Mastercard Foundation Scholar Maria Moreen Ndagire (’21, Uganda) has always been a visionary, a goal-setter, and a determined person. Project ideas are constantly popping into her head, and she does everything possible to materialize the most-deserving ones. That is why Maria studies at EARTH University. She sometimes gets little sleep, as she exhaustively schedules herself and has been working hard to bring to life one of her big ideas: Fast Mere, a mobile-order platform for consumers in Kampala, Uganda, to buy fresh produce and proteins from local smallholder farmers.
Maria comes from a family of farmers. As a child, she would prepare the soil to grow corn and eggplants. At age 9, she was struck by an intense feeling of injustice – recognizing that farmers worked strenuously every day yet still had very little. She recalls a particular time in which she was working tirelessly to clean newly harvested produce in order to sell it, but the bounty was eventually lost. The family lacked means like transportation to get from the field to the market. Maria says she has thought about this struggle since her first year at EARTH. After sharing stories with classmates and learning about new tools and methods from professors, she has channeled her childhood memories into a meaningful business opportunity.
“Fast Mere is the first step I am taking to make the huge ideas in my head tangible. In Uganda, we weren’t taking advantage of the power of online markets, which has become one of my goals: to transform the way we do and market agriculture, so we can help families,” Maria says. “The COVID-19 pandemic helped me realize that my project was essential. The platform is for consumers – so they can order from home – and for small producers who cannot sell their products in the market due to current restrictions or the regular conditions they live in.”
Starting a business in Uganda while being a student in Costa Rica is one of the toughest challenges. The nine hours that separate the two countries have Maria awake at midnight to hold a morning meeting or make an important decision with her on-the-ground business partner.
Like Maria, Mastercard Foundation Scholar Arnold Katende (’21, Uganda) is an agricultural entrepreneur. Both students talk about the advantages of studying at EARTH: the supportive network, the enriching advice from expert professors, the fast internet access, the experiential learning that informs their ventures. They are always on the go, advancing their respective businesses and understanding that – come sustained success or fast failure – they will learn a lot in the process.
Arnold leads Joint Organic Aquaponics to positively impact communities socially, economically and environmentally. He learned about aquaponic agriculture at EARTH and quickly realized the benefits it could bring to many smallholder producers in his country. Aquaponics is a highly productive system of fish and vegetable co-production, in which water is recirculated and natural bacterial cycles convert fish excrement into nutrients for plants. The symbiotic system requires less water, no fertilizers, and greatly reduces the negative environmental impacts commonly associated with modern agriculture.
“We are creating a demonstration center to provide trainings and workshops about aquaponics, which is a relatively new topic in Uganda. Many places do not have access to water, so this technique is necessary for them. Other people store rainwater, which is a great option as aquaponics does not require purified water,” Arnold says. “The project seeks food security because we want families to be able to produce their own food in an inexpensive and sustainable way, while intelligently reusing materials. The challenge is getting people to know the project exists and have them approach us to learn more.”
Arnold is skilled at overcoming challenges. For this project, he learned about digital marketing and communications, applied for funds (and won two grants within the past year), was named to the Clinton Global Initiative’s Class of 2020, formed a multidisciplinary work team, and is building out this business for his Graduation Project. “Using the acquired production data, , I will carry out a profitability analysis to make a financial projection for the next five years. In addition, I want to demonstrate with data the positive impacts that the project can generate environmentally and socially. This can be a prototype for something much bigger that will impact many lives.”
Arnold says some plans for his project are on hold amid COVID-19, such as building an essential greenhouse. Meanwhile, he and his team are using this time to brainstorm new ideas and plan for the future.
From exploratory research to full-fledged business
Mastercard Foundation Scholar Francely Flores (’20, Guatemala) and Monica Montoya (’20, Colombia) set out to develop a Graduation Project that could be implemented in the community of Rio Blanco, in the Department of San Marcos, Guatemala – a highly contaminated place without a formalized waste-collection system. Exacerbating already-bad air quality is the fact that local families burn wood to heat their stoves, which produces toxic smoke emissions and thus respiratory illnesses. The two students collaborated with Mastercard Foundation Scholar Juana Suar (’20, Guatemala) to study solutions that have emerged in other countries. Eventually, they devised the idea of briquettes – a cleaner-burning substitute for firewood, that can be made from common waste materials, such as sawdust and used paper.
Francely and Monica are currently building a briquette prototype and a machine to manufacture the product. Their dream is to create a waste-recovery and recycling center, where they can give a second life to spent paper and other materials through the creation of diverse products, including the briquettes. “We want to offer workshops to people and community leaders to raise awareness about the importance of changing waste-management routines – for the environment and for people’s health,” Monica adds.
They seek to use their project – called LlamaBrick – to create a circular economy model in which the community actively participates throughout the process of separation of waste to the adoption of briquettes instead of firewood. “Now we are pragmatically analyzing everything we studied to identify if the product is feasible and functional. When the project enters the community, there will be a transitional period in which the briquettes must gain acceptance. We know that it will be a big change. Firewood is a resource traditionally used by thousands of families in Guatemala and the rest of the world,” Francely says.
EARTH students live their commitment to the rural areas from which they originate. This is demonstrated in the classrooms, on the farms, and in the communities. Like Maria, Arnold, Monica, Francely, and Juana, EARTH students look to social entrepreneurship as a way to lead much-needed change within their communities. While studying, they work hard to make their ideas tangible. They recognize that their efforts will improve many lives.
We recognize them as the key to a prosperous future.