This week, we catch up with Joan Karanja who merged her pharmacy aspirations with the world of agriculture. She is among the 15 women entrepreneurs hand-picked for a training initiative presented by Corteva Agriscience and Strathmore University.
Joan Karanja’s career path was cut short sooner than expected by a simple phone call. “What made me come back [home] so soon, because I hadn’t planned to, was the passing of my mother. I needed to come back because Dad couldn’t do it alone,” she recalls.
She had to come give a helping hand to her father who is running a family business, Mazao na Afya. This was an investment started by both her parents after her father stepped aside from his role in the Kenyan ministry of agriculture.
“After a year of working for other people, I had to go back home. I finally had to give in to my father’s calls. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.
“We are doing so much better and I want to make this business a good legacy. We have been talking about this on those Sunday meetings around the dining table. I knew it was going to come though it wasn’t supposed to be this soon but I want to make her proud. She had big dreams for this and we are working to keep that legacy alive,” says Karanja.
The 27-year-old was born and raised in Mwea, Kenya. Here, she completed her primary and secondary education and later joined the University of Nairobi in 2013. In 2016, she graduated with a degree in pharmacy. Her father, a former agricultural officer and mother, a business major, combined their expertise, leading to the birth of Mazao na Afya. It has been up and running for the past 24 years.
According to Karanja, she was given the freedom to choose her own course. However, even though she landed in pharmacy, at the back of her mind she knew she had to indulge herself in the family business one way or another. She eventually found a hack to merge the two.
“I changed the perception of things when I saw how toxic medicines could be. I used to view medication as a way to heal people but the side effects were too much. So I changed my tune. I decided to heal people through diets instead of using conventional medication and one better way to do that is farming the right way so as to have healthy food,” she tells FoodForAfrika.com.
Mazao na Afya is an agro-input distributor dealing with agricultural equipment, seeds, crop protection and nutrition, animal health and nutrition. Karanja started off working on the weekends. She adds that there was no exemption. She was later fully immersed in it by 2020, leveled up and now holds the title of co-director and customer relations officer.
“It hasn’t been easy. There is a lot that no one gives you a heads up. For example, I was giving debts. When asking for goods on credit, people are very soft-spoken however when it comes to payback they become very resilient. Two, people do not play fair in this business world.
“I also wish someone had told me that handling employees is an art that needs mastering everyday especially in our workforce where we handle more than 100 people, it takes a lot. And also one thing I’m continuously learning is dealing with a parent that cannot dissociate himself from the business. But he is learning, he has been in this for 24 years so I shouldn’t be too hard on him for that,” she giggles..
Karanja was afforded the opportunity to join other extraordinary women who participated in the 2021 edition of the Corteva Women Agripreneur Programme with Strathmore University; a programme she believes has helped change her game in the agribusiness sector.
“I have learnt a lot. I might have gotten busy and missed a few lessons but the gains have been a lot. For example, one I have been thinking of doing an MBA, however through the program I have learnt that I can move through without physically doing an MBA that would take a whole two years of class and then another year for projects.
“Two, I had a problem with introducing myself to people especially when it came to pitching ideas. The first lesson was the best lesson. It taught me how to go slow when talking to people, I used to rush through. Another is a lot of us started business without any background in the sector however the program has put a lot into perspective.”
Advice for other agripreneurs
She advises other aspiring agripreneurs to embark on their journeys only when they feel they are ready. However, if they find themselves in her situation, then try to find joy in what you do and things will eventually fall into place.
“It does get better. I wouldn’t have done it in the past but now I’m liking this,” she says.
“One more thing, make time for yourself and family. Jobs can eat you up alive. Don’t think you have to do everything in a day. Plan and begin with the most necessary thing to do.”