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Salesgirl turned agribusiness crusader

Lucy Muchoki’s passion for agriculture has seen her transverse the world making a case for agriprenuers

Lucy Muchoki’s first job after campus was in the banking industry. She worked for the prestigious Diners Club, as a salesgirl. After it shut down, she got into the motor industry where she sold Volvo cars.

This was in the 1990s and as a salesgirl with a persuasive and aggressive nature, she was able to make Volvo the official car for most ministers and principal secretaries. Her effort was recognised and she rose through the ranks to become sales general manager.

However, despite giving her best shot at her job then, Muchoki felt an urge to change and wanted to test different terrains. She wanted to sail alone and challenge herself. In one of her endeavours, she met with former International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe) Director-General Dr Hans Herren who sold her an idea that has since propelled her into the current established entrepreneurs she is in the agribusiness sector.

Grab opportunity

“Dr Herren was a World Food Prize laureate. At the time, with other scientists, they were doing research and all he needed was somebody to commercialise their work and this is where I stepped in. The task was to create the first private science techno-park that would transform agricultural research into products through technology uptake and innovation.

This is when I actually joined the agriculture sector,” explained Muchoki. Muchoki grabbed this opportunity. She believes the catch for Africa lies in how much can be picked up from shelved research studies, saying donors fund a lot of research in order to understand more on what to pick up from the continent. Muchoki’s first task was to transform neem (mwarubaini) into a product.

With this, she discovered through the research undertaken that no insect would go near the neem tree because of its repelling element. The product she would later come up with was a mosquito repellant and other medicinal bioproducts such soap, organic fertilisers and bio pesticide from the tree. An excited young Muchoki forged forward, linking technology with agriculture, a field she had never explored before. She registered her company, Biop and became the managing director.

Her breakthrough was when she pioneered the packing and selling of herbal tea and other products into the market, from neem tree and other tree products. “The African herbs, which are our rich natural resources, were packed in such a way that put off many people from using them.

In fact, many Kenyans associated them with witchcraft while our western world partners knew the treasured secret from in our natural resources and would take them in bulk for processing,” said Muchoki.

Through attending International showcasings, Muchoki realised there was a lot of interest worldwide, with individuals trying to move away from harsh chemicals to organic farming. For her, it was a booming business, which she started with an assistant and ended up with more than three hundred staff. With her business fast growing and with several outlets in the country, she required new and sophisticated equipment.

She got a deal with a venture capital firm from Swiss who agreed to invest in her company. Through this agreement, the investors would assist her to acquire modern equipment for separating concentrated active ingredients from plants for the export market. They lured her into believing that the investment would take the company a notch higher.

The required active ingredient from the neem tree was known as Azaradiractin. They also required tonnes of the seed oil from the fruit of neem tree meaning they had to plant more trees to create a multi-billion shilling business.

Unfortunately, in 2008 this partnership did not end well for her after the venture capitalists claimed they were the majority shareholders leading to some boardroom disagreement. They eventually took over her company.

Shaken

“It was indeed, a hostile takeover! Women really need to be careful when it comes to running businesses. There’s need to clearly understand the kind of partnership one is signing when seeking legal advice,” she advises. Muchoki filed a court case, but could not follow up due to the huge amount of money required. She left the company she had built from scratch in the hands of the venture capitalists.

Depressed and shaken for two months, she decided to move on and not take life for granted. Due to her work with the research world, Muchoki had been recognised regionally and was sought after by many research organisations.

In one of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (Fara) meetings, she was tasked to lead discussions in a World Bank event in Washington DC on how best private sector could commercialise research findings. This led to the formation of Pan African Agribusiness Consortium, a platform that brought together like-minded leaders who would challenge the status quo and lead in the agricultural transformation.

In 2013, she started Kenya Agribusiness and Agro industry Alliance, an Agribusiness platform for supporting Agripreneurs in Kenya, through capacity development, market access and investment.

The Alliance in which she is the CEO, focuses on SME’s development. Recently, she signed up an investment worth Sh2.5 billion with Kilifi County on the development of a food park that will support about 20,000 fruits and vegetable farmers.

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