper has helped make our objectives less daunting and allowed us to achieve them faster.
2. Try, learn, adapt. Throwing yourself into situations where you are forced to learn and acquire experience has massively accelerated our progress, and as long as you keep your objective in mind it can be an invaluable fuel for progress and detection of preventable mistakes.
We see M-Shamba making an impact pretty quickly. 6 months from seed we’re expecting to be fully supporting 18-20 farmers, with this growing to 36 by the end of our first year. Within 18 months, we’re expecting two new model farms and training hubs built around different communities, and will be equipping 3 young agri-entrepreneurs a month with all the skills they need to run their own insect operations. In the long term, we hope become a major provider of agricultural products completely facilitated by a supportive network of young smallholder farmers with their own farms. We want to create a future where any young entrepreneurs can tap into our network and use it to implement their own impact-focused individual vision, so Africa can better exploit their most valuable resource: youth.
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