Students put marketing and management skills to work for Kenya's seed industry

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In early January, five Cornell students led by Edward T. Mabaya, a research associate in Cornell's Department of Applied Economics and Management, traveled to Kenya for an intense 10-day field study. Their task: work with two local seed companies to lay out business and marketing strategies in Kenya's competitive seed industry.

They were the fourth group of students to travel abroad with the Seeds of Development Program (SODP), an initiative devoted to alleviating rural poverty in Africa.

Mabaya and his students worked with Freshco Seed in Nairobi and Oil Crops Development in Nakuru. The students consulted with senior personnel, visited maize farms and talked to distributors who serve as an important link in the companies' sales chain.

The students then developed comprehensive marketing strategies, including designing promotional brochures and building Web sites, and presented empirical approaches with broader perspectives that the companies need for future growth. They will follow up by writing a case study and individual papers, and by providing additional consultations for the two companies.

Seed has been shown to play a crucial role in the sustainability of the agricultural system and in food protein supply in sub-Saharan Africa. But building systems to deliver the most recent technologies to farmers is a challenge.

"The overall objective of the field course is to help students build skills needed to address critical issues most likely faced by those doing small and medium business in emerging markets by developing sustainable growth strategies for a number of selected small and medium private seed companies," Mabaya said. "Specifically, those strategies will help to make the companies more competitive in both local and international markets, more unflinching to challenges, at the same time reducing risks."

The demand for quality seeds in Kenya is high, especially for hybrids, improved open-pollinated varieties and indigenous seeds. But those seeds are not always physically or financially available to the farmers. Small and medium seed companies must overcome the poor rural transportation infrastructure, the lack of effective sales points and inadequate access to financial services -- not to mention competition from multinational corporations.

As the students addressed those issues, they got satisfaction from knowing they were making a difference -- and gained a valuable new perspective on the needs of developing countries.

"This experience opened my eyes to new ways of looking at development," said Laura Cramer, a graduate student in international agriculture and rural development. "I went from solely an NGO [nongovernmental organization] perspective to really understanding the possibilities of public-private partnerships."

The SOPD is a project of Market Matters Inc., a nonprofit organization that works in collaboration with the Emerging Markets Program at Cornell.

Huong Quynh Pham is a graduate student at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.

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