2019 SMART program reflections: Azuri Health, Kenya

By: Katelyn Godoy
SMART group stands in front of the Azuri building
From left to right: Grace Kabuye, Naudia Williams, Fiona Harnischfeger, Tei Mukunya, Ashley Celestin, Robert Swanda, and Ndunge Kiiti

The Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Team (SMART) program is a unique service opportunity and part of the Emerging Markets Program at the Dyson School. SMART brings together teams of both graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, and staff from across the university and pairs them with small companies, organizations, and community groups located in developing countries and emerging economies. SMART teams work to address a specific need identified by their international partner and students work on well-defined assignments—challenging them to apply classroom knowledge and skills in real-world international settings.

About Azuri Health

Azuri Health, located in Thika, Kenya, is a small business that focuses on providing nutritious products, in the forms of dried fruits, various porridges, and flours to the surrounding Nairobi area. Azuri also prides themselves in creating these products sustainably and eliminating food waste in Kenya. With an additional focus on social entrepreneurship, the company partners with farmers to provide access to a profitable market.

SMART team challenge and tasks

The SMART team was challenged to explore, understand, and document Azuri’s value chain to inform market opportunities for growth within Kenya and beyond. The team was tasked with completing market research analysis.

Students smiling for a photo in a field
Students working in the field


Naudia holding a bag in the farm
Naudia Williams at the amaranth farm

Naudia Williams, MPA ’19 (CIPA)

Naudia is concentrating in social policy.

“My service learning engagement in Kenya was impactful. I was inspired by the journey of Azuri Health’s CEO, Tei Mukunya, who saw a need in her community and responded decisively. She left a corporate job to help local women sell their local products, address food waste, and develop tasty and nutritious products for the entire family. This experience affirmed many of the lessons I learned in the classroom at Cornell about the power of community-based solutions driving change in the developing context.

I was also fortunate enough to have a team that challenged me to explore different ways of knowing, to tackle a problem through and outside the lens of my discipline. As an MPA student, I am concerned with how to make organizations work better. While Cornell provides many opportunities for students to work in teams on campus, the SMART program thrusts you into a new context where you have to embrace discomfort. This is core to the learning and the mutual exchange between students and the community partner. I confronted my own ignorance of cultural nuances and that forced me to listen more than I spoke.”

Robert Swanda, PhD ’21 (VET)

Robert is earning a PhD from the College of Veterinary Medicine and is concentrating in biochemistry.

“My personal goals for assisting Azuri included working on the nutritional assessment of their products. I was successful in completing nutritional profiles for their dried fruits, along with their competitors’ products. This analysis can be used by Azuri to demonstrate to their current customers how much more nutritional value their products have. It can also be used for Azuri as part of their marketing strategy to draw in new buyers. I also completed a nutritional profile on the four varieties of flours that Azuri produces, but due to lack of information on competitors’ products, I was unable to provide any comparisons. Although this was a setback, it showed me on location how we must be willing to adjust to the information given and extract the most useful components, which was Azuri’s products’ nutritional quality.

Fiona and Robert kneel next to buckets of water
Fiona Harnischfeger and Robert Swanda washing amaranth

I learned a lot about market research analysis, methodology for collecting consumer data, and how to work in an emerging markets field. The project also rejuvenated my passion for teaching about the various components of different foods; discussing best energy sources, how to get all the amino acids necessary, and more. The experiential learning and my own personal connection with nutrition taught me how I can use my science degree outside of a traditional academic setting, and explain these complex topics to a lay audience. I also learned how there are an abundance of opportunities to interact with an entire community, who will teach you more than you teach them. I look forward to finding out how I can bridge my various passions together for the remainder of my time at Cornell and beyond. I am very thankful for the opportunity to have been part of such a wonderful program.”

Fiona Harnischfeger, PhD ’20 (CALS)

Fiona is earning a PhD in food science and technology.

“Going to Kenya was a transformative experience. I had never been to Kenya or any part of the African continent. I had a chance to learn about Kenya, their culture, and their societal challenges and strengths. It made me reflect on the type of work I want to pursue in the future. It was inspiring to see the journey that the CEO of Azuri Health had gone through with her company. Fueled by her mission to help her community and beyond, she has grown the company for 10 years. Her vision could be seen reflected in all parts of the company.

Besides learning about the company, I was able to see connections to my PhD. I work on topics related to obesity, and going to Kenya made me see all the challenges Africa faces in relationship to food and nutrition. After visiting the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and nutritionist Mercy Lung’ago, MS ’07, PhD ’10, we were able to learn about the diaspora that Kenya has. Kenya’s rates of obesity and diabetes are rising but many people are still struggling with undernutrition. It provided me with a new perspective on my work.”

A large group stands in front of a building
Cornell SMART teams Azuri and Mulleys with Professor Ndunge Kiiti and Cornell alumna Dr. Mercy Lung’aho at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture campus
A large group poses for a photo outdoors
The SMART team, Josephine King’oo, procurement manager for Azuri Health, and Nyenji, a collective of 18 farmers and one of Azuri Health’s suppliers

Ashley holding a bag of amaranth
Ashley Celestin at the amaranth farm

Ashley C. Celestin, MPS ’19 (CALS)

Ashley is earning an MPS in global development and is concentrating in international agriculture and rural development.

“Being a part of the SMART trip to Kenya was a meaningful experience. Coming from an import and agricultural production background, my interest in this particular SMART project was to understand Azuri Health as an agribusiness and the challenges and opportunities that it encounters in an emerging market such as Kenya.

I was impressed by Tei, the owner of Azuri, who decided to leave her previous career to help the women and farmers in her community and adopt the process of value addition, to help reduce the common food loss and waste issues at the farm gate.

The SMART team also got to know the value chain relationship between Azuri, the farmers and the consumers and how they all support each other. While we understood the supply chain of Azuri, marketing was another big component to getting the products into the customers hand, especially in emerging markets where powerful international corporation enter and tend to occupy large market share.

Though Tei understood how far the company needed to go, her resilience is admirable as she continues to push forward and believe in her products that all Kenyans can be proud of. Those characteristics encourage me to be determined for my future career.”

Read more about the team’s experience in their detailed travel blog.

Students wearing hair nets
SMART students at the Azuri Health processing facility in Thika, Kenya
Student smiling in the back of a truck
The SMART team riding in the back of a truck en route to the amaranth farm

1 Comment

  1. How lovely to read about all your experiences. You must all come back to Kenya again and see the effects of your impact and the big leaps that Azuri is making since your visit.

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