UNIVERSITY PARK When the humanitarian engineering and social entrepreneurship program at Penn State created what it thought was the perfect technology to aid farmers in Africa, all it needed was the right partner to help promote it.
“It’s not about your technology, it’s all about the people,” said Khanjan Mehta, director of the entrepreneurship program. “You don’t have to be an engineer to grow a smart business.”
The entrepreneurship program is composed of a group of students who work on projects to “create products that meet people’s needs” in countries that lack technology and resources, Mehta said.
One product is an affordable greenhouse, which students designed and customized according to the location and resources of their customers. The students hope the greenhouses will help farmers break a cycle of food insecurity, according to their blog.
In Kenya, the venture found its partner in Penn State alumna Wanjiru Kamau, who oversees the operations at Mavuuno Greenhouses in Nairobi. The firm was licensed to create and sell the greenhouse designs to farmers all around East Africa.
Meanwhile, other developing countries are being lined up for the greenhouse project. Cameroon and Haiti are next.
Kamau said she became interested in the program because of its mission to fight hunger.
She won the Purpose Prize in 2011 for her African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation, a program she established to support African immigrants transition into American society. The prize awards $100,000 to individuals older than 60 who are active in solving social problems in a community, according to encore.org.
Looking to invest her money in a project, Kamau learned of Mehta and the greenhouse project from her son, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Nairobi who has known Mehta since 2004.
Kamau and Mehta met in February 2012 and launched Mavuuno Greenhouses in May of that year, he said. The objective was to help small farmers in a sustainable way, he added.
“I want to try to teach people how to treat the soil so the soil could produce healthy plants for the people, feed the body, and at the same time get money out of it,” Kamau said in a phone interview while in the U.S. for personal reasons.
Mavuuno Greenhouses’ mission isn’t just to provide greenhouses to farmers but to teach them how to use them and help them market their products once harvested, she said.
Although she said her contract with Mavuuno does not permit her to disclose the exact number of greenhouses sold, Mehta said the business has sold plenty in Kenya.
Last summer, students traveled to Kenya to help market the greenhouses. They met with bankers and others to educate them about the project.
Jerrel Gilliam, a senior from Pittsburgh majoring in history, was responsible for reaching out to farmers and anyone who benefited from the greenhouse project and persuading them to attend their showcase events.
Meanwhile, Mavuuno opened accounts with two banks to assist farmers who were too poor to afford even the least expensive Penn State greenhouse design.
“We train them on financial literacy, they’ll open an account with us and then we’ll give them loans,” Kamau said.
Farmers have three sizes to choose from — 18 by 20 feet, the same size but taller, and 26 by 49 feet. The sizes cost the Kenyan equivalent of about $636, $700 and $1,620.
Most of the designs use local wood, and in most parts of Kenya, blue gum, an evergreen tree, is used to build the greenhouses because it is easily available, Mehta said.
While Kamau and Mavuuno Greenhouses work to help farmers in East Africa, Mehta and his students are working to advance the project in Cameroon and Haiti.
While it has found a partner in Cameroon called Jola Venture, the program is still figuring out which company in Haiti best fits the program’s standards, said Mehta and his students.
“The first big step is finding that person who is going to care about it and make things happen on the ground,” said Everleigh Stokes, one of the students participating in the project.
“We might have students going to Cameroon in the summer and maybe Haiti as well,” Mehta said. However, because of insufficient funding, these trips have not been confirmed.
Regardless of funding, a 2013 program fellow will be in Cameroon for six months starting in January to work with Jola Venture on standardizing operations, Mehta said.
“I’m extremely excited for Cameroon,” Gilliam said. “I think it’s going to be a booming success.”