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When the going gets tough: lessons from young entrepreneurs in Kenya

In the second part of our blog series highlighting the experiences of agripreneurs in Kenya and the impacts of COVID-19, Georgina Smith, writer and photographer based in Nairobi, gives her insight into the Vijabiz initiative and the challenges of capturing eye-catching images during a time of social distancing.

Georgina Smith capturing Kenyan women’s agribusiness activities while observing COVID-19 safety measures.

As the world reels from the impact of COVID-19, certain aspects of life have been thrown into sharper focus. On a recent trip for WRENmedia to document the work of young entrepreneurs in agribusiness, it became clear to me that, despite some limitations, certain aspects of life never stop; animals still need to be fed and people need to eat. For entrepreneurs – in particular the young men and women we had the chance to meet – we were impressed to see the dynamic ways they had found to keep their businesses moving, while keeping their colleagues safe.

The Vijabiz project, launched in 2018 by CTA in partnership with IFAD and the Ustadi Foundation, was set up to create sustainable employment opportunities for rural youth. By supporting them in their ventures to turn maize, milk or fish into higher-value products, the project aimed to improve the skills of the next generation of farmers, inspiring them to bring new ideas for money-making ventures to life.

Working with the talented Kenyan journalist Bob Koigi, we first travelled to visit groups in Nakuru, several hours north of Nairobi, and then to Kilifi along the Kenyan coast, to interview youth leaders and document the highs and lows of their agribusiness journeys.

Mission impossible

In many ways, our field visits proved to be a real eye-opener. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as a photographer, it was immediately obvious that some of the moments I usually aim for would be harder to capture. The ideal way to illustrate a group working together would be to get them all in the same shot, doing what they normally do: taking fish from the sea; processing their cereals or milk into added-value products or interacting with customers.

But with the social distancing rules ­– and particularly with everyone wearing masks ­– capturing expressions became mission impossible. It took me a while to realise why I felt something was missing; that the photos were not conveying a strong message; it’s actually amazing how important facial expression is in capturing and expressing meaning or emotion to illustrate intensity, enthusiasm, pride or hard work.

It was only after our documentation of the first group that it dawned on me that my feeling was down to the missing relationship I usually try and build while taking photographs or interviewing. You never want to just turn up and take something from the people you are working with; you want them to be part of the process, to feel you’re creating something together, and this was harder to do in these changed circumstances. However, with a little more creative thinking than usual we still managed to get our work done and Bob’s natural charisma and ease with the groups buoyed us through.

Grit and determination

In meeting the groups, despite the additional challenges of COVID-19, one of the most striking things I noticed was that, especially in areas where conditions are already hard, all the entrepreneurs shared grit, determination and an admirable dedication to making a success of their business.

Some of the groups had literally started with nothing. With little support and financial start-up capital before joining the Vijabiz project, and often only a few years behind them since finishing their education, these youth had invested in their own development, pursued their ideas against all odds and encouraged their own growth.

Take for example, the Takaungu Boda Boda group. They started off as boda boda – motorbike drivers – taking commuters around Kilifi and transporting fish from the sea to various clients. With some support and advice from Vijabiz, they started catching their own fish. On the morning we arrived to speak with the group, they were eagerly awaiting their first boat, bought through a Vijabiz grant, which was literally sailing across the sea towards Takaungu Bay for collection, with Takaungu Boda Boda group proudly emblazoned along the side.

Creating opportunity

The entrepreneurs had also invested in themselves. Step by Step Dairy group had realised that making smaller portions available to their customers would address a gap in the market. They invested in a milk ATM, dispensing fresh milk in small quantities to customers, and started making yoghurt. Through these efforts, the group built a strong customer base that remained loyal even when customers had less liquid cash available during the COVID-19 lockdown in Kenya.

In Kilifi, dairy group Wazo Jema noticed a gap in the market for fresh milk, as a result of initiatives in the area working to make dairy farming viable. Wazo Jema now has a whole production line from fresh milk to yoghurt and production of ghee, with plans to supply supermarkets. And, after our meeting, as if he didn’t already have enough to do, one group member had to leave promptly because he was the Imam of the day at his local mosque. It was this kind of commitment to the wellbeing of the whole community that we witnessed among all the groups we visited.

From start-up to keep up

Of course, times are hard. The impact of COVID-19 and the consequent economic slow-down across Kenya has come at a time when many groups were just starting to ramp up their activities. Yet, despite this blow, most are weathering the storm. Through the project’s trainings, the groups have become yet more resilient to the economic impacts of the virus and other challenges they face, like access to finance or the impacts of climate change.

In all cases, these young men and women have put their hand to the grind-stone, and created their own opportunities for success. Each group exhibited something of what it takes to be successful – but also, perhaps, more importantly – to keep going. It’s one thing to start a business, and quite another to keep a business growing and moving forward. To me, their work embodies the phrase: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Georgina Smith

To read the first part of this blog series, by Bob Koigi, see: Capturing success in Kenyan agribusiness during COVID-19

To read the inspirational youth groups involved in the Vijabiz Project, see the full publication, produced by WRENmedia, here:

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