Lavender Odeny: How to grow an agribusiness venture

Lavender Odeny is an Agri-preneur enthusiast with an educational background in Agribusiness Management and Trade. She is the founder and director of MashLav Foods Company LTD, an agricultural company based in Mtwapa, Kilifi, Kenya that produces fresh oyster mushrooms while training farmers on mushroom farming.

Lavender has skills and experience in grant writing, market research, design thinking, business plan development and entrepreneurship. On the side, she has worked as a Coach for the Mombasa Plastic Prize, a competition aimed at promoting innovations that solves the problem of plastic mismanagement by young innovators in Mombasa, Kenya. Currently, she is supporting the Founders Factory Africa program as a coach, helping innovator teams refine and test their solutions while creating sustainable businesses.

We caught up with her for an interview. This is how it went.

What motivated you to start the Mashlav Foods business?

My background inspired my entrepreneurship journey. I was raised in a Peri-urban settlement characterized by subsistence farming due to my family owning less land acreage. My mother being a small-scale vegetable farmer used to grow mostly for family use. She was curious to learn new farming technologies. However, insufficient funds made it impossible to adopt new innovations. This is a similar sad situation to over 70% of small-scale farmers in Kilifi, Kenya who use smaller land for subsistence farming and employ outdated farming techniques. Having experienced the problem firsthand, it inspired me to carry out research on the innovative farming model for small-scale farmers through mushrooms, during my fourth year of study at Kenyatta University in 2018 conferring me the name “The Mushroom Girl”. This led to the founding of MashLav Foods Company LTD.

What products does Mashlav sell?

Currently, MashLav sells Fresh Oyster mushrooms harvested directly from the farm (from farm to fork). Our mushrooms contain proteins, vitamins, and minerals such as iron and potassium boosting the body’s immune systems while reducing the chances of high blood pressure. It has low calories and fat, and lastly fibre preventing constipation while maintaining bowel health.

A healthy hack most individuals don’t know about mushrooms is that, they taste similar to meat which is a great alternative to red meat. Popularly known as meat in the vegetable world, you can use mushrooms as replacement, and served with Ugali, Chapati, rice, spaghetti, and pasta.… you name it, an amazingly versatile food.

Our mushrooms are suited for vegans, mushroom lovers, food explorers, health enthusiasts, and anyone who loves healthy vibes and good food. 1kg of mushrooms sells at Kshs. 1200 which serves 4 person(s), the lower packages are 750g which sells at 900 ksh and serves 3 person(s), 500g sells at 600 ksh serving 2 person (s), and lastly 250g which sells at 300 ksh serving 1 person. In the next 2-4 months, we shall be launching dried and powdered mushrooms, thereby, diversifying our mushrooms to value-added mushroom by-products while providing customers with healthy choices.

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Our second service is training whereby we offer 2-3 days of both theoretical and practical training to interested farmers on mushroom farming. We also provide mentorship on management which includes advisory services on mushroom management.

What milestones/achievements have you had so far with regards to your business?

MashLav has created employment opportunities for 4 youths creating a source of stable income. We have trained over 100 farmers mostly women on mushroom farming and provided start-up packages for their mushroom production including garden farms, and inputs. Also, we have created a market for farmer’s mushroom produce helping them earn income.

Furthermore, we have produced and sold over 50 kg of mushrooms and attracted financing of over USD 10,000 from different agencies like the United States African Development Foundation. We have also created partnerships with organizations such as the Agriculture Training Centre and Agriculture Technology Development Centre which have provided office and land space for mushroom production.

As a young business owner, what lessons have you learnt while building your business?

  • Have structures and systems in place- Structures and systems show the flow of your business operations. You can start by simple business registration showing the legal state of your business.
  • Delegate, it can be overwhelming- Running a business can be exhausting if you do it alone, learn to ask for help, you may be surprised people are ready to assist. As a start-up, you can bring in volunteers to help, and grow together.
  • Have a mentor- It allows you to tap into their experience, network, and resources. Their advice could save you millions of money that could have been lost due to inexperience running your business.
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What is your advice to young people who are hesitant of venturing into agribusiness?

I love this quote “Three times a day, every day, we need a farmer.” There is money in agribusiness. Most youths associate agriculture with poverty and subsistence farming. However advancement of technology has made it easier to innovate around agriculture and commercialize it. Further, social media has made it easier for farmers to sell their produce. Find your niche in the agriculture space, be an expert in it, and create value for your customer. You will thrive.

Since agribusiness requires a considerable investment in terms of capital, what are some of the funding options that young entrepreneurs can exploit?

  • Grants Opportunities-There are various grants opportunities for youth to explore including the Tony Elumelu Foundation program and the United States African Development Foundation among many more. Most grants are non-refundable while some require matching funds. Regardless, most grants are tied to a sustainable impact aspect that needs to be created for the community.
  • Crowdfunding is the pooling of capital resources from a large number of individuals mostly via online platforms. Mostly, crowdfunding utilizes one’s network to raise funding. It’s a great option for start-ups to raise financing from their network.
  • Money from friends and families- Entrepreneurs can leverage their friends and families to raise financing which may include generous contributions or loans with favorable terms than commercial banks. Friends and families can also do business showers to provide a new start-up with the resources needed to kick-start their business.
  • Money from personal savings- Entrepreneurs can also fund their businesses using their investments. The first investor of the business is usually the entrepreneur. He or she must believe in the idea to the extent of investing their own money in the business. This increases credibility to the funders.
Mwangaza Magazine | Mwangaza Magazine

What are some tips to consider when applying for funding?

Funding mostly is about the needs of the people you are serving and the impact it will make. For example, how is your product going to promote food security, reduce poverty, and promote health and well-being? Tie your business to the sustainable development goals. Prioritize the 3P’s (planet, people, and profit).

Prove that you are a credible organization- Are you registered? The cheapest registration is Kshs. 950, so reserve that name. Do you have a mission and vision statement compatible with your business focus? Has any organization invested in your business already, including your investment? Do you have a strong leadership team or advisors? In business, it’s not a one-man show.

Have a compelling story- A compelling story ensures your application stands out amidst thousands of applications. Put a story backing your business formation. Add a human touch to your story and make it memorable.

Lastly, the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work- Don’t re-use your proposal. Tailor make your proposal to the funding needs.

What is your parting shot?

Love what you do, money will follow.

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