UC Davis Today

Zambian woman in a maize field with meager crop on left and abundant crop on right

‘Farmer-preneurs’ improve crops in Southern Africa

By Karen Nikos-Rose

Farming is the main livelihood in Zambia, a country located in Southern Africa. But more than a third of the crops in in this country of 14.3 million people never make it to market. Lacking adequate storage silos, maize — which makes up more than 50 percent of Zambians’ food — is kept in bags in farmers’ homes. Stored this way, many kernels crumble to powder in a few months, having fallen victim to grain-boring insects or mold prevalent in the humid climate.

Three people holding a big check

Zasaka Big Bang Team members Carl Jensen, Rashmi Ekka and Kellan Hayes created an business idea that took only a year to get off the ground. T.J. Ushing/UC Davis photo

Zasaka a Big Bang! winner

Last year, Zasaka won a combined $5,000 in the annual UC Davis Big Bang! Business Competition, taking both the People’s Choice award and the Ag and Food Innovation prize.

The competition is run by the UC Davis Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a center in the Graduate School of Management. Another member of the winning team, Kellan Hays, an MBA grad, is still involved in the company.  Read more about the Big Bang! journey.

This Thursday, May 21, a new crop of Big Bang! finalists will vie for about $40,000 in prizes at the annual competition. Open to the public, the competition and awards ceremony — which includes presentations by team members about each project — begins at 6 p.m. at the UC Davis Conference Center.

Now a team of UC Davis grads, students and Zambian colleagues has built a company around simple technologies and practices that aid farmers in avoiding losses and growing more crops. Their first technology is a bag from Purdue University that protects grain without chemicals for just $2.50 per 100 kilograms.

“We sold 2,000 bags last year, and we are on target to sell 20,000 this year,” said Rashmi Ekka, an MBA student who will graduate from the UC Davis Graduate School of Management in June.

Zambian woman in a maize field with meager crop on left and abundant crop on right

Bags created at Purdue University are used by the UC Davis startup, Zasaka, to create an alternative to the grain silos that don't exist in Zambia. Carl Jensen/courtesy photo

Keeping crops for when prices are higher

Both Jensen and Silungwe live and work with farmers in Chipata, Zambia. They hold biweekly training sessions that include discussions on diversifying crops that can be sold and traded with neighboring countries, expanding farm yields, and teaching them how — by using the bags — they can keep most of their crops for later, off-season sales, when prices are higher. The team is also training farmers to teach other farmers in the region.

Solutions that put local users first

“D-Lab introduced me, as it has many other students, to a challenge that changed the course of my life," Jensen said. "But the important part is that D-Lab then prepares students to confront those challenges with technological solutions and an approach that puts local users first.”

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