Students help Botswana firm that markets wild-food products and helps locals

Ed Mabaya, right, and Frank Taylor, left, founder and CEO of WildFoods.

To help a fledgling natural-food products company in Botswana that produces snacks from plants in the wild while benefiting local communities, three Cornell students and a faculty member flew to the southern African nation for 10 days over winter break.

The Cornell team conducted business analyses and developed strategic plans for the company, including marketing strategies and mechanisms to streamline inventory control, costing and bookkeeping.

The trip, led by Ed Mabaya, a research associate in applied economics and management (AEM), involved working with social entrepreneur Frank Taylor, who founded WildFoods in 2007 with a commitment to sustainability and helping the local people. Taylor buys his fruits from local residents who sustainably harvest the fruits from the wild -- marula, Kalahari truffles, Bushveld melons and Bushveld cucumbers -- where they would otherwise rot or be eaten by wild animals.

In its 8,600-square-foot factory outside of Gaborone, WildFoods then transforms the indigenous plant products into jams and snack foods.

"Taylor has no formal training in marketing or management and no external financing but plenty of passion and business acumen," said Gretchen Ruethling, a first-year graduate student in the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs. "He is inspiring and tireless in his dedication to using business as a force for good to improve the livelihoods of rural communities that otherwise have limited income earning opportunities."

WildFoods' products are distributed to supermarkets and craft stores and on airlines in Botswana and South Africa. Taylor hopes to increase distribution to game reserve lodges in those countries.

"We can really have a big economic impact on these small subsistence farmers," Taylor told Ruethling. "The more products we can offer, the more people we can employ, the greater economic impact we can have."

Although WildFoods has yet to make a profit, Taylor told the students that his plan is to eventually give his employees a share in the profits and to set a maximum differential between the lowest- and highest-paid workers. "I want to see the workers getting a better deal," he said.

"Today I was able to help Frank consolidate his inventory records into a working Excel document," e-mailed John Castle, an AEM senior, Jan. 7. "I was also able to help Frank find the costs of producing single units of his different products. This experience will hopefully add value to Frank's business, as well as help provide me with real-world experience in international development."

After the students presented their analysis and recommendations at WildFoods, Taylor said their work "would take his company to the next level," noting that the Cornell team was invaluable in formalizing his business strategy. ''Getting such services from local consultants would have cost me the shirt on my back," he said.

"The field study courses are a unique opportunity to integrate in-class learning, practical experience and outreach service," said Mabaya. "It is great to see Cornell students apply their skills to help a deserving and pioneering company like WildFoods."

The students were selected for the trip by Cornell's Emerging Markets Program, which also sponsored similar field trips over break to Kenya, where students worked with an agro-chemical company, and to South Africa, where students analyzed the natural products industry.


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