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Osage grad wins grant for African trip to help Kenyan women build their own business
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Osage grad wins grant for African trip to help Kenyan women build their own business

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An Osage high school graduate hopes his work teaching Kenyan women about business will save them from sexual exploitation.

A team from the University of Iowa that includes 1980 Osage graduate Patrick Johanns will travel to Kenya on a State Department grant. The group leaves Monday.

Around Lake Victoria, as is the case with other lakes in Sub-Saharan Africa, natural fish populations have been on the decline due to overfishing and environmental problems; meanwhile, human populations have grown in the region increasing the demand for fish.

Many women in these lakeside villages make a living for their families by buying the fish from the anglers and then selling them at market.

But instead of money, some of the anglers demand sexual favors, knowing the women have few alternatives to secure fish.

And that in turn has led to an increased spread of HIV and AIDs in the region.

The one-week training program seeks to provide local women with tools to improve their supply chain by finding ethical anglers, and ultimately break out of a dehumanizing cycle.

The project’s origins

Since Johanns graduate from Osage, he’s earned a BS, MBA, and PhD from the University of Iowa, where he serves as an associate professor at the Tippie College of Business.

Johanns said the State Department announced this grant program back in August. This is the first year they’ve done it, according to Johanns. It was for a team of two or more people who have previously participated in overseas programs.

He said the University of Iowa has hosted what’s called the Mandela Washington Fellowship program for young African leaders. Last year, 700 African leaders were accepted out of 60,000 who applied, and groups of 25 went to various campuses throughout the U.S. It’s a reciprocal program, Johanns said, so fellows can bring someone they met in the U.S. to their home country in Africa to work with them in their business.

One of the program fellows in 2016 was Dave Okech.

“In 2017, I went to this area in Kenya, and Dave was operating this feed business,” Johanns said. And part of that business was for fish. So I worked with him on various aspects of the business, [including] the supply chain.”

Johanns says at that time, Okech was developing an app called AquaRech for fish farmers: “It would check the water temperature and other factors to know how much feed to give their fish and how much they should order from him.”

Now, that app is going one step further: “Now these fish farmers have a supply of fish — what’s a good way to market them?”

That’s where the next part comes into play: helping women who buy and sell fish connect with fish farmers who have fish. Essentially, it’s like Uber, but with fish. But more on that later.

A second Mandela Washington Fellow in 2017 was Caroline Odera, who founded a program called WISE Kenya. They put on programs to help women get started in business in the Lake Victoria basin.

“Caroline was an ideal person for us to bring on our team, because she knew a lot of the women in the area,” Johanns said.

Additional University of Iowa team members are Kelly Bedeian, assistant director and grants administrator of the Institute for International Business, and Kimm Harris of the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at the U of I.

The training program

The group will put on two, three-day programs, with 15 women participating in each program. The participants will be women from Kisumu and Homabay (both counties in the Lake Victoria basin of Kenya) who work in the fish trade.

The first program will be led mostly by the University of Iowa team members, while Okech and Odera observe. In the second program, the two will take on a more active role so they can be prepared to hold programs themselves in the future.

“Part of our attempt with this program is to not just go there and do a one-off program, but develop a program that’s handed off to Caroline and Dave for them to do again,” Johanns said.

Some of the objectives will include information on how to set up a business, different products the women could offer (like fish snacks), financial training and other issues like bookkeeping and making sure all have and can use the AquaRech app.

The AquaRech app will give women access to reliable information, as well as a network of fish farmers. Farmers on the app sign a code of conduct, and just like with apps such as Lyft and Uber, women can rate their transactions, which will provide incentive for ethical business practices.

“We’re trying to rebuild the supply chain ... It’s amazing how all these pieces fit together,” Johanns said. “Many people have a view of [academia as] ‘the ivory tower’ as disconnected or sterile … not connected with everyday life. I can certainly tell you at the business school, we work very hard to tell a different story: that what we’re doing is very applied and we’re engaged with what’s going on in our world.”

Johanns will head to Africa with his wife; they plan to visit three different wildlife parks in Africa over five days. Once they finish, his wife will fly home and he’ll head to the Lake Victoria basin in Kenya to begin the program.

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