Elizabeth Okullow has committed her life to one mission: creating food sustainability in Africa. It may be a mammoth task, but this trailblazing microbiologist and agripreneur has already founded two businesses utilising hydroponic technology to promote sustainable farming. At the age of 25, she’s just getting started.
The average age of a farmer in Africa is 60 years old, and most young people don’t have career aspirations in the agricultural sector. What got you excited about agribusiness and becoming an agripreneur?
I grew up in a home where agricultural activities were the norm of the day. We were forced to do them whether we liked them or not, but I realised my passion for agriculture when I was in university in 2016.
I was going through a rough patch because I had lost a good friend of mine who was one of the leaders in the school and had great potential. I remember asking myself, “How can talent just die like that?” This prompted me to think about my purpose in life and why I exist. I was determined not to die with all my dreams and potential.
As I was tending to my aloe vera plants in the hills near my home one day, it suddenly hit me that I love plants. That was the first instance the idea of venturing into agribusiness formed in my head.
My first business idea ever was strawberry farming, but it was never implemented. I went to different entrepreneurs and pitched the idea to raise 5 million Kenyan Shillings (almost USD 45,000). They told me that they would get back to me, but none did.
After graduating, I was convinced that I was called to be an entrepreneur, especially an agripreneur, so I stuck to the path. Along the way, I got the opportunity to join ALX and later the KCB 2jiajiri Program to receive training on hydroponic farming. These opportunities kick-started my journey into agricultural sales through my first business, Lafarmia Greens, after which I started my second business, Aafri Fudi, which is my current focus.
Through this initiative, I hope to show young people that entrepreneurship can create opportunities in the agricultural sector and that their skills have a place there.
You could have found a job in an organisation with similar aims as yours. Why did you choose to start your own?
I chose entrepreneurship because I felt it was the ideal way for me to accelerate impact. I also wanted to leave a legacy. If I get employed, people may not easily remember what problem I was solving or what I was doing, but if I start a business in Kenya that can be scaled up across the world, it would be easier for me to leave a legacy. So even when I die, people will remember there was a lady called Elizabeth Okullow, and she was a pioneer in indoor farming on the African continent.
I believe myself to be a natural-born leader, and I realised I would be wasting my potential if I did not follow this path.
When you join a company, there are a set of instructions that you are given, but as an entrepreneur, you are the one who sets the pace. You bring people and resources together and work towards a common goal, and you have the platform to impact more lives than if you were just an employee.
Looking back to the start of your entrepreneurial journey, how did you navigate the challenges of bringing in a co-founder and growing your team when you had so many priorities to juggle?
With my first big business, Lafarmia Greens, 3 of the co-founders I started with pulled out along the way. I remember questioning why I could not determine from the onset that they would not stay for long. The last partner I was left with also decided not to continue with the business after the KCB 2jiajiri Program we were in. So when I started Aafri Fudi, I was looking for people who were already in the field whose skills would complement mine for the benefit of the business. Each time I onboarded team members, I evaluated the skills gaps between us to determine the kind of team members I was seeking.
Based on that experience, I’ve learnt that when you are looking for the right people to join your team, you should group the candidates into 3 categories:
- Hustler — Someone who is willing to meet people, represent the business and negotiate deals.
- Hipster — Someone who is able to design and customise the customer journey to reflect the customer’s needs and demonstrate how you plan to solve their problems and add value to them.
- Hacker — Someone who eats, breathes and sleeps technology.
Once you have found the people with the right skills to join your team, clearly set expectations and take note of the expectations they have of you. This ensures win-win working relationships. If you look at team development from that particular angle, I bet you’re going to build a successful business!
One of the things we really believe in The Room is that no one is self-made. What role have others played in your leadership journey?
I am where I am today because of all the people who have believed in me, my vision and my capabilities, starting with my mom. I remember a point when I felt like quitting entrepreneurship and going back home to get a job and my mom asked me, “What are you coming to do here?”
Even in The Room I have had people who have challenged me and inspired me to always show up. My mentors and colleagues have contributed in helping me manage my productivity and keep track of my goals.
One amazing thing that Aafri Fudi is proud of is the networks we have been able to build. Last year when I reached out to fellow young leaders from ALX to join our team as volunteers when we were starting out, I got quite the response! I was so surprised by the number of people who were willing to support me. Currently we have 4 young leaders from ALX who work across Finance, Product Development, Sales and Marketing. Their contributions continue to propel Aafri Fudi forward.
Some facilitators from my time at ALX have supported us and shared feedback on a new product we are working on. A IoT based Hydroponic System that will help us collect data that allows us to deliver the best services to our clients and help them grow better crops.
So many people in my network have supported me and connected me to individuals across the world who have been instrumental in my journey and I am very grateful for that.
By 2030, Africa will be home to a quarter of the world’s population under 25. What do you believe about the potential for young people on the continent to solve the world’s problems?
I believe we all have the potential to change something, even the smallest of things.
First, identify what you can do with the talents and skills you have. Then leverage the resources that you have — be it social, human or financial capital — in order to initiate change. Lastly, choose to be bold, action-oriented and vision-focused. If you can follow all those 3 principles, you will be unstoppable!
Find out how Elizabeth is reaching for the impossible here: