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AND SO IT BEGINS…

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Lillian Beauttah was one of the six finalists of the GFAR and YPARD’s Youth Argripreneur Project, who co-founded the social enterprise Afrika Jilishe[1], whose aim is to increase the resilience and adaptive capabilities to climate change of nomadic pastoralists and other communities within the ASALs ( Arid and Semi-Arid Lands) by making use of high tech, low cost, and innovative solutions. Her YAP proposal is to build “The African Desert Greenhouse”, an artificial, closed ecosystem that creates viable crop growing conditions requiring a minimal amount of water. Lillian was also able to better engage in social media campaigning activities to ensure her project gained support. In addition, she has now has a mentor to help guide her during this upcoming period and make sure her project does succeed.  

And now, it is 5 months later and she continues to relate her experience thus far…

What happens when you take a concept, add a generous amount of seed funding and a dash of well-targeted mentorship to it ? 

Chaos…the organised variety, that is.

6 months post-GCARD 3 and the desert greenhouse that I made my YAP proposal about is finally taking shape. Here’s a brief look into its genesis.

Partner Canvassing

There would be no use building the greenhouse if we had no potential customers lined up. Our thoughts on who would make the best early adopters were centred around;

  • Whether the school was within a drought prone region – to be a candidate, the school would have to either be within an already established feeding program or suffer from the fluctuation of food prices within periods of drought.  
  • Distance from Nairobi and accessibility – a closer site would allow us to make regular visits during the trial period.
  • Whether the school incorporated Agricultural and Business studies within its curriculum – having the greenhouse would be a unique value addition even to the students’ studies.
  • Whether the school is within a fenced compound – this contributes heavily to the security factor. 

On visiting Merrueshi School in Kajiado County, not only was our criteria met, but the school’s patron, chairman and headmaster were generous with information and genuinely seemed interested in our approach to climate smart agriculture.

Site Canvassing

With a potential school partnership secured we moved on to the next stage, one that I thought would be everything but mind-numbingly difficult—securing land to set up a  prototype. Our criteria for appropriate land included;

  • Within Nairobi environs or close outskirts – the build and subsequent monitoring would require us to make daily trips.
  • Water  (preferably piped) and electrical amenities available – One might wonder why we preferred to work with those already available when our final models would be completely off the grid? We felt that it would be easier to move from the known to the unknown in terms of factors for success then reverse engineer our results in terms of water requirements (thus how big a reservoir our final model would require) and electrical capacity (how many solar panels our final model would require). 
  • Affordability – with regards to lease per season for a 6.0m x 11.0m plot 
  • Accessibility – daily travel in what is not a particularly high car especially during the rainy season should be possible
  • Climatic conditions – similar to those of arid and semi arid conditions

We hadn’t anticipated that two months in we’d still be on the search for the ideal plot of land and that accessibility would have played such a huge role. From extremely poor road conditions to perfect conditions up until it rains, we saw it all. Early in we’d seen the opportunity of leasing our greenhouses from institutions that were no longer in use but as it turns out they weren’t willing to lease out to outsiders. We then pivoted into the option of leasing land from schools in Nairobi using the same criterion we’d previously established for a partner school. We packaged this proposal as a co-curricular activity to further engage students in schools with Business and Agriculture student clubs with the added benefit of the school’s self-sufficiency on the food production front.

To our utter disappointment the most ideally located school already had a greenhouse and weren’t willing to let us use a portion of their field for another. A factor that we never expected was the rigourous nature of the Kenyan Education  System that dictates school management. In the event that our trying to engage students in this as as co-curricular activity or even the construction process of the greenhouse itself  might in any way hamper the final year students’ studies, schools would not even consider our project.

Finally at the end of our rope, we settled on pursuing a lead from an unlikely source. This plot of land was located an hour to forty five minutes out of Nairobi in the up and coming town of Kitengela. Not exactly ideal due to distance and evening traffic that would certainly be against us, but at this point in time we were out of options.

Best decision we ever made.

The property’s owner was hugely welcoming and willing to allow us to make use of his land and amenities without any cost due to his commitment to see the youth in interesting ventures succeed.

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The Build

This we broke down into;

Phase 1: Structural – The greenhouse structure and hydroponic shelf mechanism

Phase 2: Electrical – LED lighting and sensory technology

Phase 3: Mechanical – The hydroponic system and irrigation system

Initially the idea was to build the structure and design the sensory tech from scratch but a few months into the entrepreneurship game, I understood that that was a poor idea. Why? My mind had been opened up to the power of ‘ Outsourcing’ whose cousin ‘ Do it All’ is actually a factor that has led to the downfall of many ‘once -an-enterprise(s)’

Identifying an expert for the two respective structural builds was not as difficult as I’d expected. What made this exercise difficult was the unfamiliar design and exact specifications that I was proposing to the builders.

My method to get us all on the same boat was simple but I feel effective. It encompassed running through the following with the builders and material suppliers;

  • Design – has this been fully comprehended and what amendments from their expertise would they propose?
  • Materials – approximate cost, quantity and variety
  • Transport – cost of this to site (only after you incur charges for your own construction does this factor of production become very evident ) 
  • Labour – number of men required
  • Rate – per man ( once again only after you run your own construction site does it hit you that this rate should also include a meal and water ) 
  • Time frame – number of days
  • Start date 

Currently we’re done with the first phase and making the necessary preparations to embark on the second and third that would require us to import most of the materials.

The three months of the build have taught me not only the value of patience with yourself and others in the day’s failures but also the beauty and joy that comes when you crawl into bed tired and a bit dusty after a day of building your empire.

Find the original post on the GFAR blog.

Blogpost by Lillian Beauttah – limobachi(at)gmail.com – one of six finalists in the Youth Agripreneurs Project, a pilot project targeting young agricultural entrepreneurs (“agripreneurs”), co-organized by GFAR and YPARD. The YAP Finalists launched their projects during the #GCARD3 Global Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, 5-8 April 2016. Read Lillian’s original YAP proposal here.

Photo credits: Lillian Beauttah