Meet the UL students who’ve decided to take their business studies beyond the lecture halls

Rebecca Laffan

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Rebecca Laffan

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rebecca.laffan@limerickleader.ie

Meet the UL students who’ve decided to take their business studies beyond the lecture halls

Jack O'Connor with the seed planter that he developed with Catherine Hallinan

TWO UNIVERSITY of Limerick students are making international strides as young entrepreneurs - and all it involves is the humble act of planting seeds.

Twenty-one-year old co-founders of Moyo Nua Jack O’Connor and Catherine Hallinan haven’t even finished university yet, but are taking on the world already. 

Seeds of success

The idea is quite simple: a seed planter that reduces the back pain associated with farmers in developing parts of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa.

The original planter prototype started as Jack’s project for the BT Young Scientist Competition in 2017, when he was in his final year in Desmond College, Newcastle West.

“Basically, I wanted a week off school for the competition,” laughs the Kilcolman, Ardagh native.

Inspired by the documentary Living on a Dollar, which follows American teens in Guatemala who were living on just 1.25 per day, Jack and some classmates started brainstorming on how to ease the back pain of agricultural workers in poorer countries.

“The first prototype we made was built out of metal, it had a load of flaws in it but it showed that the idea worked and got the actual idea out there,” says Jack.

“I got what I wanted, I got the week off school and we ended up winning the Science for Development Award by Irish Aid.”

Growing strong

With that followed a trip to Malawi, which showed the young students the social enterprise aspect and potential of their project with the help of an organisation called Self Help Africa.

Not long after that, Jack started studying International Business at University of Limerick, where he became involved in Enactus, an international organisation that assists university students to engage in Social Entrepreneurship activities.

This is where business student Catherine enters the Moyo Nua story, as she was a Co-Team Lead within Enactus, and encouraged Jack to join.

“He told me about his trip to Malawi and we set to work to get more seed funding through Enactus and so we could make it a fully-fledged social entreprise,” Catherine, who is from Clonmel, says.

Having won the 2018 Enactus Innovation Competition, the pair had enough funding to patent the product, and started building a team to get the idea off the ground.

Budding business

Moyo Nua takes its name from a combination of the word moyo, meaning life in the Malawian language of Chichewa, and nua, meaning new in Irish.

The dynamic duo visited Silicon Valley, San José, last October, in what was Moyo Nua’s first venture abroad as a social enterprise.

“Trying to get the planter through customs was a bit of an issue,” laughs Catherine.

From there on out, it’s been a “whirlwind experience”, with the pair going on to win the World Trade Center's Association Foundation’s Peace Through Trade competition in April this year.

This earned O’Connor and Hallinan a trip to Mexico to talk to the delegates of the World Trade Center's General Assembly about their planter.

“We were the first students to ever present to the General Assembly,” says Jack, “it was phenomenal.”

“It was amazing, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” adds Catherine, “it was really intense, you had to be constantly networking and making the most of your experience. It really just blew our minds.”

Irish business roots

Back at home here in Ireland, Jack is currently undergoing an internship in Dublin, while Catherine is on her co-op placement in Cork - but any spare time the two have is spent on Moyo Nua, and getting developing areas ready for the product.

“Right now we’re focusing on improving the product here in Ireland while carrying out the workshops on the ground in Malawi and Nigeria. We’re finalising the supply chain, and focusing on getting the planters over there,” says Catherine, “in the short-term we’re putting in the groundwork for the long-term goal.”

“There’s a lot of cogs to the project, we’re looking at educational workshops right now before we even get planters on the ground,” says Jack, “it’s a matter of building the foundation as big as possible.”

This involves upskilling small groups in these African countries, and getting them involved social media marketing.

“We’re using it as an introduction for them to the project, so down the line they can lead the project over in Nigeria and Malawi,” says Jack.

“Obviously we can only do so much on this side of the water, it’s a matter of building those connections as best we can,” he adds, “all in all there’s about 30 people involved.”

Societal growth

Jack describes how their business model aims to have a run-on social effects in developing regions: “We’re trying to make a sustainable business in a practical way - that’s social enterprise. We want to be very pragmatic in how we approach this because obviously the issues we’re trying to solve aren’t easy, and they’re so difficult that for the most part people haven’t been able to solve them before.

“I’m not saying we’ve to come along with an idea that’s going to solve everything. If you look at the planter, it’s essentially a vehicle for building economic development. It would be made using locally sourced materials, because of that the local farmers can learn to build it from those materials.

“That way, we’re upskilling them, and taking them away from the agricultural industry and into the manufacturing industry. It’s all very small-scale, there will be no conveyor belts or anything like that.

“Once you have that, you’re going to be able to give them a wage, and from that they build wealth, and a salary which they haven’t had before. When they go back on the farm, they have the planter which alleviates the back pain, so their health has improved and because of that, their children aren’t needed on the farm so much. Those kids can go to school,” he says, “it’s a circular economy.”

Branching out

The young entrepreneur goes on to explain how his team plan to expand the business to other parts of the world:

“The Moyo Nua business model needs to be easily transferable. It’d be fine if you were just operating in Ireland, but if you’re operating on an international basis, especially in developing countries, the biggest thing you’re going to have to look at is culture. There’s different socio-political issues and all these things that you can never understand until you’re in it.

“Once we can get the model working and prove that it does work, it’s going to be a very practical and step-by-step process of scaling it. Once it’s shown that it works in one place, we can plan to scale it in sub-Saharan Africa, then across continental Africa, central America and Asia.

“When that happens, it’s a case of adapting to the culture - not actually changing the planter itself, which is made as simple as possible, and it works.”

The planter is one of many prototypes to have been created to address the issue of back pain among farmers, but the Moyo Nua model stands out for one very good reason.

“There are other variations of seed planters in these regions, and not to sound obnoxious but they simply just don’t work as well as the Moyo Nua model,” says Jack, “our model can be made from bamboo, it’s locally sourced and it’s better for the environment. It’s lighter, it’s easier to carry and a lot cheaper too.”

“We’re not saying we’ve reinvented the wheel here, but what we’re doing just works,” he laughs.

“It’s so straightforward,” he adds, “you hear of other start-ups using drone technology and stuff, but sure that’s not going to work in the back-arse of Malawi.”

“We’re putting the power into people's hands in a practical way where they can actually generate money themselves," says Jack. "We’re just guiding and helping them achieve that.”

Growing pains

Though they make it look easy, the two confess that despite all the excitement of being young entrepreneurs, it doesn’t come without its share of difficulties.

“Project management can be hard work,” says Catherine, “dealing with people, even stakeholders that we deal with, or managing our team was the biggest learning curve for me.”

“You’re trying to get the best out of everyone, finding out what works for them and keeping everyone involved. It’s a process, it takes time to make sure everything’s perfect.

“You have to keep everyone motivated, and it can be hard, especially when you’re so passionate about it yourself.”

Young sprouts

In a short period of time, the students have become used to being the youngest in attendance at networking events, and have begun to view their position as young business people as an advantage.

“Our youth is our biggest advantage,” says Jack, “it’s great to be able to walk into a room and pitch our idea and how practical it is, and how much credibility it has - and then turn around and say ‘oh yeah by the way we’re still in college’.”

Catherine agrees, saying: “I think being the youngest at these kind of things has got us to where we are. It is still intimidating though, and we’re still learning from it. We go to these places looking for advice too.”

“I think the fact that I started this all so young is the biggest advantage to me, because I didn’t know anything else,” says Jack.

“I knew nothing about standard practice, I was completely naive to every element of business. I’d never even had a proper job before this. I was coming in blind to sub-Saharan African development, which is a niche in itself.”

Outgrowing college

Though both studying business at university, the pair both agree that what they’ve learned through Moyo Nua will stand to them more so than any grade.

“You can read books and look at powerpoint slides, and learn Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs until it’s coming out of your ears, but until you get out there and start sending emails, going to meetings and getting your ideas out there - that’s when you learn. It’s a different language entirely,” says Jack, who plans to take a gap year from his studies in September.

“My course is fine, but I’m just not suited to it,” adds Catherine, “I prefer to be working on grassroots projects like Moyo Nua, in the thick of it. I’m fairly passionate about social enterprise and corporate social responsibility. I like ethical businesses, and Moyo Nua combines all of that.

“I’m learning so much, it’s more hands-on than ever before. You can’t learn that kind of thing in a classroom.”

“I feel like my current college experience is way better than the normal college experience, it’s pushing me in ways I didn’t even think were possible,” Catherine continues.

“It’s also completely altered my decision of what I want to do after college. Originally, I was all for getting my Masters and going into a nine to five, but now? Feck the nine to five, it’s all about just doing what you love and are passionate about - and for me it’s this.

“Learning that now, instead of when you’re in your fifties, is invaluable.”

“I’ve never really been academically inclined,” says Jack, “but for me it is a normal student life - it’s exactly what I want.”

“A fair share of my social life is going out with the planter, meeting people and networking and socialising. There’s a good bit of craic in it too, you get to meet like-minded people and have good conversations.

“Don’t get me wrong, I still watch the sport and I still have the pints,” he laughs.

“I understand it’s not the typical student experience but it’s exactly what I wanted, it’s typical for me.”

Staying grounded

When asked what advice they would give to other young people looking to start their own business, the pair, who were recently interviewed by Forbes magazine, have a world of wisdom to share.

“Be bold, be stubborn, but don’t be ignorant” says Jack, “you’re going to have people tell you you’re completely wrong, take it as constructive criticism. Take it all on board, there’s usually some validity in it.”

“Never forget why you’re doing it,” advises Catherine, “even in the hard days when nothing is working out, you just have to remember why you started. You want to help people and make a better world.

“It sounds really deep, but that’s your reason.”

Knockalisheen

KNOCKALISHEEN direct provision centre will also benefit from the Moyo Nua seed planter in a gardening project by other UL students and asylum seekers.

As part of ReStart UL, the seed planter will help budding gardeners grow their own produce, which can then be made into meals sold from a stall on the UL campus. 

ReStart was set up by UL students to help integrate refugees into Irish society.