When I joined the Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD) network as mentoring coordinator in February 2015, I hoped to facilitate a mentoring program that helped YPARD members to be brave, be bold and be open.
To be brave because creating a sustainable food system, better youth employment, combating climate change and equalising gender can be tiring and sometimes frightening work.
To be bold because as Albert Einstein said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
To be open because only through sharing ideas and working together will we be able to solve these problems. It is our increasing disconnection from ourselves, each other and nature that kind of got humanity into this mess in the first place.
Through this blog, I want to tell you how I saw all these qualities exemplified in a group of bright young agricultural entrepreneurs—“agripreneurs” who recently started an exciting personal and professional journey with us during the Third Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD3).
Birth of the concept
In January, 2016 Peter Casier, Social Media Coordinator for GFAR, contacted me, sounding particularly excited.
“Michelle,” he said. “Would YPARD consider joining a new project to help young entrepreneurs realize their ideas for a sustainable agricultural future?”
He was talking, of course, about the Young Agripreneurs Project – an initiative to provide financial and social support for young people with awesome ideas through seed funding, mentoring and business development.
“Absolutely!” I responded, not really prepared for what was to come.
Off we then went, launching a call for proposals. We received 428 submissions in just three weeks and we worked around the clock to get them all online for the public vote and jury selection.
Six inspiring finalists were selected and five of them were able to get visas in time to join a kick off workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa during GCARD3.
It would have been easy to design your standard “people-who-are-supposedly-more-knowledgeable-than-you-stand-at-the-front-of-the-room-and-tell-you-things-for-eight-hours” kind of workshop.
But I wanted to design a two-day experience that would inculcate in our young entrepreneurs a sense of adventure and equip them with bravery, boldness and openness to face this adventure together. A 16-hour experience, where they felt safe to reveal who they truly are. Where the conversation would be led by young people about the things that matter most to them. (One of my favourite talks on this issue is “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!”)
So there we were. Jony, Josine, Nikki, Lillian, Kellyann and myself in the Barcelona room of the Birchwood Hotel with the drums of South African musician Mafikizolo mimicking our nervous but excited heartbeats. (If you have Spotify you can access the workshop playlist here.)
The power of reflection and stories
“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” –Robert Penn Warren
We started off with an acknowledgement of country and context. These have become really important rituals for my workshops because they help us understand the importance of the place we are meeting and when we are meeting.
In Johannesburg, we learnt of the Khoisan people who were among many indigenous groups dispossessed by colonial rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Promoting awareness of and respect for Indigenous culture and knowledge (particularly when it comes to agriculture) is an important part of ending the history of silence and exclusion that has resulted in disadvantage and dispossession of many first nations people today.
During our acknowledgement of context, we spoke of the time in history within which we were meeting. Youth unemployment is at an all time high and human beings are having an unprecedented impact on the planet. Now more than ever do we need to amplify the voices of our young people with great ideas.
From this reflective exercise we jumped straight into a creative activity called the River of Life. I asked each of our entrepreneurs to reflect on a moment that changed their lives and where they were at now in their lives. Their willingness to be so open to sharing powerful and moving stories of transformation and hope really helped to create a safe space right from the beginning. We talked about their expectations of themselves, of each other and of YPARD and GFAR during the next 12 months. It was a great start to being brave, bold and open.
One thing we sometimes forget is the power of food as a way to connect people cross cultures and share stories. And since YPARD is all about young people and food, each agripreneur was encouraged to bring an item of food from their country that was meaningful to them. During our coffee breaks we shared each other’s food and heard some wonderful stories about barley that gives Ethiopian marathon runners energy, how Filipinos don’t let any food go to waste (even frying up fish skins…which were delicious) and got to try some wonderful sweets made from milk from Nikki’s dairy farm.
Daisy Ouya from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) then ran a session on pitching which culminated in practice pitches by each of the agripreneurs. Daisy along with her colleagues Abby Waldorf and Juliet Braslow (who is also a mentee in YPARD’s face to face mentoring program) have been great supporters of our work with youth for many years and have really helped me understand how crucial it is to master the skill of pitching.
Pitching feeds into everything we do – networking, delivering a presentation, asking for funding, convincing our boss to give us a raise, selling our car. We wanted to help the youth agripreneurs develop their pitch before GCARD3 started so they were able to really introduce themselves with a bang when networking. It was also a great way to start our time together as we got to understand their projects better.
Making the most of mentoring
We then had Pauline Bomett from African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) – a career development program for African women scientists – help the agripreneurs make the most of mentoring. Mentoring is a core part of the Young Agripreneurs Project – each of our agripreneurs will be paired with one or more mentors during the next 12 months who will help them bring their ideas to life.
The sad fact is that 90% of startups fail and one of the biggest hurdles that sole entrepreneurs face is the loneliness of being a founder. That’s why business incubators are so important – they help to create a supportive ecosystem for founders that money can’t buy.
Pauline helped the agripreneurs reflect on and articulate their purpose, which will help them better understand their needs and communicate them with their mentors. She also went through the qualities that mentees need to cultivate to make the most of their mentoring relationships.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why you were born.” -Mark Twain
Twain’s line of thinking really sums up the mentality we are trying to instill in our mentors and agripreneurs – that no matter what place you are at in your life, it’s never too late to reflect on who you are, why you are here, and make intentional decisions to determine where you want your life to go.
Unfortunately I am not able to share the slides from AWARD’s session but we hope to some day be able to offer all of you the opportunity to go through their mentoring training.
A one-page business plan
There were two key sessions focused on business planning.
The first was to walk agripreneurs through a straightforward and succinct planning tool – Social Lean Canvas – which will guide them in making business decisions and measuring their progress over the next 12 months.
Each agripreneur was given a copy of the Lean Startup book, which is widely considered to be a bible for entrepreneurs. We are encouraging our agripreneurs to build, measure and learn throughout the next 12 months, to ensure that their businesses can meet the needs of society and environment in the most effective, efficient and sustainable way possible.
Bill Downing then ran an open space on finance essentials based on questions that the agripreneurs had about accounting, revenue projects, risk management and measuring impact. Unfortunately we don’t have any materials to share on this session but perhaps we can get Bill to run a webinar or write a blog sometime soon for you all.
The agripreneurs then went through a final two minute pitching session to prepare for their presentations at the GCARD3 plenary. It was magic to see how far they had come in only two short days.
To capture what they learned, each of the agripreneurs wrote a letter to their future self and put it in a sealed, self-addressed envelope. I will be posting their letters back to them in a couple of months – a time when motivation might be waning. I hope these letters will give them each the encouragement and support they need at difficult times.
Where to next?
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead
The youth agripreneurs are at the beginning of their journey. They’ve started sharing some deep learnings from their time at GCARD3 and we look forward to bringing more of their stories to you over the coming 12 months as we follow them on their entrepreneurship journey. They have all been introduced to their first mentors and will be meeting with them soon.
What makes my job most difficult is the fact that we only have the resources to support six agripreneurs at the moment, when I know that there are many other incredible ideas from the 428 proposals we received.
If you are one of those budding agripreneurs, I hope that through this blog, you now have access to some useful resources that can help you reflect, build a business plan, pitch an idea and make the most of a supportive mentoring relationship.
However, we want to be able to do more for you. YPARD and GFAR are looking to take the Young Agripreneurs Project to the next level. We want to meet people who can give us access to funding networks and resources so that the Youth Agripreneurs Project can continue to support young people realise their ideas.
If you are reading this thinking that you could be one of those people that helps us get a foot in the door to speak to funders, I would love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org
I have no doubt that a new world is already upon us and that young people are leading the charge – YAP is just one example of many. I can’t wait to see what this group of brave, bold and open leaders will do together to make the world a better place.
Michelle Kovacevic is the mentoring coordinator for the Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD).
Photo credits: first-Daisy Ouya, second-Jony Girma ; PPT Slide: Daisy Ouya