Kenya
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University of Nairobi

Why nature offers the best entrepreneurship lessons

Nature has miracles that we never get time to appreciate and learn from. The greatest miracle is not about heavier than aeroplanes flying, wireless mobile phones or even chatting online. The greatest miracles in nature have no human intervention and are never hidden from our view like circuits in electronic equipment.

Think of seeds that you plant or eat from maize, beans, lentils or any other grain. They are dried and stored for years.

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Once planted, they germinate into crops that flower and give rise to the next generation of crops. Is that not a miracle? How does a dry “dead seed,” just sprout into life? Suppose human beings could be dried like that?  Incidentally, that is done but through freezing.

Recently, a baby was born after the egg had been frozen for two decades.  The seeds we plant require less technology, just dry them in the sun! How does a seed lay dry for years but once planted, grow?  Biologists can explain to us in plain language. But whichever way they do, that does not diminish the significance of the miracle.

Genetic engineers have tried to focus on this great cycle of life and make money from it. They have figured out that if you stopped the seeds from growing again by manipulating the genes, you can force farmers to buy them every season, instead of using the seeds from the previous crop. That is why seed companies are doing well.

That might be reason genetically modified crops are being resisted in Kenya. It is all economics.  It is possible in future that our planting and harvesting will be “uberised,” controlled from another country, not by farmers themselves. If you buy certified seeds, you can figure out the future already. We used seeds from the previous crop to plan the next season as we grew up in the countryside.

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Today, every farmer wants to buy seeds, seen as more disease resistant or more productive, giving you more bags per acre. Not realising the control they lose over their farming. Enough on farming.

Entrepreneurial ideas are more like seeds; they lie there dry, waiting for the right time to be planted. Some are planted by the school, which stirs the students’ urge to start a venture.

The proliferation of schools offering entrepreneurship courses is a realisation that the seed of entrepreneurship can be planted by schools.  What of dropouts becoming great entrepreneurs?

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The courses range from undergraduate to PhD.

The only contention is that entrepreneurship should not be about theories, but practice, starting real activities and making a difference to the lives of ordinary citizens. Sadly, entrepreneurship graduates still see it as a black box.   There is even a joke in some universities that if you can’t teach anything else, try entrepreneurship.

Other entrepreneurial seeds are planted by experience. Employees soon realise the money from employment is not enough and the owner makes too much money. For others, the seeds of entrepreneurship are planted by a negative experience like job loss.

Boredom is another entrepreneurial seed planter. After years in one place or career, you want a change. Once seeds are planted, someone must nurture them by watering and adding manure.

Nurturing entrepreneurial ideas includes mentoring on how to navigate turbulent times, just like irrigation during the drought.

That is why a good board makes a big difference. Nurturing also includes governments that provide public goods such as roads, security and good policies. The harvesting for the entrepreneur includes profits while replanting is starting new lines of businesses.

Incidentally, entrepreneurs such as farmers are looking for new and better seeds, provided by innovators. We never heard of M-Pesa kiosks, cybercafés, phone shops and other new types of enterprises based on new technologies when we were growing up, much like genetically modified seeds, the new enterprises make you more money. They often run 24 hours and can cross borders.

The seeds are either eaten or replanted.  In entrepreneurship, being eaten is common, young promising firms are bought or eaten by big established firms to reduce their threat. The great years we spend in schooling learning about entrepreneurship can be learnt in one season, watching seeds being planted, growing and harvested.

Nature seems a better teacher of entrepreneurship than any professor. If you want to be a great entrepreneur, why not spend time with farmers as they prepare their farm and plant seeds, till the crops spout and marvel at the miracles of nature. Apply that in your business and you could get us Kenya’s next multinational corporation.

-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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