Lusayo Mwakatika BS’21 grew his first garden at the age of 14. He harvested his own vegetables, sold them to friends and neighbors, and used the earnings as his allowance. It was a living extension of the passion for agriculture he developed while growing up in Malawi, where farming is a pillar of culture.
In May, Mwakatika graduated from UW–Madison with a degree in agricultural business management and a certificate in entrepreneurship. Now his plan is to continue the work he started while on campus: renovating the agricultural sector in Malawi. That’s the future Mwakatika sees for himself, but he also ushered his classmates into their own futures with the words he shared as student speaker at the spring commencement ceremony. And though he’s moving on, he will leave a lasting imprint on campus through his achievements.
Mwakatika is the outgoing president of Project Malawi, a UW student club. The organization originally targeted medical infrastructure improvements in Malawi. But given that about 80% of Malawians engage in agriculture, he saw a better opportunity to help by shifting the group’s focus toward modernizing farming in his home country.
In Malawi, young people traditionally inherit land, so they are expected to participate in agriculture. But many struggle to use their land effectively. For example, local farmers will grow the same products that are imported from countries with more developed economies, so they’re not able to sell their products in local markets. Gaps like these are what motivated Mwakatika.
“I think, mostly, I was almost angry, I would say, with the way opportunities were not being utilized in agriculture,” he says.
Even with such zeal to guide him toward agriculture, majoring in the field was not always a foregone conclusion for Mwakatika. After high school, he took a gap year to prepare for college. During that time, he attended a presentation by Hastings Nhlane, the CEO of a farming-focused organization in Malawi called ACADES. Nhlane discussed the vital role of agriculture. What Mwakatika heard solidified his decision to make it his focus of study.
Mwakatika later stumbled on UW when he and his friend were searching for American universities with the prettiest campuses. The university sights captivated him. Eventually, he was offered scholarships at both UW and Michigan State University, but the strong international component in the agricultural programs at CALS drew him in.
It compelled Mwakatika, who had never left Malawi before, to fly more than 8,000 miles and 20-plus hours to Madison. In 2017, his first year, he joined the inaugural cohort of the King-Morgridge scholarship, which accepts six students each year — from African, Caribbean, and Southeast Asian countries — who are passionate about giving back to their communities.
At UW, Mwakatika’s connection to ACADES continued. Through a partnership with Project Malawi, ACADES has been able to connect with UW expertise on a regular basis. The student organization is now working to get ACADES registered as a nonprofit in the U.S., with hopes to further expand its access to American resources.
“Lusayo’s been able to seek a lot of counsel from the university for ACADES, and he’s been a conduit of communication that really gets their foot in the door,” says Project Malawi’s past vice president, Elise Reiche BS’21, who graduated in May with a degree in life sciences communication and biology.
Most recently, the two organizations partnered to raise $4,600 for a COVID-19 relief fund for rural farmers harmed by the pandemic. And they’ve started a new fundraiser called Malawi Market, where proceeds from the sales of Malawian art will help young people start their own agricultural enterprises in Malawi. Project Malawi has also engaged in fundraising partnerships with Malawi Children’s Village and Project Cure.
Mwakatika’s contributions to ACADES extend beyond resource sharing and fundraising: He has also founded an internship program for the organization. The program gives UW students the opportunity to travel to Malawi and explore their interests in agriculture and poverty relief. Interns also take on some of the workload for ACADES. With a staff of only about 10 serving more than 7,000 farmers, the support is more than welcome. The internship was virtual last year due to COVID-19, but it should resume in person as international travel restrictions are lifted.
“This internship is mainly focused on helping ACADES fill several gaps in the operations of the organization and providing different perspectives from the interns from UW,” Mwakatika says.
After graduation, Mwakatika plans on moving back to Malawi and working with ACADES. His first goal is to make them more sustainable by developing a microfinance program. ACADES currently depends on donor loans, so they’re forced to turn away thousands of farmers due to lack of capital. Lusayo is assisting in creating a credit system, encouraging short term loans, and allowing farmers to open bank accounts directly with ACADES.
“We want it to run as an entity on its own,” Mwakatika says. “If someone else donates for an increase in funding, great; but at the same time, we want it to survive, even if the donor fund dries out.”
Given Mwakatika’s success in forming relationships, including with faculty and staff in CALS and across campus, the prospects for ACADES look bright. His skills in this regard may stem from his knack for public speaking. He competed nationally for Wisconsin Speech and Debate, and he has performed stand-up comedy at Comedy on State in Madison, at African Student Association events, and in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. It might also come from his willingness to put himself out there, to ask for help and help others in turn — something he encourages his classmates to do.
“Let’s go out there and open ourselves up to people, and be vulnerable,” Mwakatika said in his commencement speech. “Because nobody has life figured out. And your problem might be the one that connects you to someone else.”