Jack Oyuga a 27 years old Kenyan Biotechnologist, is turning problems into solutions with his company Biofit. He is one of the 14 young Africans recently nominated for the Africa Prize Royal Academy of Engineering 2020. His product Aquaprotein is made from water hyacinth, a plant species that has posed in the past as invasive and detrimental to human activities and aqua life at Lake Victoria. In an interview with Engineers’ Forum correspondent, Jack Oyuga tells of his inspiring journey as a startup entrepreneur.
What was your growing up experience like and how did it help in moulding your career path?
Born and raised in poverty was a hard thing in life. My parents had 12 children and I was the firstborn. This meant we could not get a proper education. We were not even sure we would make it in life one day.
However, my breakthrough came after struggles with education. When I finished high school, a good Samaritan took me to Nairobi from the village to study Biology course.
It was there that I said to myself that I would never go back to the suffering at home.
I placed many efforts on my career and this made me get into innovations. I was first recognized and awarded $10,000 for hydroponics technology in East Africa. Since then, I haven’t looked back and I have continued with different innovations and projects.
Water Hyacinth has been proven as an excellent feed for animals, what propelled you at first to experiment on this?
The invasive water hyacinth was discovered late 70’s in Kenya. Since then, it has over multiplied and caused havoc to Riparian communities. Growing up and seeing the suffering we went through at the lake whenever hyacinth invaded Lake Victoria, propelled me to find ways of using hyacinth as a sustainable animal feed. I was geared to give employment to people who use the lake and as well as provide cheap feed to farmers.
How were you able to build your idea and start the business on Aqua protein?
After college, I got a job to manage a dairy farm. As a manager, the major challenge was to get an alternative cheap means of animal feeds which were taking up to 70% of our costs.
I started hydroponics fodder technology as a source of feed to the livestock but this failed due to some challenges. It turned out to be very expensive than other conventional feeds. I later struggled with Azolla cultures but failed too. Due to the difficulties in finding solutions to the farm feed challenges I thought of using hyacinth which is in abundance in Kenya lakes throughout the year.
Later I quit the job and fully started the research. After securing another job at the University of Nairobi, I proceeded with the idea.
Serial product development and collaborations with different organizations such as SNV Netherlands made my dream come true.
Along this journey, Biofit feeds limited was born and one of our product is Aqua protein, a highly nutritious protein processed from the invasive water hyacinth.
Since the inception of Biofit, what would you consider as the milestone achievements of the product?
Since the launch, Biofit has raised money from SNV Netherlands, USAID/Feed the Future, Tony Elumelu Foundation, and Kenya National Innovation Agency through a partnership with Leaders in Innovation fellowships Royal Academy of Engineering.
We have been able to employ 8 staff and almost 20 casual labourers when harvesting especially fishermen.
We harvest and process almost 2 tonnes of feeds weekly which we sell to around 150 farmers in Kenya.
We have been able to build our production unit and currently, we are a team of 4.
How do you intend leveraging on the benefits of your nomination at the Royal Academy of Engineering in the next eight months?
The networks, training, mentorships and other support Royal Academy gives startups is of no doubt beneficial. Judging from startups that have been previously supported by Royal Academy who succeeded.
My being a part of the 2020 Africa prize is already a success to Biofit. Currently, the collaboration and partnership requests we are getting across the globe is overwhelming. At the end of the program, we are sure we will be working with other partners across the globe and even exporting our protein.
What major problems are been solved by Aqua protein in your community and Kenya at large?
Our technology is a double-edged sword that solves animal feed challenges such as; high cost of feeds, inadequate feeds, low equality feeds and low productivity as well as restoring our lakes from the invasive water hyacinth which has caused reduction in fish populations, curtailed transport and fishing activities and highly polluting our lake waters hindering people from domestic use.
Besides these, we give employment to youths and women hence promoting Kenya’s national \agenda of employment.
Apart from your nomination for the Africa prize; RA Engineering, what prizes, grants or awards have Aqua Protein won?
We have been recognized and awarded by many organization just to mention, Sankalp award finalists 2017, Agroprofucs Africa 2017, East Africa catalytic Smart Agriculture technologies/ USAID/ Feed the Future/ SNV Netherlands 2017, Tony Elumelu Foundation 2018, Kenya National Innovation Agency/ Leaders in fellowship/ Royal Academy in Engineering 2019. We have also been supported by the Kenya Climate Innovation Center, Intellecap, and Net fund.
How supportive has the Kenyan government been in building your venture?
The Kenya government is supporting startups and innovations. The government has structures to help innovators by providing enabling environment and financing to innovations.
Certain policies to encourage startups such as the zero-rated tax on agricultural products has helped startups as Biofit to fully rise.
Where are your products available and what plans are been made to cover the larger Agro centric regions of Africa?
Our products are sold to farmers in Kenya, majorly western Kenya where we are based. However, we have projections to supply entire Kenya by 2022 and by 2025 be able to sell to some Africa countries.
This will be possible through collaboration and partnerships that we are currently working on.
Our major focus is to sell the Aqua protein to different companies where they will be able to formulate it to meet different livestock needs in their countries. Eventually, we would have lowered the cost of feeds to many farmers across Africa.
What advice do you have for startup entrepreneurs?
My advice to entrepreneurs is simple, stay focused all the times, be determined to achieve a specific goal, embrace teamwork and lastly, patience is key to success.