iCRA expert bite #18: How can we help graduates start and sustain their own company in the field of Climate Smart Agriculture?

January 29, 2024

Picture this: young graduates are shaping a more sustainable, food secure agri-food sector through their innovative, competitive climate-smart businesses. Its a vision we share, but how can we help our graduates to start and sustain such companies? Two weeks ago in Erbil, Iraq, I explored this very question with researchers and lecturers from Shaladdin University and Kerbala University. We discussed the topic with an array of companies including input dealers, producers, advisory services providers, and irrigation equipment suppliers. 


From their advice we distilled nine tips to nurture the next generation of agri-food entrepreneurs: 

1. Know the problem, provide the solution.

People will only purchase your product or service if it solves a problem they face. Invest time in investigating the problem. This means going to the field to understand your clients and their reality in detail. When training students this means enabling them to experience the job reality through practical training in the field.     


2. Product development is a never-ending journey.

Understanding the problem that you solve is a prerequisite for success, but product development is not a single-stage process. See it as a discovery; you need to turn the knobs, test and adjust your product continuously. Demand and circumstance evolve constantly requiring you to go back to the drawing board frequently. This is especially true in upcoming markets like climate smart agriculture. To prepare students, introduce short cyclical approaches to business development and market focus. 


3. Cooperate to innovate.

No organization can innovate alone today. It is essential to collaborate within a business ecosystem. Collaborating and partnering strengthens innovation and fosters resilience. To give your students partnership-building skills, train them in networking and pitching skills. 


4. Prioritize quality.

There is always someone cheaper than you. Avoid the race to the bottom. Instead, invest in quality. This requires following up with your clients. It will not provide quick revenues, but your business will be more resilient and sustainable. Help your students discover what quality means in different contexts and markets.   


5.Sell solutions.

Reframe sales as a helping hand. You’re not pushing a product, you’re assisting clients in solving their problems. Teach your students skills for client-centre sales by practicing listening and negotiation skills.


6. Combine your technical expertise with IT skills.

If up-to-date technical expertise on climate smart agriculture is the brain of your business idea, it is your IT skills that give it legs to get out into the world. Make IT skills a cornerstone of your curricula! 


7. Be sharp in your staff selection to make your business a team effort.

Hiring staff is not only about technical expertise – they also need to be team players committed to your business ideas. Working with interns and trainees is a helpful way to identify fit with the company. Maintaining strong connections with educational institutes is an asset to business owners looking for new talent.


8. Ambition and dedication are prerequisites.

Business owners inevitably make mistakes and fail. So, you need to believe in your idea and have the stamina not to give up, but to stand up and try again. Teach students that making mistakes is a valuable learning opportunity and not something that can be avoided.  


9. Eagerness to renew and reinvent yourself.

Your business, your products can only evolve and continue to serve markets if you yourself also evolve and learn. Waiting until you think you know everything and can create a perfect product is not being entrepreneurial. Build your students’ confidence to just get started and learn along the way.  


The researchers and lecturers from Shaladdin University and Kerbala University rose to the challenge and are taking next steps in integrating more entrepreneurial skills into their curricula. Do you teach technical agri-food expertise? Are you eager to provide more practical education, more closely connected to labour-market needs?  Sign-up for iCRA’s course ‘Making Education Work’ for in-depth, hands-on training! The course takes place in April and there are still a few spots left.

Written by Mariëtte Gross