Commencement address by Dr. Florence Wambugu, CEO, Africa Harvest

May 20, 2007

Graduation day is a significant and memorable event in one's life time. It marks a transition from one phase of life to another. It is, therefore, an immense privilege for me to be here today, to celebrate with you this significant day for the graduands, faculty, administration and parents.

Congratulations to all of you!

Like a farmer, you had sown seeds in the past and today you are reaping the harvest. Your lecturers, Professors, parents and friends are proud of you. I have no doubt that in the past you have longed for this day. As you burnt candle light fires in research, writing term papers and doing laboratory experiments you not only looked forward to this day, but also to getting a good GPA. I believe you have attained both and there is every reason to celebrate. However, a new beginning, desirable as it might be, can bring anxiety and sometimes uncertainty.

New Dawn
As I look at you today it stretches my mind to three decades ago. I sat the other side of podium where you are seated today, and received my first degree in B.S. Botany. It was a new beginning in my life... a new dawn. Having grown in post-colonial Kenya, hunger was all around me. Driven to the end, my mother sold our only cow in order to send me to high school. And when I finally qualified as one of the first girl in my village to go to University, there was a lot of jubilation. Hence, as I graduated, and sat at a set up similar to where you are seated today, there were mixed feelings. There was joy, indeed a lot of joy; however, I knew a lot was expected of me! Your story may be different from mine; however, there is one thing I resolved, and would encourage you to think along the same lines:

I resolved to live a life with purpose; in order to leave a legacy!

I am a strong believer that every person is born unique and has a unique role in this world. That unique role can only be fulfilled by that person, and that forms their purpose. You need to understand that your purpose is greater than meeting your personal needs. What will people and society remember you for at large?

Well, it is possible to stand here and share all different principles on living a life with a purpose. But today I will share my own life with you. Allow me to share seven principles that I have seen operate in my life.

1. Live in a tent, not a "stone house." Be flexible.
The Maasais of East Africa and the Bedoin tribes of the Sahel have one thing in common; they recognize the temporality of life. The nomadic tribes live in tents or other temporary shelters. To fulfill their pursuit as pastoralists, they live in tents, which they fold very quickly when it is time to move on.

After I finished primary school, I got my first pair of shoes in preparations for high school. That also meant going to a boarding school. But no sooner had I settled in the boarding school, I had to leave my village for university in the Big City. Since then, I have learned to live in a tent. I left Kenya for UK to pursue my PhD studies, and later came to the USA for post doctoral fellowship where I experienced both cultural and weather shocks. I had the opportunity of settling here in USA, but I recognized that my purpose lay in using my knowledge to help fight poverty, hunger and malnutrition back in Africa.

My purpose determines where I need to be at what time. Learn to live with your bags packed, so that you can pursue your purpose. Clearly define your purpose, the North Star, and as you follow it, you must jump from one tent to another.

2. Take Courage to Embrace Change
As you move from one tent to another, there is one inevitable reality. You need flexibility to embrace change. About six years ago I had a comfortable job, probably my ideal dream job at the time. I was heading an international scientific organization, that is, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application (ISAAA). I was the Director for the Africa Regional Office. After seven years of diligent service, the wind of change began blowing. It is never easy to embrace change. I had to rely on God to give me the courage to move to my next station in life. While things seem much clearer now, at the time I was leaving ISAAA to set up Africa Harvest, there were no provision -- but I believed the vision and mission I had would attract provision.

Beyond any doubt I was of the conviction that Africa was in need of science driven agricultural productivity, focusing on the needs of the poor grassroots communities and that biotechnology would play a role to solve the agricultural and food crisis in the continent. With my education and experience, in partnership with others, we needed to fulfill that purpose. I stepped out and faced the world ready to fulfill my dream. Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International was founded on these principles.

Africa Harvest has experienced tremendous growth in the last five years. We are, today, a formidable organization that delivers sustainable agricultural solutions to improve the food security. We raise the incomes of small scale, rural farmer communities while ensuring healthy rural populations through access to better nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

I often shudder at the option of not embracing the change of setting up Africa Harvest. What would have become of the thousands of farmers who have benefited in resources and knowledge that has helped uplift them from subsistence to business-minded rural entrepreneurs? Where would Africa be without Africa Harvest's leadership in the public debate on biotechnology in Africa?

Always remember that your fear to embrace change involves a high cost, not only to you, but many others who would have benefited from your courage.

3. The inevitability of taking risks in life
Whether you like it or not, you are always taking a risk. If you refuse to take risks, your personal growth will be retarded. A baby who refuses to take the first step because of fear takes long to walk!

Starting Africa Harvest involved taking a major risk. However, based on my savings of about US$50,000, we have built a multi-million dollar organization. My choice to take the risk consistent with my purpose has paid off greatly. Other people and institutions that identify with my purpose have joined me in the fight against hunger, poverty and malnutrition in Africa.

Two years ago, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded $18.6 M to a consortium of seven African Institutions led by Africa Harvest in partnership with Pioneer and UC Berkeley to implement the African Biofortified Sorghum Project ( The project seeks to enhance nutritional quality and digestibility of the sorghum grain, which is used as a staple by 300 million people in Africa. DuPont, one of the large America multinationals identified our vision and is now supporting smallholder Tissue Culture banana Farmers in Kenya to increase their productivity. We are also working with the Rockefeller Foundation to enhance production and market access of the smallholder Tissue Culture banana Farmers in Eastern Africa.

I believe that if the risk you take is within your purpose, the benefits always outweigh the risk in the long term. But note that as we take risks, sometimes we fail. But never allow yourself to be put down by a failure. When taken positively, failure and some gross mistakes leaves us stronger because we learn from them.

4. Refusing to settle in the comfort zone
We must refuse to settle in the comfort zones if we are to take risks. In my life, I have had several opportunities to settle in the comfort zone. I had job offers which provided an opportunity to remain in the USA after my postgraduate studies. But I chose to return to my motherland, Kenya, to pursue my "African Dream" purpose in a driven life. Similarly, I had the choice of taking up a well-paid job after leaving ISAAA, but I choose to start Africa Harvest.

Settling in the comfort zone often implies losing sight of your purpose. In Africa one of the powerful tools of communication we use is story telling. Africa is an oral culture. Allow me to narrate one of those stories:

There was drought in the land, which adversely affected the animal kingdom. As a result animals ate the food they gathered sparingly except one animal, that is, hyena. This animal is described as a very greedy animal back at home. So one day, in its hungry state, it went to look for water to cool its empty belly. It was just growling until it bent down to reach out for the scarce water. In that silence, it heard some noise and quickly lifted its head. From a far it saw a calf, which was caught in a thicket. Limping (that is the way hyenas walk), the hyena dashed to the calf's direction. It noticed that the calf was tied and the rope was caught in one of the trees. The hyena studied the situation and asked: "What will I eat first; the rope or the calf?" Guess what he went for?

Well, Mr. Hyena decided to eat the rope first and then sit down and enjoy its calf meal. But what happened after taking the first bite of the rope? Of course the calf took off leaving the hyena mourning!!!

Opportunities present themselves but sometimes we may lack the insight to notice them, and like the hyena we first concentrate on small matters. We must have the big picture in mind: our purpose and carefully select the pieces of puzzle that would fill the purpose. Also we need to critically analyze every opportunity that presents itself. Had the hyena closely studied the situation, he would have realized the danger of eating the rope first.

5. Never stop acquiring knowledge and skills that will help you achieve your purpose
As you think about fulfilling your purpose, it becomes clear that money is important; however your purpose is greater than money, profession or career. You must align your life with your purpose. To do this effectively, it is essential to develop an attitude of learning. You need to learn from experiences, from other people, do your own research and read widely.

My experience is that God divinely places people and orchestrates situations that enable you to acquire knowledge and skills necessary to your purpose.

6. Don't settle for too little when there is much more inside and outside there for you.
Think of the hyena, it settled for too little when there was much more. Many people short-change themselves in life. First, the attitude you develop towards yourself is critical here. The image you create about yourself is the same image that will follow you.

As you seek to fulfill your purpose you must believe in your dream; you must believe that it is possible to accomplish it. You must believe that in partnership with others, you are the best person to be at the center of that dream. Also have it at the back of your mind that even if others deserted you, you would still carry on.

Similarly, apply the knowledge you have acquired in the last couple of years to different aspects of life, don't focus on small part of life. Although a trained scientist, I'm no longer a scientist per se. My work involves socio-political and policy issues related to poverty, hunger and malnutrition. As I apply my scientific knowledge to areas beyond science, I expand my opportunities. I have refused to be boxed in by a narrow definition. My purpose is beyond science to managing science and scientists for impact to target communities. Equally, whatever you have studied is only a beginning, use it to reach higher!

7. The power of a personal vision
Personal vision is what links you to your life's purpose. A vision is a powerful mental image of how you want things to be in future. It is derived from discovering who you are and what makes you tick. Every human being has a God-given vision but it is our responsibility to discover it. My challenge to you is to seek to discover your vision and purpose, if you have not done that already.

Most of you are familiar with Professor Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Prize Laureate from Kenya. She happens to be my Member of Parliament (MP) at home. Her vision for the environment through Greenbelt Movement is linked to her purpose in life. Her vision has made her what she is today. Like Prof. Wangari's vision, yours may be violently challenged. However, if she had given up, Wangari would never have become the first African woman ever to receive the Nobel Peace prize. She would never have provided the leadership to plant 35 million trees. She chose to persist on, and today many are reaping from what she painfully fought for.

Like Prof. Wangari, your vision may involve tough fights, but will you quit when the journey becomes too tough to bear? Will you look for a shorter route when you face discouragements?

As you pursue your vision also remember:

Having a heart of gratitude opens doors of opportunity. Someone has said "The happiest of people don't necessarily have the best of everything; they just make the best of everything that comes along their way."

Secondly, "the brightest future will always be based on a forgotten past". Do not allow the failures and heartaches of yesterday whisper defeat every time you want to take a step. Learn from your mistakes, forgive where there is need to and conquer the next wall.

I thank God because he gave me the wisdom and strength to face the challenges associated with my vision. When you stick to your Godly vision, He always makes a way; not just because of you, but because of the thousands...perhaps, millions, who will benefit from your vision and purpose in life.

As you follow these principles and others that you may learn, seek to have a mentor or coach. A coach is an advocate for the success of agreed upon goals. You are still young and a number of distractions may come along your way. To maximize on your time, have a coach or a mentor who will act as your accountability partner.

Before I sit down I will recap again the seven points needed to lead a fulfilled life with a purpose:

1. Willingness to live in a tent, not a stone house: be flexible
2. Take courage to embrace change
3. It is inevitable to take risks in life
4. Refuse to settle in the comfort zone
5. Never stop acquiring knowledge and skills
6. Don't settle for too little when there is much more inside and outside there for you
7. Have a powerful and compelling personal vision and define your mission

Finally I wish you God's blessings as you step out. Thanks.


What is Africa Harvest? (video clip)
Dr. Wambugu's recent work with tissue-culture bananas (video clip)
About 20 Cal graduates protest keynote speaker (SF Gate)