With a growing child population living in poverty, Awa Thiam is using her engineering background to connect West African food producers with school systems. And networking with Iowa agriculture experts could be the push she needs to get her business off the ground.
Thiam, 27, of Senegal, is one of 25 African entrepreneurs hoping to network and absorb as much Midwestern business culture as they can this summer. She’s a fellow with the University of Iowa’s Mandela Washington Fellowship Program, which is in its third year. The group toured Deere & Co. facilities in the Quad-Cities on Thursday.
“I was working as a telecommunications engineer for 10 years, but I really cared about food distribution and children’s education,” Thiam said. “Then, I found 70 percent of the population are farmers and have a lot of distribution issues. They don’t know about the market, or the right ways to produce. And a large part of the population is under 12. So I decided to link the agriculture sector with education.”
Two years ago, she founded the Lifantou project, where she uses geospatial data to connect farmers with school systems. Her goal is to use technology to improve food distribution and secure daily meals for children, which in turn could revamp public school conditions and diversify West Africa’s agriculture industry.
“There’s lot of children living in the streets; a lot of children are un-medicated,” she said. “If we don’t do this, we are creating social separation and letting poverty grow. This will destroy our community. They’re born in poverty, but it’s not their fault. We need to educate them, feed them and give them the opportunity to learn and grow in good conditions.”
The transportation and conservation of food has proved difficult, she said. And right now, her biggest challenge is finding funding, although she’s partnered with the government and other organizations. She wants to launch the project early next year, and hopes the Mandela Washington Fellowship will give her tools to make the business sustainable and capable of expanding into other African regions.
Dimy Doresca, director of the Institute for International Business, said Thiam is one of 700 business owners who were selected for the fellowship, out of a pool of 46,000 applicants. Iowa City is home to 25 of those entrepreneurs for the summer.
“So these are the cream of the crop — the top of the top young entrepreneurs,” he said. “The benefit is really sharing knowledge. Not only are they learning our ways of doing business here in Iowa, but they are learning about our practices, ethical standards and processes. And they are also sharing with us how things are done in Africa. They are helping us understand the reality on the ground in Africa. It’s not that often we in Iowa understand that.”
The program stems from the Young African Leaders Initiative launched in 2010 by then-President Barack Obama. The University of Iowa offers the fellowship through its John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. And part of the program includes a two-week course through the university’s Venture School.
Another piece of the fellowship includes touring farms, local businesses and major industry leaders, such as Deere. After landing at the Quad-City International Airport in Moline following roughly 20-hour flights, the group saw their first Deere tractor on a farm. Thursday, they toured the Deere Harvester Works and John Deere World Headquarters.
"I was so impressed looking at the machines. I've never seen machines as big as this," entrepreneur Constance Munyenyembe, 30, of Malawi, said. "I really think if we were to have something like this in Malawi, it would really help our farmers in terms of workload and how to harvest faster and more efficiently. I'm really impressed. Like, wow, this is major technology."
Several members of the group commented on how everything in the midwest is bigger than they're used to, from the buildings to the cars to the food. And mouths fell open as the entrepreneurs watched tractors go through Deere's robotic paint booth.
But for those entrepreneurs in the agriculture industry, seeing Deere's facilities and learning how to connect to the global market has been especially meaningful, Munyenyembe said.
"In Iowa, they grow a lot of corn. And in Malawi, we're also very into corn. We call it maize and our staple food is maize. The whole country grows maize," she said. "So we're learning from Iowa, from the planting stage to how they harvest. It would really help Africa to learn from Iowa. I think technology is something we're getting into, but it's something we need to learn from Iowa."
Thiam hopes meeting Iowa business leaders and agriculture experts will give her the support she needs to transform her country’s food distribution system and feed more children in schools.
“I hope I will learn how to start my project with low risk, and how to have an entrepreneurial vision,” she said. “I want to know how to give the best vision to my clients and how to be sustainable. I want this to grow, not only in Senegal, but I know this is a need in other countries in Africa. We have to build something for the future of our children.”