In the 1980’s most agricultural higher education programs were focused on preparing technicians for the public sector or foremen for production agriculture. EARTH’s leadership, however, had a strong sense that the agricultural sector was undergoing profound changes and that there was a real need for non-specialized agricultural professionals capable of stimulating economic activity and not just producing more bushels of corn.
To this end, EARTH began developing an integrated, multi-year experiential agribusiness program within its curriculum. Thus the Jorge Manuel Dengo O. Entrepreneurial Projects Program was born. Reflecting EARTH’s focus on experiential learning, the program provides business loans to student teams to develop and implement a business venture from beginning to end during the first two years of studies at EARTH.
EARTH University Provost Daniel Sherrard, who helped develop the initial academic model in the late 1980s, reflects that incorporating business training into an agricultural degree was relatively unheard of at the time and provoked deep skepticism from other agricultural schools. “I remember when EARTH was just beginning and we gave a presentation about the Entrepreneurial Projects Program to the agronomy school at a Costa Rican university, and they basically said, ‘That’s not our job. We are science teachers, not a business school. Cows, milk, bananas and corn—that’s what we teach.”
In spite of the doubts in the agricultural education sector, the Entrepreneurial Projects Program has become an important learning tool for EARTH students and a model for other institutions around the world.
Daniel explains, “In terms of what students get out of the enterprise projects, I think they can be divided into two buckets. One bucket is soft skills: teamwork, conflict resolution and leadership. In the marketplace, those are essential traits you need for success. The other bucket is technical skills: the budgeting, accounting, business plan, etc. These things are normally divorced from reality, whereas during the business project you have real pressure and a desire to do these things well.”
For second-year student Leidy Cadena Verdezoto (’16, Ecuador) who is part owner of Ñame Tropical S.A., along with team members from Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, Uganda and Guatemala, her first entrepreneurial venture has proved both challenging and rewarding. After forming their group, throughout their first year the team sat down together and made a list of potential business models weighing the pros and cons of each one. They finally settled on yam production and commercialization. Their goal is to produce 12 tons of yams from the hectare they planted in late February.
Reflecting on the experience so far, she says that, “Team work is the first thing you have to learn, and even though it’s really difficult at times we have seen that when we all get together and talk about things we can come up with the best solution.”
Leidy, who comes from a rural community in Ecuador, had never thought about owning her own business before she came to EARTH. She is now considering the idea for the future.
She explains, “It’s like practice for what is going to happen in real life, because we are solely responsible for this business and even though we made a plan and thought we were so prepared, in the two months since we’ve been in business we’ve already faced things we would never have imagined.” Above all, Leidy has discovered that, “If you don’t like your job, it’s not going to turn out well. You have to put your heart into everything you do; it is the most important thing.”
Staff member of the Entrepreneurial Projects Program office Ericka Barrantes has guided and supported student-run business at EARTH for over 13 year. She remarks, “I’ve seen that when the students learn the theory and then put it into practice, the lessons really stick. When the plan comes off the paper, that’s when the real learning begins. I think it’s one of the best parts about EARTH.”
When asked what the most important factor in owning a successful business is, Ericka doesn’t hesitate to reply: “The courage to adventure outside of your comfort zone. Many times, students are scared to take a risk but we kind of throw them into the deep end so to speak, but in a safe environment with every resource available to help them. It’s an incredible and unique experience for learning and growing.”
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